Today is a Great Day to (re)Write

by Steve Laube

Exam pressure
James Michener, the bestselling novelist, once said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” And today is your day to follow suit.

No one knows your work or what you are trying to accomplish better than you. In that sense you can be your own best editor.

In a 1958 interview with The Paris Review Ernest Hemingway was asked,

“How much rewriting do you do?”

Hemingway replied, “It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

The stunned interviewer asked, “Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?”

Hemingway said simply, “Getting the words right.”

Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, said, ““By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”

It is the same for both fiction and non-fiction since the principles are similar.

Overall Structure

Does your book have a natural flow? Do things build toward a goal or do they flit about like a confused rabbit?

Recently I heard from a number of professionals who have started having someone else read their work-in-progress out loud. This is better than reading it out loud yourself because an objective reader could put the wrong emphasis on the wrong word and change the meaning of the paragraph.

Could you rearrange things better? Recently I suggested a client remove three chapters from their non-fiction proposal to bring the total to 13. Thirteen weeks equals a typical quarter of a year which fits many small group and curriculum requirements.

Consider “numbers” when structuring something like a devotional. 365 days. 90 days. 60 days. 31 days. All work. And remember that 40 days is the number of days in Lent. But having something with 112 readings doesn’t add any sort of marketing hook to the project.

Word Choices

Look for repetitive words of pet phrases. Recently I noticed a client’s proposal talked about the number of years they had been doing something in consecutive chapters. Most likely the repetitive sentence crept in during some previous cuts and text rearrangement, but when I read it the first time the information jumped out as being completely unnecessary.

Years ago I worked with a great writer who loved to use the word “very.” I crossed nearly every instance of the word. After sending him the manuscript I received an email with the word “very” repeated 500 hundreds times. He said he was trying to get them out of his system.

In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, captured on YouTube, comedian Jerry Seinfeld discussed how he can spend up to two years developing a joke. No matter what you think of him as a comedian you must admire this attention to craft. The seeming simplicity of finding the right “funny” word consumes his creative process.

One of my favorite tools for word choice is The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale (the hardcover edition). Often looking for the right word spurs new inspiration.

Today is Your Day

It is quite possible to tinker with something until it no longer works. But today release that fear and tinker away. Insert a different anecdote into your presentation. Try a different opening to your story. Give yourself a few hours of dedicated revision.

What are your favorite methods for effective self-editing?

29 Responses to Today is a Great Day to (re)Write

  1. Avatar
    Diana Harkness January 14, 2013 at 5:19 am #

    Well stated. I rewrote the beginning of my novel so many times I cannot count them. I rewrote the first paragraph even more times–how I agonized over it looking for the absolutely perfect words and structure. Finally, I realized that it would fit better in the 2nd book of the series (or maybe the 3rd). Now I come back to the new beginning again and again to rewrite it so it’s just that much better.

    My words to avoid are “just” and “simply” and I’m sure I’ll find more. I think it may have been Flaubert (well, it was some French author) who shouted his work to the high stone walls in the Parisian alley outside his home, perhaps both to hear how his work sounded and to hear how it resounded in the echoes. For me, reading aloud is the only way to catch repetitive words, awkward phrasing, and inconsistent rhythm. What we need is an intelligent app that will look for repetitive words in long manuscripts so I don’t have to wonder if I used a word 4 paragraphs or 4 chapters ago. If one exists, someone please post it.

  2. Avatar
    Renee Andrews January 14, 2013 at 5:28 am #

    This was a perfect post for me today. I just finished rewriting an entire book and am absolutely thrilled with the final product. When I received my editor’s comments on the proposal (first three chapters), I thought, “I can fix that by tweaking this and that.” And then I realized, “Hey, if I start this baby over with her advice in mind from the get-go, I can make it shine.” It took more time, and a lot more effort, but I’m so glad I took that time and effort now.

    For editing, I like the idea of having someone else read the book aloud. Right now, when my husband gets home from work each night, he listens to whatever I’ve written that day. Last night he was traveling home from Hattiesburg (a 6 hour drive) and asked me to read the rest of the completed book to him while he drove (is he awesome, or what?). He’d been listening to this book each day over the past month as I did the revision/rewrite and knew it was coming to the end.

    I’d also recommend reading aloud to the opposite sex. A lot of times that is what makes my husband’s opinion so valuable when regarding male characters in the novel. He’ll say something like, “A guy wouldn’t say it that way. He’d say this,” or “Guys wouldn’t think that way. They’d think like this.” I want the guys in my books to sound true to readers, so this information is invaluable.

    Great post!

