Monday, March 12, 2012

Drill, Baby, Drill

...or, How is Rewriting Like Having a Dental Crown Replaced?

But first, a word from our sponsor:

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Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

A few weeks ago, I was noshing scrambled eggs when one of my dental crowns popped out. This particular crown had always been a troublemaker. I suspect it wasn't done well in the first place. The dentist who checked it (different from the fellow who put it in) pretty much confirmed that when he said the crown didn't have a good hold on the tooth and he had to drill.

Not a word any dental patient likes to hear.

The last couple weeks, as I've been walking around with a temporary plastic crown in my mouth, I've been doing rewrites. I've realized that fixing the rough spots in a manuscript is a bit like doing dental work. You have to drill a little deeper to make each change take hold and cause no further trouble.

For instance, one proofreader had crossed out the word "or" and inserted the word "of." The sentence was something like this:

I spent my afternoons in the parking lot or the store.

You can see where "of" might make sense, yet "or" was correct. I could have simply left it alone. In fact, when I've edited short stories, about 80% of writers would leave it alone. However, my feeling is, if the sentence stopped one reader's eye, it might be distracting to others, too. This problem was easily remedied by the insertion of the word "either" between "afternoons" and "in."

A more complex example involved a reader who became confused about a character, and had to go back to read earlier pages to see if she'd miss something. Never, ever, should your readers need to backtrack. 90% percent of this problem was solved by simply adding the character's maiden name to her married name with a hyphen. It made her relationship to other family members more obvious. But I had to ask myself, what made the reader miss the first mention of this character? In rereading those pages, I realized that this character actually said and did nothing the rest of the scene. She'd become wallpaper. So I rewrote those pages. Then I came across a paragraph later in the story where the name change caused another potential misunderstanding. In other words, I couldn't do a simple find-and-replace. I had to make sure that the change became seamless.

For novice writers, when proofreaders and editors send comments back to you, don't get defensive, and don't waste time explaining to that one reader why you wrote a passage a certain way. The reader is always right, though they sometimes can't tell you exactly what stopped their eye as they were reading. The fact is, though, that their eye did stop, so rewriting needs to be done. Don't ignore their comments, or slap down a quick  band-aid. Drill a little deeper. Marry the fixed segment to the rest of the story.


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