It is during the rewriting process that you correct style and composition inconsistencies, as well as common mistakes such as using the same long word five times in one paragraph. Unless you have degrees in English composition and literature (and even sometimes when you do), you will probably find that your first draft does not always sound the way you originally intended.
If you are not educated in the fine art of writing, don't despair. Such things as spelling, punctuation and word usage are not the strong suit of many famous writers either. Most writers depend on "how it sounds," but just because something sounds wrong doesn't mean that they always know how to correct it. To aid them in correcting their manuscripts, they often turn to reference books.
Style and craftsmanship are learned skills, and have been the subject of many books. One of the best and most concise of these is a little volume entitled The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. Originally written in 1935, and updated since, this thin reference work presents the rules of writing in clear and understandable language. It bears periodic reading cover-to-cover, as a refresher course, and serves as a quick reference manual for questions concerning punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure and many other elements that make writing easy to read.
There are several other books available that concern themselves with grammar, composition, punctuation, etc., rather than the creation of "beautiful prose." Books that dwell on the clear, concise and understandable use of language make the best desk references. It is these qualities in your writing that will sell nonfiction far more often than the fancy turn of a timeless phrase.
One problem to beware of concerns older books that may have become outdated. If stylebooks are not regularly rewritten to reflect changes in popular writing, you may find yourself adhering to rules that have become obsolete. Take the ever-changing rules for the use of commas for example. Commas are seemingly the most volatile of punctuation marks, and their use has diminished considerably over the past few decades. We often find the lack of commas in today's prose irritating and believe, in many cases, it can make reading more difficult. However, a writer is obliged to keep up with the times as best he or she can and this means (for the moment) to cut down on the use of commas. If you are using reference publications that are behind the times, your prose will reflect that. Be sure to look on the copyright page of reference books you intend to use and make sure they were published or revised no more than five years ago.
Rewriting, like research, can be overdone. If you read your article through and like it, do not rewrite just because you are told it is part of the process. R. LeBeaux again:
"In my early years, I learned a lesson about revising manuscripts, and that lesson dictates one of my self-imposed rules to this day. The situation involved my first feature article for a trade magazine. I had done extensive research, two interviews, and outlined the article, as it was quite technical and not a little beyond my personal expertise. Because of my anxiety and the fact that the subject matter was complex and had to be slanted toward a knowledgeable audience, I found myself compulsively rewriting.
"Finally, realizing that sooner or later I had to get the project finished, I decided to take one last look at my first draft to see how much it had improved. I was amazed to find that I had gone in a circle with my rewriting and had rewritten many phrases and ideas right back to what I had originally put down.
"My rule that evolved from this experience was that I never rewrite a manuscript for form more than three times. The exception to this rule occurs when I find inaccuracies in the article after rechecking with those I have interviewed, or when an editor requests a rewrite."
It may be that your rewriting procedure will differ from R. LeBeaux's. How extensively you revise your original drafts is a matter of personal choice. We urge you, however, to impose some limit on yourself, to avoid wasting valuable time rewriting what is already clear and technically correct.
When first starting out, it is helpful to have a friend (preferably someone who is a reader of the magazine for which you are writing) read your second draft, and ask whether any questions come to mind. If they do not understand some facet of what you are trying to get across, your target audience will likely have the same problem. You may find yourself verbally explaining what was not understood by your friend. If so, those parts need to be rewritten, and listening to your own explanations helps you plan your rewrite. Another helpful practice is to read your manuscript aloud. It may sound a little silly, but you would be surprised how many errors in language you can hear more easily than you can see.
Always try to avoid adding to a manuscript when revising. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but the rule of thumb should be to cut rather than add. If you have left out some vital information, certainly it should be inserted, but if everything you intended to say is there, adding words to achieve clarity almost always creates the opposite.
Having served on both sides of the editorial desk, and having worked as a typesetters and page designers, we know the techniques of cutting words in order to fit space available. This process, which usually occurs after the editor you have worked with has finished with the piece, has almost nothing to do with how well written your original manuscript was. These cuts and consolidations are done specifically to make the article fit the space allotted for it. Even so, looking at the published version and comparing it to your submitted manuscript is a good way to learn what types of things can be cut. As with anything else, experience is the key here.
Before you are published, one way to get an idea of how editors may alter your work is to write letters to newspapers for publication. Comparing your original letters with the published versions will give you a feel for what words editors are likely to cut.
