More Ways To Rewrite Your Novel

I’ve always been more of a rewriter than a writer.

In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing. I write first drafts very fast because I know I can fill in gaps or fix whatever’s not working in rewrites. For the same reason, I rarely get stuck. If you’re not sweating over the perfect word, line, or plot twist, it’s a lot easier to get words on the page.

But it also means I spend a lot more time at the keyboard.

So lately I tried a new way to revise. Comparing it to my previous techniques, it gets me away from the keyboard more and helps me work faster.

First Drafts Are Different

When I first draft, I use dictation software or dictate into my iPhone. I love dictating for several reasons:

  • It helps me write faster
  • It makes my tone more conversational
  • I’m more comfortable standing while dictating than while typing so I break up my many hours of sitting
  • My neck and shoulders ache (and eventually I have serious pain) when I type a lot

But I’ve never found a good way to dictate revisions.

Rewriting At The Keyboard

My first rewrite is typically at the keyboard. I read on screen and correct as I go. These changes include errors from the dictation as well as obvious plot issues, changes to character names, and other problems I noted as I wrote.

This rewrite usually goes very fast. I consider it part of the first draft process, as I don’t feel my initial draft is done until I’ve gone through it once on screen. (I talked about this more in Writing The Zero Draft Of Your Novel.)

After that I print, and here’s where I’ve started varying my process.

Looking At Manuscript Pages

After letting my complete first draft sit a week or two, I print it and read it. I note big picture issues separately and I handwrite in changes.

Over the years I’ve dealt with those handwritten changes two different ways. I’ve entered the changes myself, doing further revising as I go, and I’ve sent them to an off-site assistant.

The last time I sent the manuscript to an assistant it cost me $200 for half the manuscript. While she worked on first half, I entered the handwritten changes myself for the second half.

I’m not sure which way is more efficient timewise.

It was nice to be able to work on my half while she did the other, but I feel I lose something not making the edits myself.

And for both, I found it difficult physically. It amounted to a lot of time in front of the keyboard because for the assistant’s changes, I did a second pass through of my own as well on screen.

A Different Way

For what I hope is my last major rewrite of my current novel, The Charming Man (Book 2 in my Q.C. Davis series), I tried something different.

I printed all the pages and rather than mark them up by hand I read them on paper but typed the changes I wanted directly into the Word version.

Here’s what I liked about this process:

  • Reading on the page rather than on the screen altered my posture, leaving me with almost no neck or shoulder pain despite typing the edits
  • I saw errors on the page that I would have read right through on the screen
  • I saved time because I didn’t need to first handwrite changes and then enter them

What I didn’t like:

  • Nothing

The real test will be what I think of my novel after I set it aside again.

For now, though, I’m pretty sure this rewrite process is one I’ll continue using. It seems easier on my body and my budget (both in a time and money sense) and I feel pretty good about the changes I’m making.

That’s all for now.

Until next Friday, when I’ll talk about figuring out when your novel is finished

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Still working out the plot for your novel? The Free Story Structure Worksheets from Writing As A Second Career might help.

iPhones And The Art Of Writing Simply

Consider this sentence:

In order to make a determination regarding whether negotiations should be entered into at this point in time, an evaluation of benefits and detriments was made.

If your brain turned off after the fourth or fifth word, it’s not because you’re not a lawyer. Or, if you are a lawyer, it’s not because you’re not a smart lawyer.

It’s because it’s a terrible sentence.

Try this one instead:

To decide whether to negotiate now, we weighed the pluses and minuses.

The second sentence says the same thing as the first, but using 12 words instead of 26. And the 12 words are simpler and clearer.

The rule of keeping it simple applies to other types of writing too.

Compare my poorly-written version of a sentence from Joy Fielding’s The Wild Zone (see page 113 of Pocket Books paperback edition) to the real thing:


At that very moment, she made an identification of the vehicle as the automobile she’d been followed by the night before, which vehicle she’d made the assumption was owned by the detective who had been hired by her husband.

The real sentence:

She’d recognized the car immediately as the one that had tailed her the night before, the one she’d assumed belonged to a detective hired by her husband.

Why Simple Is Better

In both pairs of examples, the second sentence is easier to understand and more likely to keep the reader’s attention. That matters to me no matter what I’m writing.

In law or for business, I usually write to explain something to someone – whether it’s a client, a colleague or a judge – or to persuade someone to see things my way. It’s harder to do either if I make the reader struggle to understand me or, worse yet, to stay awake. When

I write fiction, obviously I want and need to capture and keep the reader’s attention. Excessive words bog down a story and can bury the even most exciting plot twists and characters.

Simplifying my writing also allows me to cover more ground.

In my law practice, I’m usually bound by a page limit. If my sentences are twice as long as they need to be, that means I can make only half the arguments or must cut some of the examples or cases that support those arguments.

