Rewriting: The Prescription for Ailing Manuscripts

I once spent four years researching and an additional year writing a doctoral dissertation on the writings of Jack London. After all that time, I got to the point where I couldn’t stand the sight of the word London. I would open my morning newspaper and see: “The London gold market opened today at….” I’d rip it out of my paper. Aggghhh!

This is why I can identify so strongly with my writing students who tell me, “I’m going to go nuts if I have to revise my novel one more time.” It can be extremely tedious and laborious to read the same sentences and paragraphs over and over, trying to find a better way to express their meaning. But then, that’s what professional writing really is: rewriting.

Let me offer you six tips on how to make revising your manuscript more effective and less monotonous.

  1. Try to let your pages rest a while before you take the red pencil to them. If you return to your manuscript after being away from it for two days, you will look at it with fresh eyes. You may find a sentence such as, “The yacht is fast.” When you wrote it, you knew what you meant. Now, two days later, you aren’t sure whether you meant the yacht is tied to the dock (made fast) or that the yacht goes quickly over the water (travels fast). This indicates the need for revision work.
  2. Check for consistency. If you are writing a novel, prepare a dossier on each of your characters in advance. When your book is completed, check each character’s appearance in the story against the dossier. Correct any oversights. Make sure the villain’s tattoo is always on his left arm, or that the maid always speaks with a German accent, or that the war veteran always limps on the right foot. Trust me—if you make even the slightest error, your readers will catch it.
  3. Scrutinize your pages from the reader’s viewpoint. Ask yourself, are these comedy scenes really funny, or funny just to me? Is my explanation of how this machine works easy to understand, or is it easy for only a mechanic to understand? Is my story paced well, or is it the kind of writing I would skip over if I were an average reader? Whenever you become bored or bogged down by your story, start cutting, revising and simplifying.
  4. Read your manuscript aloud. Test it for rhythm, pace, flow, speed, and sound. If the sentences are too long, reduce them. If there are too many th or s sounds close together, insert alternate words. If the words are too big, replace them with smaller ones.
  5. Check your transitions. Paragraphs should flow from one to the next in obvious harmony. The end of one chapter should prepare the reader for the beginning of the next chapter. Even individual pages should blend together to form a perfect sequence of sentences.
  6. Examine the details. Are the settings vivid? If not, add color, sound, weight, smells, and temperature. Is the dialogue condensed? If not, remove needless adjectives and adverbs. Is the time well established for the reader? If not, talk about seasons, dates, hours, eras, and holidays.

Revision is never fun, but it’s usually profitable. On May 22, 1940, editor Maxwell Perkins wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald about a play by Hemingway: “Ernest’s ‘Fifth Column’ was a notable success in its revised form.”

I like that. Just knowing that Nobel Prize-winning writers also have to revise their first drafts somehow encourages me.

But then, Hemingway knew the secret, too. All good writing is rewriting.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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3 Ways to Keep the Muse Humming

Part 3 in the series, “Beating the Self-Inflicted Isolation Blues”

To maintain contact with others—without disrupting your writing schedule, try these three ideas:

  1. Working Out – My wife convinced me joining a health club would benefit me physically and socially. I made it a habit to drive to a health club for exercise, mild weight-lifting, then a refreshing shower. I’d usually do this mid-afternoon to break up the monotony of a full day of writing. Sometimes on a treadmill I’d talk to the people next to me. Other times I’d get on a stair-stepper and listen to an audio book.
  2. Library Visits – I limited myself to two library visits each week—each time only for research. But I’d also ask the librarians what topics were hot that week. Sometimes I’d wander into the children’s department to chat with students and teachers. I’d go to the video section and ask people what good or bad movies they’d seen and what they’d recommend and why. Not only were these talks fun, but they also gave me insight into what people were interested in. As a writer, I needed that.
  3. Writers Groups – I joined two professional associations that held annual conventions where I could network with editors, agents, publishers, journalists, screenwriters, and novelists. I also joined a local writers club. It met only once a month, but the focus was usually interesting: a lawyer discussing copyright-law changes, a newspaper reporter explaining how syndication works, or a librarian suggesting shortcuts to historical research.

Although writing is best accomplished in solitude, writers are often social. If we weren’t curious about people and events, we’d never have become writers. The trick is to strike a balance between socializing and work.

With today’s technological opportunities, you may feel less isolated. Still, nothing beats face-to-face meetings. A handshake, a smile, a look of surprise, an impromptu question . . . some things can be experienced only in person.

