The Writer as Rewriter

March 30, 2007
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The Writer as Rewriter A Monthly Column

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

April 2007

Editor's Note: Authorlink welcomes our new regular columnist, Rochelle Shapiro. Read about Rochelle below, and be sure to catch her column every month.

". . . like a patient needing surgery, she wanted to get a second opinion before she operated."
—Shapiro
One day I was working at my computer in my living room when I heard a voice behind me. My husband wasn’t home. My children had left for school an hour ago. They had probably left the door unlocked again!

“You’ve set off a silent alarm,” I bluffed whoever was behind me in the strongest voice I could muster. “The police are on their way.”

I spun around in my chair and faced what I thought would be my assailant. A woman from the third floor of my building stood there, her eyes bulging, her mouth wide open, one hand on her heart, the other clutching a sheaf of papers. When she calmed down, she explained she had a manuscript of hers that she wanted me to look over for her.

People are always trying to hand writers their manuscripts. Usually, I explain that there are editing services to turn to, but since I had just almost scared her to death, I took the hefty manuscript from her. As I flipped through it, you can’t imagine how surprised I was to see red editing marks all over the lines and comments in the margins.

“This manuscript has already been edited,” I said.

She explained that she’d gone to a writing workshop where her teacher had edited it for her, but like a patient needing surgery, she wanted to get a second opinion before she operated. “I don’t think he really got it,” she said.

". . .how rare it is that a passage comes straight from the author and onto the published page."
—Shapiro

Oh, he got it, I thought, looking at the line through the phrase, “the bounteous cornucopia of life.”

My neighbor, like so many other beginning writers, didn’t realize how rare it is that a passage comes straight from the author and onto the published page. Fine writing, no matter how simple it seems, is almost always a splashy first draft that requires arduous rewrites that sometimes span years. Go see original manuscripts displayed at major libraries and you’ll see how the greats such as Henry James, Shakespeare, et. al. labored over each word.

"How do you do effective rewrites? Put your work away for a time to read it with a fresh ear.
—Shapiro

How do you do effective rewrites? Put your work away for a time to read it with a fresh ear. If you’re in a rush, print it out in a different font and/or a different color, then reread it. Reading into a tape recorder and then playing it back is another excellent way of checking if the rhythms flow, if the pacing is right or if it drags. Or read it aloud to someone who has taken writing classes and is used to giving constructive criticism. A friend of mine in his eighties writes poems to commemorate friends who have died and reads them at their funerals. The poems are awful, but everyone is so moved that he cannot figure out why he isn’t poet laureate by now. He doesn’t realize all one has to do at a funeral is say the deceased’s name and everyone will burst into tears. And I’m not going to tell him the truth. In some cases, friendship takes precedence over editing.

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, andd in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/

 

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