And even if I don’t need my whole page limit, I’d rather send a court or a client a well-written 7-page document than a cumbersome 15-page one. In fiction, clearer, cleaner sentences allow me more space to develop character, advance the plot, or describe the setting.

For these reasons, over half my writing time is spent cutting. (I’m not alone in this – the saying “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” has been attributed to many people, including Voltaire and Mark Twain.)

Writing more simply sounds, well, simple, and it is when comparing two sentences the way I did above.

Looking at an entire manuscript, though, can be daunting. So I’ve tried to break down some points I look for when editing.

  • Get rid of words you don’t need:

Lawyers in particular love unnecessary words, I suspect because we spent a lot of money to go to law school and we want to sound like it.

“Attached hereto is the aforementioned contract” sounds like something a lawyer would write. On the other hand, “the contract is attached” is just plain English.

One place to spot words you can cut is in prepositional phrases.

In the sample sentences, I changed “in order to” to “to.” Similarly, “at this point in time” became “now” and “at that very moment” changed to “immediately.”

Using the Find function in Word to search for prepositions, especially “of,” “at” and “to,” is a great way to discover phrases you can simplify. Read each phrase and ask yourself how you might say it in one word or, at most, two.

  • Don’t just be — do:

Another way to make writing sharper is to write in active rather than passive voice.

Active voice: “her husband hired a detective.”

Passive voice: “A detective was hired by her husband.”

“We evaluated” (active); “an evaluation was made” (passive).

Active voice shortens sentences and makes them easier to read and understand. It also keeps the focus on the actor.

If you won an award or a race, don’t you want people to know you won it? And be excited about it? “I won the race” sounds a lot more exciting than “A race was won” or even “A race was won by me.”

Of course, sometimes you want to be anonymous. In his 1987 State of the Union speech, President Reagan didn’t say he’d made mistakes regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, he said “serious mistakes were made….” Who made them? Perhaps no one will focus on that.

Another time for passive voice is when you use it to emphasize the object of the sentence.

For instance, if you and your friend have loved every book that won an Edgar Award, and you want to persuade your friend to read a particular writer, you might say, “An Edgar Award was won by this writer.” The point is “wow, an Edgar Award, that writer must be amazing.”

Yet another reason to use passive voice is when you don’t know who performed an action: “A tower had been built in the village” might be the only way you can frame a sentence if you don’t know who built the tower.

Short of a good reason to use passive voice, however, phrase all your sentences in active voice and see how much more compelling it makes your writing. You can find passive voice by searching for the “to be” words — was, were, is, are. The word “by” also often signals passive voice (think “was followed by” or “was loved by” or “was won by”.

  • Trade nouns for verbs:

I also look for instances where I can substitute a verb for what I think of as a noun phrase. (English teachers or editors out there may know the technical term for what I mean.)

The phrase “enter into negotiations” is an example of what I call a noun phrase – it uses the noun “negotiations” as part of a phrase that conveys an action. But one verb – negotiate – can say the same thing.

Similarly, above, the verb “assumed” replaced the noun phrase “made the assumption.”

As with minimizing passive voice, this type of editing not only eliminates words, it makes the sentences more active and interesting.

While doing this, you can replace a noun not only with a verb, but with a stronger verb or a verb that’s more commonly used or easier to read.

“I talked with Beth” flows better than “I had a conversation with Beth” or even “I conversed with Beth.” Similarly, “I had an argument with Beth,” might become “I fought with Beth.”

  • Trade verbs for better verbs:

Replacing a verb plus an adverb with a stronger verb also helps writing clip along.

A few examples:

  1. Walked swiftly: hurried
  2. Walked casually: strolled
  3. Laughed nervously: tittered

You get the idea.

Find the adverbs by searching “ly”.

Also, even if the “to be” words aren’t part of a phrase that’s in passive voice, consider replacing them with a more interesting verb. “I felt sad” conveys stronger emotion than “I was sad.” “I grieved” sounds even more vivid.

Everything I’ve read about Steve Jobs said he always focused on simplicity in his designs.

I saw this the first time I got an iPhone and compared it to my Blackberry. (Remember those?)

The Blackberry had all kinds of icons for different functions, but after six years I only knew how to do two things on it – call and email. I hesitated to switch to an iPhone because I couldn’t imagine what else I’d do with it.

Within two months of owning one, it had become my daily alarm clock, back up GPS, radio station, oven timer, weather channel, and Internet browser. And, oh yes, I call and email with it.

So borrow a page from Apple’s playbook and don’t clutter your writing with words that take up space and seem too cumbersome to figure out.

Instead, have some fun and write the iPhone version of a legal brief, novel, or business letter.

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly