The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule when it comes to people is: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. But The Golden Rule of Writing is: rewriting is always better writing. There exists among us rare and exceptional people capable of producing a perfect manuscript with a first draft. They are, in fact, aliens from outer space inhabiting the bodies of humans, and are here for the sole purpose of making the rest of us look incompetent. If you’re one of these aforementioned body snatchers shelling out Pulitzer-winning words on your first attempt, then you can stop reading now. For the rest of us, here’s a guide to help you refine your work to the luster intended upon inception.

Planning

Not every writer fancies making a skeleton outline or road map before they start slinging ink. For some, they work better in the spontaneity of making it up as they go. However, I find it extremely helpful, especially when encountering writer’s block. Taking the time to write a paragraph summarizing the chapter gives you the power of organization. It acts as a bookmark for writing. With the busyness of everyday life, if I don’t schedule time to sit down and write it will never happen. To make sure I don’t sit staring at a blank screen for two hours, I look at my outline, and it tells me what I should be working on. If I don’t feel the inspiration for a certain chapter, I have a whole list of unwritten segments to choose from. Never underestimate the power of Copy and Paste.

First Draft

A lot of writers still prefer the old fashioned way: by hand, with pen and paper. I am not one of these people. I like my word processor very much, finding it more economical in the way of time. Regardless of your method, the goal in this stage of the game remains the same. Your focus should be getting as much as you can on the page. Don’t stop to fret over the perfect word or phrasing; when you come back to edit and revise, you can use a thesaurus to make sure you’re saying exactly what you mean. Getting the story out of your head and onto the page/screen is half the battle. You’ll have plenty of time to smooth rough edges when it comes time to edit.

Take a Break

When you finish your first draft, do yourself a favor, and set it aside. There’s no cut and dry amount of time, and if you’re working on a deadline this might not be possible. Though in most cases, you can afford to take a rest. Why? I’m glad you asked. Your brain gets into a groove, and your story and words start to consume your thoughts. When you edit immediately, you’re likely to skip over errors like missing words because you know what you mean, and your brain fills in the rest. My tradition, upon finishing a first draft of a novel, is to pick up a book or two in the same genre with rave reviews. Take the time to appreciate the work of your contemporaries, and take note of the things you liked or enjoyed. Personally, I take 30 days to keep my work out-of-sight and out-of-mind so it feels fresh when I read it again.

Proofread, and Read it Aloud

Don’t groan—and stop making that face. I’m serious! You’ll hear a lot of people tell you it’s not necessary, but trust me when I say this is one of the most important parts of the editing process. Here’s why it’s so important. It’s easy for your brain to organize your own thoughts, but you won’t know what it’s going to look/sound like to your readers until you read it out loud. If something sounds wordy or gets you tongue-tied, rest assured it will do the same to your audience. I won’t go into exhaustive detail here, but I have a helpful article entitled How to Improve Your Manuscript outlining four pitfalls writers oftentimes fall into. It’ll get you started on the road to editing. If spelling and grammar isn’t your forte, don’t be afraid to hire a professional editor. Investing a couple hundred dollars for your future is worth it to produce quality work. Don’t forget: your name is attached when it’s published, and they won’t blame the editor for mistakes.

Seek Help

Perhaps the best advice I can give you is to connect with other writers. Give your work to someone whose skill and opinion you trust. I belong to a local writer’s group called SpriFiWri stationed in Springfield, Illinois. We meet twice a month to share our work and offer criticism and feedback. Using red pens, we ferociously attack the work, and call it ‘making it bleed.’ Seeing lots of red is not a bad thing; it’s a great thing. If you’re serious about writing, nothing is more valuable than criticism. Lose the sensitivity, let go of the sentimentality, and grow some thick skin. If they read something you wrote and they hate it, you say, “Thank you for taking the time to read it. I appreciate your feedback. What can I do to make it better?” Then, listen to what they say, and take it to heart. Remember, you’re far more interested in what they didn’t like than what they did.

Tip: Print your entire manuscript when you give it to someone to review. It guarantees your file doesn’t go places it’s not supposed to, and it’s harder to overlook. Ever been sent a file and left it forgotten in your email inbox or saved in your Downloads folder? I have. They might do the same. But a printed, physical copy serves as a better reminder. Double-space so there’s room for them to take a red pen to it.

Read It Again

After you’ve made the changes you want, you might want to take another short rest from working on it. No need to wait 30 days this time; a week should suffice. Get your manuscript in the format you like to read best (e-book, printed, on-screen) and read your ‘finished’ product. You’re almost certain to find things you’ll want to change. At this point, you’re looking less for grammar and spelling, and more for whether the chapters flow together well. Are they in the right place? Do certain points in the story drag? You might want to shorten these segments. If there are bothersome things, however minute, bothering you, they’ll bother your readers too.

Try not to write the parts that people skip.

—Elmore Leonard

Conclusion

Writing is about what works. Following this guide to the letter might not be the best thing for you. Take what’s helpful to you, and apply it. Modify the rest, or throw it out completely. If you take anything away from this article, let it be the Golden Rule of Writing: re-writing is always better writing. A painter starts with a blank canvas and fills it with something that wasn’t there before. A sculptor starts with a block of stone and slowly chisels away until his or her creation takes form. Both principles apply to writing. Once you hash out what you want to say, take the time to smooth and polish until it says exactly what you want it to say—no more and no less.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful. Feel free to leave questions or comments below. Thanks for reading!

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