As a writer who’s discovered the value of coming out of hiding, I hope that never changes.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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Contacts with Cash

Part 2 in the series, “Beating the Self-Inflicted Isolation Blues”

To maintain contact with the outside world while adding a little income to your coffers, try these ideas:

  • Teaching Courses – I discovered that the YMCA, the local library, and several area colleges were interested in my conducting weekly writing classes. This got me out of the house every Thursday night for three hours and put some pay in my pocket. More importantly, it gave me a chance to sharpen my editing skills by critiquing the work of novices. And I benefited from their feedback on my projects (which I frequently read to the class).
  • Co-Authorship – I approached Holly G. Miller, another full-time writer, with the idea of collaborating. Though we lived 100 miles apart, we talked to each other by sending cassette tapes when we exchanged manuscript pages. We coauthored four novels and three nonfiction books. We met face to face only a couple of times each year and talked by phone about every three months. Still, that outside contact supported my writing career.

Today, e-mail, instant messaging, and Skype make it even easier—if you can discipline yourself so they don’t cut into your writing time.

Next week: “3 Ways to Keep the Muse Humming”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Having a Life Outside Your Office

Part 1 in the series, “Beating the Self-Inflicted Isolation Blues”

Riding the success of two bestselling books, I quit my nine-to-five job and stepped into life as a full-time freelance writer.

I set up a nice office at home. I slept late, worked in my pajamas if I wanted, drank a lot of coffee, and enjoyed living at the keyboard. Sometimes I’d get rolling and write all afternoon and night. I was my own boss. This was freedom. I was a lone wolf. I loved it . . . for about two months.

Then I got lonely. My wife and two children were the only people I saw daily, and they were usually gone. There were no chats at the water cooler, no gossip exchanges at the mailroom . . . not even kibitzing with a secretary. This was two decades ago — before the Internet and e-mail. I had cut myself off from society!

This hurt my writing. I wasn’t getting news of what people were interested in. I had no one to bounce my ideas off. No one was available for brainstorming. I hadn’t heard a new joke in eight weeks. I needed to get out, but I didn’t dare jeopardize my pattern of producing a set number of words each day.

By experiment and adaptation, I discovered several ways to maintain out-of-office contact without disrupting my writing schedule.

Next week: “Contacts with Cash”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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Prepare for Famine Years

Conclusion of the series, “The Power of Negative Thinking

I sit on the board of directors of two large writers’ conferences, one for the Christian market, one for the general market. I have made very positive changes in our class offerings, our selection of faculty, even our venue for holding the conferences by constantly bringing up negative scenarios.

For example, a few years ago I said, “What if younger writers don’t like keynote addresses and workshops done by lecturing?” As a result, one conference initiated interactive learning with students sitting at keyboards, instructors using smart boards (interactive white boards), and all work being done paperless. The enrollment at that conference for the age group of thirty and younger has tripled during the past couple of years.

Again let me stress that I am not a defeatist, only a pragmatist. Life hasn’t always worked out well for me. I was injured in Vietnam. My daughter was born with a complete heart block. A spring flood inundated the entire lower floor of one of my rental properties. Some of my books have gotten lousy reviews.

Hey, life is tough, and you can’t always see what is coming at you from your blindside. As such, like Joseph in Egypt, you lay up seven years of grain in anticipation of seven years of famine. It’s good to have a plan B and also a plan C. Anticipate what could go wrong and try to prevent it. If it goes wrong anyway, learn from that and be better next time.

I’m positive this will work for you.

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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Turn Mistakes into Course Correction

Part 3 in the series, “The Power of Negative Thinking

In spite of excellent preplanning, things can still go amiss. If so, benefit from that. For example, after a poor interview with an acquisitions editor, make some notes (literally, on paper or using a mobile device). Remind yourself, Have business cards next time. Leave early for the appointment in case of a traffic jam on the way. Bring some information on people who can endorse my book. Don’t forget to have something printed out about my personal platform and my publicity ideas for helping to sell my book, once published.

This is called course correction. Sure, you may have crashed on the rocks in this first interview by not being adequately prepared, but next time you’ll steer clear of hazardous waters. Forewarned is forearmed. Don’t make the same mistakes twice.

If the world of publishing has learned anything during the past decade, it is this lesson: Those who avoid facing the potential negative aspects of situations are doomed to failure. Publishers at the beginning of the twenty-first century should have been asking such negative questions as, “What if these e-books aren’t just a passing fad? What if online publishing actually starts to grow more rapidly than traditional publishing? What if self-publishing becomes inexpensive and competitive?”

Burying a head in the sand is no way to change the inevitable. Better to anticipate problems and changes so you can embrace solutions and answers.

