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Beat the Blank Page Blues: Writing the First Draft (Part 3 of 3)


You’re in the final phase of writing the first draft. You’ve put the words on the page, so you can stop weeding, checking email, or circling your computer. You’ve organized your information, so you can give the analgesics a rest. You’ve created a piece—an article, story, book—from nothing, and that’s pretty amazing. Now it’s time to polish your work, an extremely important part of the process. Small but highly-distracting mistakes—repetition of words, too many passive phrases, typos—can put off an agent, publisher, or web audience in a minute. So take a breath, sit back down, and clean up anything that might detract from the unique perspective you’ve worked so hard to convey.

I’m not saying an editor won’t suggest additional revisions, but by following these eight guidelines you’ll be half way to presenting a strong, clean piece of work. Why only halfway? Because I waaaaay overshot the blog word-count limit for Part 3, so I’ve divided the polishing guidelines into two blogs—these eight guidelines and Part 3: The Sequel.

1. Cut out 10-percent of your words
You’ve already nuked a lot of unnecessary text during Part 2. Still, most of us have a tendency to use more words than we need, which can dilute our argument or story. Just do a word count and see what else you can annihilate (forgive the war lingo—but you have to be brutal, so I’m trying to get you in commando mode). A good rule of thumb—if you hesitate about cutting text, cut it. You can always save your words to another page, just in case. Here’s what can go:

  • Weak phrases, such as “basically,” “I think,” or “in my opinion.” Sometimes they’re necessary but not often.
  • Repeating the same point several times. Unless it’s stylistic, delete the extra reps.
  • Unnecessary adjectives. For example, instead of writing “Miriam said quietly,” you could write “Miriam whispered.”
  • Buried leads. Avoid strings of disclaimers or introductory phrases.  Just get to the point. For example:

Not so great: One can make a fairly safe supposition that the Puritans who colonized the Americas and their deep devotion to keeping journals could be considered to have strongly influenced the style of literature in the United States.
Much better: Many literary critics argue that the Puritans’ dedication to keeping journals affected literary style in the United States.

And yes, I followed this 10% guideline. I cut 20% of the words in this blog. Still no go. If you have a chapter that seems too long or an article that exceeds the word limit, think about dividing it.

2. Hunt for value
Every point, statement, question, and word should have a reason to be in your piece. Be ruthless—if a word or phrase does not add value to your writing, get rid of it.

3.  Be reasonable about paragraph length  
Write paragraphs that aren’t too long or short. One sentence is too short, unless it’s for style. Three sentences can work.  If you have a paragraph that exceeds a half page, try to break it into at least two paragraphs.

4. Keep sentences relatively short
Overly long sentences slow the reader down and can hide your meaning. Try keeping your sentences to about 150 characters. For style, you can use fragments (but those aren’t sentences, so technically I shouldn’t mention them here, which isn’t stopping me). Here are a few examples of fragments—”Slim pickins.” “Not happening.” “No go.”

5. If you can use a simpler word, do it
Your readers shouldn’t have to work hard to understand what you’re saying or inhale Red Bull to stay awake trying. Think textbooks.  Here’s an easy rule about writing style, avoid the academic model—too many fancy words. Even if you’re an academic, steer clear of the model. Sure, there’s a place for jargon. You don’t want to insult your audience by over-simplifying terms they can define in their sleep. But for the most part, follow the journalistic model—aim for an eighth grade reading level.

6. Stick with active voice (most of the time)
Don’t let your sentences play the victim. Using “to be” and its conjugations (is, was, were, are, am), often indicates a passive sentence, where the subject (he, she, the chair) is acted upon instead of acting. Grammar Girl, one of my favorite sites for all things, well, grammar, explains when to go passive or active in her blog “Active Voice Versus Passive Voice.”

7. Watch your nominalizations
A nominalization is a part of speech—usually a verb, adverb, or adjective—that is transformed into a noun. Some are useful, but often nominalizations needlessly complicate your writing. For example, “incentivism” makes my skin crawl. For a thorough look at when nominalizations do and don’t work, check out these great examples.

8. Begin a sentence with the word “This” only if you follow “this” with “what”
“This” as a subject of a sentence and is grammatically correct but can be extremely confusing, because the reader can’t always determine the subject.

Avoid: This is ridiculous.
Much better: This excuse is ridiculous.

These eight guidelines will give you a great start, and then you can move on to the sequel for the remaining nine.


Now it’s your turn

What do you think?
I’ve talked about eight ways to polish your first draft. Which were most helpful?

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No matter where you are with your writing, no matter what stage of the process, I offer services as a writing coach and editor to help you with your work. If you’d like to discuss your project, contact me to set up a free, 30-minute consultation.

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