Everyone’s heard sportswriter Red Smith’s description of’ the writing process: “All you do,” he explained, “is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
Smith was referring to the challenges every writer endures–obtaining original material with creative reporting, pinpointing an illustrative anecdote, polishing every sentence and baiting our readers with a compelling lead.
What Smith didn’t say is this: Rewriting stops the bleeding.
For most of my features, I spend 70%, of my time reporting, 10% writing and 20% rewriting. Many writers save little time for the last stage, the most pivotal part of the process. But first-rate reporting and thoughtful storytelling can fail if it’s full of inappropriate words, clunky phrases and loose sentences.
“I think revision is where a lot of wonderful surprises occur,” says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute. “It’s often not in drafting, but in revision, where exactly the right word comes to you. That word most likely will bring pleasure or surprise to the reader as well.”
As editor of Delaware Today, I often receive freelance stories that read like first drafts. They’re well-reported, but they often lack luster–a sign that the story hasn’t. evolved from the assignment to the deadline.
And as a writer, I have two goals during revision: tightening sentences and strengthening words. By doing that, I can accomplish the overall goal of article writing–to empower every word, sentence and paragraph so that it propels my reader to the next. I do that with this six-step revising process.
The First Draft
Any feature story stands on the merits of its reporting. Even the most eloquent writer can’t substitute brilliant language for a lack of vivid detail or poignant facts. Use the first draft to make decisions about your reporting and structure.
What facts, quotes, anecdotes and description will you use? With what will you lead the story? How will you structure it? What theme will direct the story? How many sections will you use? Where are your natural transitions? How will you end the article?
Instead of trying to accomplish everything in one stage, save your thoughts and energy about the mechanics of your writing until the revision. For example, if you’re worried about how to transition into an upcoming section, you’re naturally going to ignore verb choice. And unless you make time in the rewrite, chances are that the poor word choice will remain ignored.
Clark suggests that writers be more efficient on the front end–reporting and drafting–to give themselves time for revising later.
For a behind-the-scenes story about a law firm, I spent about six weeks reporting–talking to dozens of people inside and outside the firm, watching lawyers in action, and transcribing notes.
Once I was satisfied with my reporting (are we ever?), I spent an afternoon highlighting my notes–what details I wanted to use, what quotes I could sacrifice. I also decided how to structure the feature.
One Sunday (no phone calls, disruptions, etc.), I cranked out 4,000 words in about 12 hours. The story was weak–not because of the information I used, but because of the dull language. But I accomplished my goal in the first draft: I created the story’s foundation. For the next four or five days, I revised. I toughened my verbs. I omitted the waste.
I stopped the bleeding.
The Relevancy Test
Once I complete the first draft, I check every piece of information for relevancy–not Just paragraphs or sections, but also prepositional phrases and words. Do I need this information? Does it relate to the theme? Most important, will readers care?
One of our staff writers wrote this paragraph in a feature about the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a minor league baseball team:
The skinny 10-year-old, wearing an orange-and-black
Frederick uniform, sits near the
home-plate end of the Rocks’ dugout. He
focuses on the batter, anticipating a foul ball or
stray bat. (33 words)
I would argue that most bat boys sit in the dugout. And readers don’t need to know at what end he’s sitting–home plate, first base, who cares? That information is irrelevant. So we rewrote the graf and saved 11 words.
The skinny 10-year-old, wearing an orange-and-black
Frederick uniform, focuses
on the batter, anticipating a foul
ball or stray bat. (22 words)
Of course, it’s much more difficult to cut your own work. Here’s a graf from a story I wrote about a flamboyant criminal defense lawyer in Delaware.
Hurley has more spots in one
tie rack than can be counted in
101 Dalmatians. His 22 polka
dot ties come from everywhere
from Marshall’s to Rome and
they represent colors from purple
to orange. (33 words)
I thought the Dalmatians reference was clever. On further review, I decided the pun deviated from the theme and added nothing to describing Hurley. In fact, it was an example of overwriting. The details (his 22 polka dot ties) should tell the story.
