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"Books aren't written, they're rewritten."


The published words on a page, which read so gracefully, have likely been reworked countless times. Have patience. With diligent polishing, your sentences too can shine.

1. Does your first paragraph bring readers in? How gripping, mysterious, or compelling can you render it? The opening sentence should be like an arrow shot from a bow: it will shoot through the entire text.

2. Is there a clear setting for your essay or story? Keep anecdotes grounded in specific locations. The more vivid and specific your details, the more memorable the scene. If your action occurs near a tree or shrub, name it: Is it an acacia bursting with yellow buds, a weeping willow that sways in the wind, or a fiery red Japanese maple? Let your environment enhance the mood. Above all, you want your reader to be in the scene, picturing it, smelling it, feeling it.

3. Is there sufficient dialogue? (The part readers rarely skip.) Read drafts aloud to keep the rhythms lifelike.

4. Does the central character change? We want to see movement and transformation, the heart of literature.

5. Can you find needless duplication? Look for synonyms or alternate wording that will keep your manuscript fresh. Most of us have writing "tics," words or phrases that creep onto every page. Be alert to your repetitive habits.

6. Can you delete words? Padding like “In fact,” “actually,” “very,” “almost,” or “often” weaken prose. As you prune them you will see tepid sentences spring to life.

7. Are you interested? Writing that keeps the writer awake at night will keep the reader awake. When you are passionate about your subject, that heat will infuse the pages.

8. Insert strong verbs. "She loped into the room" or "She slouched" or "She stumbled in" rather than the boring "She walked in." See what an immediate picture the more specific verbs evoked, giving us a sense of the character.

Richard Blanco's Inauguration poem One Today is a fine example of thoughtful verbs. I was especially struck by the early sun which "kindled" over our shores, morning faces "yawning to life," and the moon "like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop."


9. Describe people's eyes. Do they dart around the yard or look sleepy, intent, cold, or warm? Again, notice what a different image you create simply by specifying eye behavior or impression.

10. Cut long lists, which glaze readers' eyes. Name several particular types of whatever you are showing—flowers or rooms--to represent the whole. You want us to be there in the scene, whether for non-fiction or fiction.

11. Is there a subtext? The most fascinating writing is layered. You have an apparent situation, but the key story swims below the surface. An intent reader will notice it subtly emerge. 

It may take many iterations of your piece, be it essay or book, for even you, the author, to understand what it is truly about. That is the great gift of rewriting: you learn more deeply what your purpose was.

"Aha," you say, surprised. So that was it.

Finally, remember: What do writers do?

They write.

Happy writing!