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Six Rules for Rewriting

by Michael Nielsen on August 19, 2008

The only way I know to write well is to first allow myself to write freely, and then to rewrite. The trick to rewriting is to recognize which bits of my writing are good, and leave those be, while improving or eliminating the bad bits.

Here is a list of six rules that help me recognize the bad bits in my own writing. Until these criteria have been met, or the exceptions identified and understood, my writing is still in draft, not yet ready to be abandoned to the reader.

Making your writing striking

Every sentence should grab the reader and propel them forward: Academics are wont to ignore this rule, believing the reader should be willing to endure any pain for a sufficient payoff. Of course, academics aren’t paid per reader. Good bloggers and journalists know better.

Every paragraph should contain a striking idea, originally expressed: In the meat of your writing, this rule ought to be easy to apply. If you are finding it difficult, you may not have thought deeply enough about the subject, and perhaps should think more before attempting to write.

Where the rule causes difficulty is when you are covering background material. Some readers may already be familiar with the background, and you run the risk of boring them if you offer the standard account. Renowned for his originality as a teacher, Richard Feynman once taught inclined planes to physics undergraduates. Do you believe he offered the standard account of inclined planes that has bored students around the world for generations? I have no doubt he found a new and fascinating take on the material. If Feynman can do it for inclined planes, you can do it for your background material, no matter how apparently mundane.

The most significant ideas should be distilled into the most potent sentences possible: These provide a focus for the reader, a message that helps them understand your main points. To apply this rule, go through each section and chapter, asking yourself what the most significant ideas are, and if they have been distilled into a simple, memorable core.

Stylistic rules

There are many rules for writing with good style. Here are the two rules I find most useful.

Use the strongest appropriate verb: Identify the verb in every sentence, and ask if you can improve it, perhaps eliminating adjectives and adverbs in the process. This is simple and mechanical, but often yields great improvements with little effort.

Beware of nominalization: A common way we weaken verbs is by turning them into nouns, and then combining them with weaker verbs. This bad habit is called nominalization. Contrast the wishy-washy “I conducted an investigation of rules for rewriting” with the more direct “I investigated rules for rewriting”. In the first sentence I have nominalized the strong verb “investigated” so that it becomes the noun “investigation”, and then combined it with the weaker verb “conducted”.

Meta-rule

None of the above rules should be consciously applied while drafting material: While drafting, your mind must be fully concentrated on the subject matter at hand. It is nearly impossible to think clearly about the subject if you are simultaneously trying to obey a bunch of rules. Think deeply about your material; write with all the passion, speed and concentration at your disposal; only once you are done should you identify problems, and then rewrite any parts that offend.

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21 Comments
  1. Thanks, that’s really useful. Makes me wonder though whether the nowadays much easier possibility for re-re-rewriting has changed how writers structure their thoughts?

    Also, if every blogger would take your 2nd rule seriously, most would have to give up on blogging altogether ;-)

  2. Bee – yeah, I wonder the same thing. I can’t imagine having to write everything out long-hand first! I do a lot of rewriting.

  3. Oh, wow – in the top 50 on Hacker News. :-)

    Helpful post!

  4. Paul Murray permalink

    By “weaker”, I suppose we mean “less specific”. The least specific verb is “do” – I think it’s actually a pro-verb. Most wordy verbs are just synonyms for “do” with a little flavouring. “Conducted” is a great example. It usually means nothing much unless you are talking about actual orchestras or deliberately using it as part of an orchestra metaphor.

    So here’s a rule: if you can replace a verb with “do” or one of its declensions (?) without losing much meaning,then the verb is weak.

  5. Paul – yes, I pretty much meant “less specific”. In fact, when I drafted the essay, I waffled a bit on whether to use “weaker” or “less specific”.

    I like your rule – it’s definitly a way of identifying really weak verbs.

  6. Really nice article!!

    I subconsciously followed some of the rules (first two rules and the “strongest verb”) mentioned above. And I also noticed that however much thought i gave to whatever I wrote, I always had at least few changes and rewrites at the second reading (before posting/finalizing).

    The article kind of showed I was not crazy or something because I was starting to have second thoughts as to my writing abilities :)

    Thanks!

  7. Fantastic article Michael – as I guess an article about writing an article needs to be.

    I would have really liked examples of each of your points.

  8. Hi Nicholas – Thanks! I was bit nervous about putting it up on my blog, for exactly that reason. My writing is certainly far from perfect.

    That’s a good suggestion about examples, and if I ever expand the essay, I’ll certainly add some examples. It’s tough to do without picking on people, though. One possible solution would be to find bad passages from my own past writing, of course!

    Hayk – Glad you enjoyed it!

  9. Andy permalink

    Maybe Michael should rewrite his own article. For example, “Every sentence should grab the reader and propel them forward” is redundant. “Academics are wont to ignore this rule” needlessly uses the unusual word “wont” (why not just “academics often ignore this rule”?). “Every paragraph should contain a striking idea, originally expressed” is implausible.

    “The most significant ideas should be distilled into the most potent sentences possible” has the unnecessary word “possible”, which weakens it. “and if they have been distilled into a simple, memorable core” is redundant.

    etc.

    Perhaps you can tell that I am not a fan of “rules” for better writing.

    Also, this article only seems to apply to nonfiction (I assume intentionally).

  10. Donald A. Coffin permalink

    Or, as George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language,”

    “Break any of these rules rather than write anything outright barbarous.”

  11. Donald – That’s a great addition to the list. Thanks for the pointer to Orwell’s essay, which I don’t think I’ve read before. It’s a great read: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

  12. J. Bang permalink

    This post has more to do with organization than it does with writing. Without focused well organized ideas (paragraphs) and thoughts (sentences). If your writing is poorly focused and organized in the draft, then I wish you the best of luck trying to re-write it into something at all readable.

  13. David Cantor permalink

    Well, one of the best writers I ever encountered was Isaac Asimov. Not his science fiction, but his science-for-nonexperts nonfiction. Unbelievably lucid, and an incredible ability to make complicated ideas accessible. Anyway, according to his autobiography, just about everything he published was a first draft. And this was before wordprocessing — no delete key.

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