  3. Avatar
    Lee Carver January 14, 2013 at 5:52 am #

    There is a program that catches repetitive words. I used the free version for a while, then bought the mid-range edition. Of course, I’m not going to use your space to advertise it, but it’s out there. Also, my crit partner points out my overuse of “get.” With my handy thesaurus (Roget’s 21st Century) and Rodel’s The Synonym Finder, more dynamic, imaginative words can be put into play. It’s all in the rewrites. 😉

  4. Avatar
    Connie Almony January 14, 2013 at 5:54 am #

    I was glad you mentioned Ronald Dahl, because Hemingway kind of sounded like a slacker. Really? Only 39 times? I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I’ve gone through my manuscripts. Each time, I find something new and can’t imagine it ever being published before I changed that word, shortened that sentence or perfected that metaphor. I often write my first draft long-hand with a mechanical pencil. I purposely do not make it very (oops, sorry ‘bout that word) legible, because the first draft is usually more the skeleton of the work. If anyone saw it, I’d be embarrassed. I edit as I type it into my computer and then it goes through many more passes before it’s fit to be seen.

  5. Avatar
    Jennifer Dyer January 14, 2013 at 6:11 am #

    I suggested to someone the other day that we should call ourselves rewriters rather than writers. Thanks for the post. I feel better knowing others must go through numerous drafts and edits too.

  6. Avatar
    Jan Cline January 14, 2013 at 6:41 am #

    I recently searched my manuscript for pet words. I was shocked to see how careless I had been. I noticed they were words I use a lot when I talk. Perhaps it will do my speech good to have gone through the revision process to get rid of so many repetitive words. (oops, “good” was one of those words)
    I have mentioned to my group several times that they should let the others in the group read their pieces aloud. They are very resistant. I wonder if that’s a common fear.
    Thanks for the encouragement to take the next step.

  7. Avatar
    Elaine Manders January 14, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    Your blogs help me (very) much. Writing a first draft is so much fun, then you get to the real work, rewriting and editing. But this is where you hone your craft. Thanks for helping me through the process.

  8. Avatar
    Cheryl Barker January 14, 2013 at 6:47 am #

    I don’t do it with every piece or chapter, but I usually keep Stephen King’s formula in mind and try to cut the word count of the rough draft by 10%. It forces me to find unnecessary words and choose words that are more precise. My pet word is just, and it almost never makes the cut 🙂

    • Avatar
      Jeanne T January 14, 2013 at 7:28 am #

      I like this. I’m going to have to try that.

  9. Avatar
    Jeanne T January 14, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    This is such a great post. I’m working on revising my story. I’ve written and then re-written it. It’s much better than it was. It’s been interesting to read back through what I wrote a few months ago and seen how I’ve grown as a writer between then and now. I guess one of my favorite aspects of editing is to see how to make sentences tighter but still meaningful.

  10. Avatar
    Robin Patchen January 14, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    I love The Synonym Finder. When I was homeschooling, my daughter had to rewrite a pirate story, and she used The Synonym Finder to punch up her writing. Her word choices were hilarious. My favorite was when the treasure chest was tossed about on the ship and then fell to the bottom of “Davy Jones’ locker.” Great stuff from a 9-year-old. 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Rick Barry January 14, 2013 at 7:49 am #

    Your story about the author in love with the word “very” resonated with me. Not long ago, I paid a well-known writing instructor to critique my suspense novel. He noticed that my characters chuckled way too many times. Because I had written the story in spurts of 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there, I had never realized how often I fell back on this particular beat of action. Along with my payment, I sent him a packet of candy Chuckles from Cracker Barrel. 🙂

    P.S. Last week an agent asked to see the full m.s. That’s not a promise of a deal, but so glad I rewrote the story with professional input!

  12. Avatar
    Jackie Layton January 14, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    I’m rewriting one of my stories now.

    It sounds like you advise write the entire story and then rewrite, which is what I do. However I often wonder if that’s the best way.

    I just went to Amazon and ordered The Synonym Finder.

    Thanks for your advice.

    • Avatar
      Mary Johnson January 14, 2013 at 8:25 am #

      As a writer and former teacher of writing, I have the same question as Jackie. Some people seem to do best with daily revision (re-reading and doing first revisions as a way to get back into the next day’s writing). Others find this breaks their flow, and they’re better off to keep going until the end. I struggle to let a page stand if it has a misspelled word or a poorly constructed sentence (not that plenty of them don’t slip past me). Is there a particular method that most published writers follow? Or are there as many ways as there are published writers?

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 14, 2013 at 9:05 am #

      Jackie (and Mary),
      There is no sure-fire method of writing or even re-writing. A lot depends on the writer and their “perfectionist gene.” Some can turn off the fixer in their mind and happily plink away until the book is complete. For others they have a hard time letting it go.

      I like to advise writers, especially one new to book writing, to finish the whole thing and then go back and edit. For one thing you will know you CAN finish a book. And second you will realize how much you don’t know about writing a book!