Hurley’s 22 polka dot ties span the spectrum
from orange to purple and come from stores
as diverse as Marshall’s to a fancy shop in
Rome. (25 words)
These two paragraphs ended a section in the Blue Rocks story. The writer spent a weekend on the road with the team. In this section, the writer describes how 18-year–old players act on boring bus trips–from playing cards to watching movies.
Today, only an occasional cackle comes from
the card players. That is, until a braless
Melanie Griffith appears, hikes up her sweater
and flashes Paul Newman. A call comes from
the back. “Hey, rewind that, Rock.”
The bus pulls into the Comfort Inn parking
lot exactly two hours after leaving Wilmington.
“Four-thirty bus.” (54 words)
The last graf fails, while the second-to-last has verve. I told the writer that readers won’t care what time the players have to catch the bus from the hotel to the stadium. End the section the way a book chapter would end–with material that has both substance and style. Also, notice how we tightened. “Flashing” implies that Griffith is braless. So we reworded that graf, too.
Today, only an occasional cackle comes from
the card players–until Melanie Griffith hikes
up her sweater and flashes Newman. A call
comes from the back. “Hey, rewind that,
Rock.” (30 words)
Rewriting the Lead
Now I’m ready to tackle the most vital part of the story. I’ve already decided what device I’ll use–a teaser, a description, an anecdote, whatever. But now I must knead the words like dough to ensure the lead catapults the reader into the body of the story.
This lead comes from a story about a controversial reporter in Wilmington. I opened the story with a descriptive piece of hate mail she received. I then moved into my narrative.
Valerie Helmbreck usually reads the hate mail,
laughs, then tosses it. But Helmbreck handles
hate mail the way most people handle telemarketers–you
can get pounded only so
many times before you finally snap.
This time, Helmbreck snapped. One particular
mean-spirited letter railed Helmbreck for
ruining the career of CBS golf analyst Ben
Wright. She was the one who reported the
inflammatory comments he made about
women on the LPGA Tour. Wright gave the
letter-writer hours of enjoyment. How dare
she cause Wright’s firing?
Helmbreck blasted out a three-page
response. She had not made a dime on this
fiasco. All she and her family has had is aggravation.
Entertainment is far more important
than honesty. And that attitude is why people
like Wright can trash people’s lives.
In revision, the lead felt awkward and unappealing. I was committed to starting with the hate mail but unsatisfied with how I’d played off it. This is how I rewrote:
Valerie Helmbreck usually reads the hate mail,
laughs at black widow comparisons, then
tosses it. But one particular mean-spirited letter
hit a nerve.
The man lambasted Helmbreck for ruining
the career of CBS golf analyst Ben Wright after
she reported inflammatory comments he
made about women on the LPGA tour. Wright
had given the letter-writer hours of enjoyment
on TV. How dare she cause Wright’s firing?
“I don’t know why I snapped,” Helmbreck
says, “but I snapped.”
So the fiery reporter blasted out a three-page
response explaining her side. That she
has gained nothing from this fiasco. That all
she’s had is aggravation. That apparently, this
man’s thirst for entertainment and respect for
Ben Wright is more important than honesty.
My primary revisions included:
* Eliminating the telemarketing reference–irrelevant and dopey.
* Adding Helmbreck’s “I snapped” quote, which gives the section more life, more attitude and a different voice.
* Shifting the emphasis from the letter to either the letter-writer, Helmbreck or Wright. Emphasize people, not things.
* Changing the rhythm in the last graf, so that those three sentences start with “that.” The strategic repetition (as opposed to unplanned and annoying repetition of words) acts as a rhythmic momentum-builder.
* Cutting cliches–“not made a dime”–and adding more active phrasing–“thirst for entertainment.”
* Reworking word choice. By substituting “fiery reporter” for “Helmbreck” later in the lead, I added context.
The second lead isn’t substantially different from the first (especially the information), but the sentences are more succinct and help direct readers through the lead.
Although some leads take move work to revise, others may need only one word changed. This was the first lead I wrote for the story on the flamboyant lawyer.
Rightfully cautious about pulling up his
underwear, he carefully slips a pair over his
cortisone-covered sore spot.
