At the conclusion of the last post on this blog, I said I’d follow up with some practical pointers that may be useful to others. I’ve met some people who compose and revise very closely to what I’ll describe here, though I’m aware of others for whom some of my tactics would seem anathema. General rule of thumb: do what works for you, but be open to others’ suggestions.
At the beginning of the drafting process, I spend a lop-sided amount of time on the first few pages. I rework and rework and rework them until they make sense—both to myself and, I hope, the reader—and thus provide an adequate foundation for what’s to follow. Once I hit my stride, the heavy revision that characterized my opening pages becomes increasingly lighter. (I’ve noticed over the years that friends who are helping me edit my work mark up my first couple of pages far more than they do the later pages; they seem to confirm that the leading paragraphs are the most challenging to bring to submission.)
As I compose, I never let myself proceed to the next sentence until I’m absolutely satisfied with the current sentence. That approach doesn’t guarantee that further revision won’t ensue; it most certainly will. But I know this about myself: anything I write after I’ve written junk will also be junk. If I let myself get away with one bad sentence, everything that comes after it will be at least as bad, if not worse. In my own case, delaying a fix will be counter-productive.
At the point when I think my draft is pretty good, I print it out, read it in hard copy, then realize it isn’t nearly as good as I thought. I don’t know what miracle of critical observation occurs in that transition between computer screen and paper, but it makes for revelation. So does the transition between reading your prose to yourself and reading it out loud and really listening to yourself. If you stumble over your wording, it’s trying to tell you to repair it. If your style lacks cadence and falls flat on the ear, try working on its sound (sing it if you must). If you can’t get through a whole sentence without pausing for a breath, consider tightening.
In the final stages, Lanham’s paramedic method, mentioned in the preceding blog post, can help dramatically with wordiness that is impeding your stylistic appeal, not to mention the clarity of your content. As a firm believer in Strunk and White’s injunction to “Omit needless words” (if doing so were only as easy as saying what to do in three words!), I use one last strategy before unveiling a draft to others’ eyes. I go paragraph by paragraph, trying to remove one line of type from each. It’s a game. I compete with myself to see if I can shorten just that little bit. If I’m successful, I shoot for shrinking the paragraph by another line. Sometimes I can’t do it, but, when I can, my prose is the better for it.