      Few people are inerrant when writing a first draft. That is sort of the point. Get the idea on “paper” and then step back to get a sense of the entire project.

      I know of many who are seat-of-the-pants writers. They don’t know what’s going to happen until they write it!

      Another couple writers have told me they write their novels in scenes. But they do not write them consecutively. They may write scene 170 today and scene 46 tomorrow. The challenge for them is tying them all together cohesively when complete.

      And yet another writer uses an Excel spreadsheet with the entire book laid out with approximately word counts for each chapter and a row showing their word count progress as they write each day.

      The bottom line is that you find the method that works for you. Listen to everyone else’s methods out of curiosity and for ideas, but no ONE method is the best way.

  13. Avatar
    Angie Dicken January 14, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    Great post, Steve! It is very timely as I am rewriting portions of a novel that I have already re-written three times. But it’s a story I just can’t abandon–yet! Besides tightening and tweaking, I am loving the fact that I am “tight” with the characters that I can take their scenes to a deeper level.
    My favorite method of self-editing is to print out my draft and do handwritten edits. This helps me visualize the overall structure better (chapter breaks, paragraph sequencing), and it’s a nice break from the screen I’ve sat in front of for months at a time!

  14. Avatar
    Amanda Dykes January 14, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    Great pointers. There’s a neat online tool that will analyze for you which words occur most frequently in your text, helping to nail down pet phrases:

    • Avatar
      Diana Harkness January 14, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

      I found one better at I signed up for the professional version so I could put my entire novel and part of the next one through the process. It picked up on words and phrases that I would certainly have missed without it. Rewriting almost everywhere it found overused words and trite phrases makes it clearer and much more readable. It also highlighted words which weren’t a problem but focused my eyes to the point where I saw other problems that I could correct. It’s a great tool and well worth the money, IMHO. There’s a coupon code I found on twitter: thx4tweet. It brought the price down to $99.45 for a year’s subscription.

  15. Avatar
    RJ Thesman January 14, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    Great post. Even after editing and rewriting, I still have trouble with “just.” Somehow, I just can’t avoid using it.

  16. Avatar
    Dianne Price January 14, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    Timely post, Steve. Like so many writers, I tend to use the words “just” and “very” far too many times. After I finish polishing a chapter, I go to “find” and usually eliminate all of them. However, occasionally a character will use one of these words and it sounds “just” fine, so I grit my teeth and leave it in. My problem with rewriting is knowing when to stop. Every time I reread a Wip I find a way to make it better. When do you know enough is enough? (I’m talking about many, many rereads and rewrites!

  17. Avatar
    Cary Franklin Smith January 14, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    So compelled to work more diligently on my re-writing, I re-wrote this reply fifteen times.

  18. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan January 14, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    Reading my work aloud is helpful but not foolproof. (Plus my wife mocks me when I do so.) Although it’s great to hear someone else read my work, that’s seldom feasible. An effective compromise is text to voice software, which helps me catch a lot of mistakes, typos, and awkward phrasing. I won’t write without it.

  19. Avatar
    Jan Thompson January 14, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

    Thanks, Steve. This is really helpful. I’ve read so many articles that list so many ways of rewriting, that I realized just a couple of days ago that I need to stick to what I’m most comfortable with. To each his/her own.

    Side note: Not only do I need to “get the words right” like Hemingway and Seinfeld did, but as a writer, I also need to get the story straight.

    I recently read a novel in which the character switched names two pages later. I also read another novel where the character was drinking tea in one paragraph and coffee in the next. I’ve also read novels where the eye or hair color of the protagonist changed for no apparent reason. I think a proper self-edit would have caught all that, possibly 🙂

  20. Avatar
    Anne Braeburn January 14, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    That Hemingway incident/quote is priceless…and one to remember. Thanks.

  21. Avatar
    AlisonJean January 15, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    My first day at Helium and my first post. You have just inspired me to spend the day re-writing my novel; think I’m going to be working hard today. Thank you.

  22. Avatar
    Patrick Craig January 17, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    I wish I had the time to do 150 rewrites like Roald Dahl. I do hand my chapters over to my wife who is an excellent proofer. She proofs and marks for flow and understandability. Then I do all the corrections. This makes me do an objective re-read and the clumsy parts jump out at me. I usually do six complete drafts of the book, but then I work at a full-time job so I’m limited in my time.

  23. Avatar
    Laura Bennet January 18, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    THANK YOU!!! A perfectly timed post that answered a question I only minutes ago posed to an author friend. I was feeling kind of lame for rewriting my novel over and over as I go along. I figured I was doing that because I’m still learning to write and don’t know what I’m doing very well yet. If pros do it, I feel licensed to do it to! My critique partner helps me a lot too!


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