The Joy of Rewriting: 12 Questions to Ask on the First Pass

Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away.”—Helen Dunmore

“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. …If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” —Neil Gaiman

Recently my son and I purchased an avocado grove. The trees were planted in 1971 and grew until they filled the acreage with leaf-to-leaf canopy. When you first look at the property, it looks like the planting part of our work is done. All we have to do is pick the fruit.

avogrove  But some of the trees have died due to disease. Others have died from drought. Open spaces punctuate the landscape. And current research has revealed an entirely new approach to planting and growing avocados that will conserve water, reduce labor, and increase the yield.

Our farm needs editing. 

The original plan was like the first draft of anything you’ve written. It had its strengths, and it had its weaknesses. But we are reading the landscape with fresh eyes, and we see that some of the trees need pruning. Some need to be removed. Both the grove as a whole and individual trees need to be assessed and a plan of action crafted.

In essence, these are the same steps that you must take when you have finished your first draft, set it aside, and then taken it out to see what is worth keeping or what you must toss out. What you can nurture and coax toward a better yield. What actions you must take once you see what you really meant to say and accomplish with this piece of writing.

Many people want to keep the first draft as the final one. All that hard work!

Hogwash. The real work is in the rewriting, but it’s also the most fun. It’s not only analytical but also creative, and what could be more exciting for anyone with an active brain?

Revision has two phases–analysis and style. These loop around and around until you are done. (Or until the deadline hits and you have to give it up regardless of how much better it could be with just a few more hours of work.)

Analysis entails looking at the work as a whole and then dissecting how well it functions. Style involves rewriting for smoothness, elegance, and vividness. You start with analysis, flow into style, and cycle back through analysis.

Today we’re focusing on analysis because it comes first. On my initial pass, I read quickly because I am scanning for glaring problems. I don’t start tweaking every word or sentence, because it may turn out after I’ve read the whole thing that I no longer need those words or sentences. Just mark the weak areas and make brief notes as you read.

Personally, I like to print out the piece and mark up the hard copy for my analysis.P This forces me to look at the words in a different form, so it refreshes my brain. It also allows me to get physical with my responses, and this, too, helps me respond to the first draft with new eyes. But you may prefer to do everything on your computer, using comments or a colored font.

I use 12 questions to guide my assessment. They are broken into two areas—content and organization—because at this point, you need to learn what is working and what is floundering or outright failing. Ask all or some of these as you assess your writing before rewriting.

Questions to Assess Your Content:

  1. Is the information clear? If not, mark passages that are muddled.
  2. Are the facts organized, supported, and developed, or are they merely listed? Put a checkmark or X by your facts as you make this quick pass.
  3. Is there one principal theme? What is it? Write it down on a separate piece of paper after you have read through all the content. Does it match your intent? If you see a new central theme, use that to guide your revision. If you see multiple themes, select the one you have the strongest support for.
  4. Have you interpreted and transformed the material, or did you spit it out without digesting it?
  5. Is your support relevant? Again, a simple checkmark or X will help you speed through this without getting bogged down in rewriting while you are analyzing.
  6. Do you feel uneasy or bored with any section? Note it.

Questions to Assess Your Organization:

  1. Is the overall structural pattern clear? By this I mean how you have arranged your ideas—chronologically, thematically, or contrastingly, for instance. You can mix and match to a degree—but it shouldn’t be confusing.
  2. Is there a definite beginning, middle, and ending? Mark the starting and stopping points for the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. This sounds like the easiest aspect of writing to master, but frequently the sections are intertwined, repeated, or omitted.
  3. Is the overall order logical? Does each point relate to the one before and after it? Sometimes I’ll label major points with A, B, C, etc. so that I can see whether they are grouped logically and supported sufficiently.

A colleague of mine, Catherine Lyon, calls this “reverse outlining.” You identify your major and supporting points and put them into an outline after you have written; then you can easily see whether you have what you need structurally or if you need to revise.

  1. Is the support logical? Reverse outlining works to identify support as well (I label with numbers—A1, B1, and so forth). This method helps answer next question as well.
  2. Is the support sufficient? Do you provide enough information to make your major points believable and clear? Should you drop, expand, revise, or move your major or supporting points?
  3. How else could you have structured this? Would another organizational pattern be more effective?

If, at this stage, you find that your writing has striking problems with content or organization—more than one main idea, insufficient support, faulty structure, etc.—work on correcting those first. Then reread your next draft, asking the same content and organization questions.

It’s difficult to answer these questions, so pull in another reader if you feel stuck. Ask that person to write a one-sentence summary of the piece. Does it parallel what you thought was your core idea? If it doesn’t, ask your reader to point out the sections that support this different theme. You might also ask your reader to create a reverse outline, which may reveal cracks in your structure you couldn’t see.

Remember, what you’ve written isn’t sacred. It’s just a vehicle to help you see what you are thinking about and what you need to do next. Like our avocado grove, starting with the 1000-foot view will help us figure out how we want to replant, what we can keep, and what we must pull out for the most productive, effective yield.

Your yield is better writing.

Please post your comments. What tips do you have that might help others? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for joining me in this week’s blog. Tune in next Friday for Issue #12 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll take a look at Part 2 on The Joy of Rewriting: Harnessing the Elements of Style.

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Headshot tight  About Marcy McDonald

Online Course Producer

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