With larger magazines, the editing process has two or three phases. First, the primary editor of the column or feature will edit for content, clarity, and accuracy. Next, a copy editor will take out unnecessary words, correct spelling, punctuation and usage, and generally tighten the article before it goes to the typesetter. Finally, the editor actually designing the page may remove, or request the removal of, unnecessary words or short phrases to facilitate the page-design process.
Put your ego aside when observing the changes made in your work during the editing process. Most editors know their jobs, and when you examine objectively what they do, you will note that the end result is usually shorter and easier to read. Make mental notes of those words and phrases that are continually deleted or changed and try to do the same thing yourself in your own future rewrites. There is no disgrace in having an article edited. It happens all the time to some of the world's most renowned writers. However, if your work continually requires extensive editing to correct inaccuracies, or to change the tone and slant, it can adversely affect your standing with a particular publication.
As mentioned earlier, the best way to determine the necessary tone and slant to give an article is to read the magazine for which you are writing. If you write in the same general tone (humorous, technical, informal, etc.) you will save the editor valuable time in having to "re-voice" your submissions.
Many magazines have pay scales tied to how much editing, fact checking, and revising for accuracy they must do in order to make freelance submissions publishable. To minimize this need you should mention your sources for facts and include copies of other published materials used in the article's preparation.
Accuracy is of utmost importance. Even the "experts" you interview can get a date or the spelling of a name wrong. If, for instance, a researcher mentions that Marie Curie died of cancer on a certain date, and you want to use this "fact," it is a simple thing to verify it at the library or online.
At first, all of your work will probably be heavily scrutinized and checked for accuracy. Editorial trust is something that comes only with time. Eventually, if you are always accurate, the editors will cut down on time spent in verification, and your value to the publication will increase.
Remember, in this age of increasing criticism of the press, the need for accuracy has become more important. With the number of libel suits against the media increasing, and the ever-vigilant readers who write embarrassing letters concerning misstated facts, editors are understandably nervous. Whatever you can do to alleviate an editor's anxiety before the article goes to the fact checkers will stand you in good stead in merchandising your work.
TO EDITORIAL ORDER
Occasionally, you may disagree with how the editor wants an article reworked, and it is perfectly legitimate to voice these objections, but we strongly advise against it. R. LeBeaux:
"I have had many requests to rewrite articles, and found only one case where I could not bring myself to follow editorial direction. This had to do with a controversial story on the environment, requested by a rather conservative publication. Not only did they want me to 'soften the liberal tone' of the article, but the instructions they sent meant essentially starting over.
"'Softening the liberal tone,' meant simply disregarding the facts, which is ethically wrong. Since the article was requested on speculation, and I had already put in a lot of work without any guarantee of even a kill fee, I wrote back, voicing my concern over the requested changes, and asking that the assignment be made contractual. They refused, and I marketed it elsewhere."
When rewriting to editorial order, whether to shorten an article or to come at the subject from a different angle, always try to follow the editor's instructions as precisely as possible and be prompt. If you have trouble understanding what is requested (rewrite requests often take the form of scribbled notes, or hastily written, brief messages.), a quick call to the editor should clear up any confusion. Rewriting before you are sure what the editor wants usually results in requests for further revisions, which waste time for the editor and delay payment for you.
Never take rewrite requests as personal criticism of your work. When first starting out you will be writing most of your articles on speculation. In these cases, editors usually do not provide you with much guidance, such as word counts or particular facets of a story they would like to see handled in certain ways. They may even be looking at your article as if it were a long query letter; that is, as an example of your writing ability. In these situations, a rewrite request simply means that they have decided you can do the job, but want a little more information on how you plan to put the article together.
TO WORD COUNTS
When first starting out, it is best to go ahead and write the article without worrying about how many words you use. Then, put on your editorial hat and start cutting. Initially, this can be a rather painful experience, but it must be done. Ask yourself what parts of the article can be excluded without harming the impact; look for and expunge phrases that embellish without adding essential content.
One of the best books we have ever read on the subject of concise writing is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. It is a crisp, detailed treatise, explaining exactly how to accomplish what the title suggests in a style that stands as a perfect example of what the author proposes.
Once you have a few articles under your belt and the experience of editing your own work for length, you will automatically begin to consider word length while you are writing. Eventually, the cutting process becomes less painful and more of a challenge, as you write original copy closer to the final desired length.
Remember, requested word counts are not arbitrary. The individual editor must adhere to the amount of editorial-vs.-advertising space available. Sticking to requested word counts will increase editorial respect for your work. It takes editors less time to edit your submission and the article can go to press quicker. If you do the bulk of their cutting for them, you save them valuable time, and time is a commodity of the highest value in this often underpaid and overworked profession.
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