Polish: The Sequel
Read most of the introduction about writing the first draft in the blog Kick Blank Page Butt (Part 3: Polish). You can skip the part about where I trip all over myself explaining about how the blog was too long, and I had to hack it in two. Here’s the gist of the first half of Part 3: 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. That said, we all make mistakes, but these nine tips (in addition to the previous eight in Part 3) can help you side step a lot of them.
1. Limit your adjectives
Adjectives can add interest and clarity, but too many can slow down the flow of your ideas, make for flabby writing, or indicate you can’t find the right descriptor. So use them judiciously.
- Try “ship” instead of “large boat,” where you don’t really need an adjective because one strong word works better than two weaker ones.
- Instead of “wild-eyed, hyped-up, cuticle-gnawing dog walker,” choose just one of the adjectives or come up with one that encapsulates all three descriptions, maybe, jittery, hyper, or fretful. Or you can show an action: “That pug is freaking me out.” The dog walker gnawed her cuticle. “Look at how he watches me.”
For more examples, read Stephen King’s memoir/fiction guide, On Writing, to learn about his struggle with adjective abuse.
2. Look for synonyms
Remember, the Thesaurus is your friend. In technical writing, repeating the same word is a good thing, but in other types, when you enter the same word twice in one sentence or three times in one paragraph, you just seem lazy.
3. Vary sentence style
If you write every sentence in subject/verb format, your work will sound like a grade school chapter book or a technical manual, which is good, if that’s what you’re writing. If you’re not, mix it up.
Instead of: Sara was a math whiz. She loved making up word problems. She conceived five, maybe ten per hour, too many to keep in her head. Sara was desperate to record her puzzles. She scribbled them on scratch paper, her hand, whatever was close. She was consumed by car mileage, gas costs, and destination points.
Try: Sara was a math whiz, who loved making up word problems, conceiving five, maybe ten per hour, more than she could store in her brain. Desperate to record her puzzles, she scribbled them on scratch paper, her hand, whatever was close. Car mileage, gas costs, destination points—she was consumed.
The second example is in my style, but I hope you get an idea of how to move the words around to vary the sentence structure.
4. Make sure your tenses jibe
These don’t. I love to watch movies late at night, but I hated to eat popcorn at the same time.
5. Maintain a consistent point of view
What’s wrong with this sentence? “My name is Frank, and I can’t stand green beans. Green beans have always made Frank sick.” Exactly. If you’re writing fiction, and after you’ve written the book you decide you’d rather use “I” than “Frank,” be on the look-out. It’s really easy to mangle the POV.
6. Run spell checker—always—but review your spelling manually too
Still, mistakes will sneak through, such as words that sound the same but are spelled differently—“threw” for “through” or “whose” or “who’s.” So review every suggestion.
7. Run a grammar checker
But keep a good style guide on hand to check any suggestions that seem off. Grammar checkers can catch a lot, but they can also be soooo wrong. And if you’re going for style, grammar checkers can kill it. For example, maybe you want to really emphasize something, so you write. “Relax. This. Minute.” A grammar checker will nail you to the wall, so stand firm, and reject its advice.
8. Read your piece out loud
You can catch a lot of errors—or just awkward phrasing—by reading your work out loud. Start at the beginning and read to the end, or try reading starting on the last page and read to the first.
9. Call in a favor
Finally, it’s still a good idea to have someone else read through what you’ve written. You’ve seen it so many times that it’s easy to miss a typo or missing word, or an error resulting from cutting and pasting. If you don’t have someone you can ask to review your work, just give yourself another day or two, longer if you have the time, and read your piece aloud again.
Remember, this is your first draft. If you’re on a tight deadline, maybe you need a month to write a second but have a week, or you need a day but have an hour (Don’t panic. An editor will probably have your back). Or if you’ve set your own deadline, you have the luxury of returning when you’re really ready.
When you review, you might be happy with what you’ve got and just need to tweak or reorganize just a bit. Or, as with a book, you might need to dive in, rip apart, and put it back together differently to make it stronger. Some writers go through a gazillion revisions per draft, and write 4 drafts or even 30, but don’t let those numbers scare you. Depending on whom you’re talking to, the line between revision and draft blurs, and the amount of revision and number of drafts change drastically. Bottom line. Trust yourself. You’ll know when you’re finished. And if you get feedback from other writers you exchange work with or from editors, agents, or publishing houses you’re soliciting, listen, sit with it. If some of the suggestions feel right, put your work before your ego, and give it another go. You’ll be amazed at the difference a few small changes (or large ones) can make.
Now it’s your turn
What do you think? I’ve talked about nine ways to polish your first draft. Which were most helpful?
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