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Richard Nordquist

When to Resist the Urge to Rewrite

By February 18, 2013

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More than 20 years ago, Russell Baker opened one of his "Observer" columns in the New York Times with these tentative lines:
The wonderful thing about writing with a computer instead of a typewriter or a lead pencil is that it's so easy to rewrite that you can make each sentence almost perfect before moving on to the next sentence.

An impressive aspect of using a computer to write with

One of the pluses about a computer on which to write

Happily, the computer is a marked improvement over both the typewriter and the lead pencil for purposes of literary composition, due to the ease with which rewriting can be effectuated, thus enabling

What a marked improvement the computer is for the writer over the typewriter and lead pencil . . .

And so on for 500 words--until Baker finally formulated his thesis in the last sentence of the column:

Since it is easier to revise and edit with a computer than with a typewriter or pencil, this amazing machine makes it very hard to stop editing and revising long enough to write a readable sentence, much less an entire newspaper column.
The references to typewriters and lead pencils sound quaint nowadays, and we take for granted Russell's point about the relative ease of rewriting on a computer. Yet his thesis still stands: the convenience of word processing doesn't necessarily make the real work of writing (and revising and editing) any simpler. If you've ever found yourself stuck with a clumsy sentence that refuses to stand up straight and march smartly across the screen, you know there's not a tool or a trick in Microsoft Word that will fix it for you. The problem, as Dear Abby used to say, is all in your head.

Our recommendation in such cases is to blunder on with your draft, knowing that eventually you'll return to that wayward sentence--when you've set aside time to focus on revising and editing. In other words, good enough is sometimes the best any of us can do. At least for the time being.

The important thing is not to let the compulsion to re-write distract you from writing. Resisting that urge can actually speed up your work and make it easier to edit on the return visit.

To guide you in the process of revising and editing, we've prepared two aptly named guides: a Revision Checklist and an Editing Checklist. Of course the tasks of revising and editing overlap, as do all stages of the writing process. But that doesn't mean you have to go out of your way to spin plates, juggle machetes, dance with a grizzly bear, and reform a recalcitrant sentence all at the same time.

More About the Writing Process:

Image: Russell Baker, author of Growing Up (1982)


February 25, 2013 at 11:55 am
(1) reholmes says:

. . . , but Ginger can help.

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