This starts a description of the lawyer getting dressed a few days after he was stung by a bee that had been hiding in his underwear. I liked the way the description tips off the reader that the lead is behind-the-scenes, and I also liked that the reader needs to know the story behind the sore spot.
But something didn’t feel fight: “Rightfully.” The adverb bogged down the meaning. By chopping my sacred first word, the sentence grows clearer. Instead of readers being confused (Why “rightfully”?), they now want to know about the spot. It also spotlighted that weak word “pair,” so I called Hurley and asked him for the missing detail (Calvin Klein black boxer briefs). Expect additional reporting in the revision.
Tighten, Tighten, Tighten
I claim I can cut 10% out of most stories without losing any meaning or changing a writer’s style. We’ve all heard Strunk and White’s “eliminate needless words” mantra. Live by it in revision. Every sentence need not be short, but every word needs to work.
As the veins in his neck begin to create bulges
in his skin (12 words)
Why “begin to create”? The main verb is flat–“begin.” “Bulge” conveys movement. Use it. Also, we know that veins bulge in skin (as opposed to in hair), so change it to:
As his neck veins bulge (5 words)
Glancing back at the phone in a sly manner
and briefly checking the company of the
room, he mechanically dials the number that
has been stored in his mental Rolodex for
more than a few wasted years. (37 words)
I love the image of the mental Rolodex, but it’s lost in a sea of adverbs and verbosity. Tighten it and emphasize the sharpest image by moving it to the end of the sentence.
He glances at the phone, checks the company
of the room and dials the number from his
mental Rolodex. (19 words)
The energetic short sentence precisely describes the action. “Glances,” “checks” and “dials” are all telling verbs, but their adverbs in the first version diluted their meaning. “Glances” implies slyly. “Checks” implies briefly. And “dials” implies mechanically. The result is a sentence that’s half as long and twice as powerful.
Eliminate the needless phrases and you might just buy yourself enough room for that anecdote that you had to sacrifice because of the word count.
Read It Aloud
After you trim the fat, read your story aloud. It helps, whether you read to yourself or to someone else. (One of our staff writers reads his stories over the phone to his mother. It helps him catch typos, but it also helps with rhythm and tone–he hears the words, not just sees them. And it gives the writer a captive audience on which to test his puns, clarify ambiguities and so forth.)
This paragraph describes a writer’s feelings of being the driver in a car accident.
My body slammed forward, stopped by the
life-saving strap across my chest, and the top
portion of my vertebrae was crushed by the
force as everything proceeded to slow down
at an alarming rate. Almost as if time had
slowed and stopped, nothing moved, no
sounds, my eyes shut. (50 words)
I don’t like the use of “life-saving strap.” “Seat belt” is less distracting. I also don’t like the contrast of “slowing down” at an “alarming rate.” The image is contrary. But I do like that the writer changes pace in sentence structure. Here’s how I would have rewritten.
My body–stopped by my seat belt–slammed
forward. The force crushed the top
of my vertebrae. Almost as if time had
stopped, nothing moved. No sounds. My eyes
shut. (30 words)
Using periods instead of commas throughout the last part of that section makes the reader pause. That introduces a fresh cadence to the writing. The pace changes, and the emphasis shifts to the writer’s eyes shutting. Combined with the elimination of the passive verbs, that pace gives the graf an almost surreal–and very effective–rhythm.
The Final Look
Writers often save the last read for typos and verifying names and titles. That’s great, but don’t be afraid to check your story for:
* Punching up your verbs.
* Making sure sections break logically.
* Eliminating vague and flat phrases like “there are” and “it is.”
Clark emphasizes that while writers discuss writing, thinking and editing in linear terms, the actual process is recursive.
“No matter how disciplined or orderly a writer tries to be, tightening goes on early on,” he says. Writing looks more like a spiral than a line. Writers continually address all aspects of revision–structuring while they’re tightening, tightening while they’re structuring. The important part, he says, is to save enough time for revision.
When you do finish the story, you can look for those typos, send it off and do what I do–wish I had another week to rewrite some more.