Next week, “Prepare for Famine Years”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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4 Ways Negative Scenarios Can Lead to Success

Part 2 in the series, “The Power of Negative Thinking

Last week we used the power of negative thinking to make a better impression on  acquisitions editors. Now let’s run a different scenario. Let’s say that you want to leave your salaried job and turn to freelance writing as a full-time occupation. Make a detailed list of everything that could possibly go wrong.

1. I might not be able to pay my monthly bills. Line up some steady writing jobs in advance, such as writing a church or company newsletter, doing weekend columns for your local newspaper, or teaching a writing class at a community college.

2. What if I get sick or injured and cannot write for a few weeks? Make sure all of your insurance plans are in place before resigning your job.

3. What if my published book is a flop? Don’t enter full-time writing based on the publication of one book. Have a body of work earning royalties for you before you pull the plug on your regular income.

4. What if my family doesn’t respect my need for privacy? Set up a home office, declare your workday schedule, explain to the family that this is how you’ll make it possible for them to eat, and then enforce your work regimen.

The solutions you come up with can make the difference between starvation and success—all thanks to the power of negative thinking.

Next week, “Turn Mistakes into Course Correction”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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How Negative Questions Can Ensure a Positive First Impression

Part 1 in the series, “The Power of Negative Thinking

Those of you who have followed my career for the past twenty-five years may be surprised that I’m writing about the value of negative thinking. Yes, yes, I know, I’m the guy who wrote the 1982 best-seller Positive Workaholism, and my book The Power of Positive Productivity has been translated globally into five foreign languages—including Romanian—since 2005.

What I want to talk about, however, is not a glum, hopeless, defeatist negativity. Instead, it is a cautionary, pragmatic, logical form of negativity. In short, it is a system of analysis that can help a writer be prepared for any negative situation that could possibly arise, and, thus, take proactive steps to avoid potential disaster.

Let’s use a real-life situation. Imagine you are going to a writers conference and you are scheduled to meet for fifteen minutes with an acquisitions editor. You intend to introduce yourself, talk about your book, and, with luck, leave your book proposal with that editor. Okay, prior to the conference start asking yourself, “What might possibly go awry in this meeting to ruin my chances of making a good first impression?”

Be harsh. Be real. Be honest. Make a list.

1. My appearance might be negative in some way. Remember to press your clothes, get a haircut, clean your nails, use a breath mint, and tone down the cologne.

2. My book proposal may not be complete. Double-check to make sure you have a cover letter, cover page, synopsis, table of contents, author biography, outline, and three sample chapters. Bring a spare proposal in case the first editor you talk to asks to keep your only copy. Bring a flash drive containing the entire book proposal in case you need to print even more copies.

3. The editor may ask me questions I don’t know how to answer. Find someone in your writers’ club or critique group who has done this before, and have that person provide possible questions you’ll need answers for. Ask that person to sit and do a mock run-through with you so you can rehearse your pitch.

See? The power of negative thinking has enabled you to make positive changes.

Next week, “4 Ways Negative Scenarios Can Lead to Success”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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3 of My Favorite Leads

Conclusion of the series, “Entice Readers with Clever Leads

One of my early mentors used to say, “The trick to writing great articles is to focus on an interesting story that fascinates readers while also teaching them something they didn’t know.” With that in mind, I’ve always tried to locate the most captivating or inspirational or unique aspect of the material I’ve gathered about a topic and to use that key fact as my lead, presenting it in such a way that makes readers desire to absorb more about the subject. If, in drawing in the readers with my lead I also can tickle, amaze, or surprise the readers, then all the better.

But it all begins with that initial enticement. A good lead works like lifting the top of a treasure chest and allowing readers to peek inside. If there is a promise of gold, the reader will plunge forth. It is then, Matey, that the story must deliver the goods—an article that is properly researched, well organized, and informative. A clever lead will only anger readers if it is followed by a lame article. I use certain leads frequently because they are reliable. Here are three of my favorites:

  1. Perplexing circumstances. This lead introduces a nonthreatening character whom readers can identify with, but who has been confronted with an unexpected, potentially tragic situation. Her classic home is threatened to be destroyed to make room for a new expressway. His small herd of livestock will be put down unless a cure for the animals’ disease can be found. Their fundraiser will be cancelled unless they can convince the mayor to grant a parade license. The article must reveal how the persons being written about met the challenges and solved the problems. This serves as takeaway value for readers, who learn lessons vicariously.
  2. Juxtaposition of norms. This lead requires you to show the main person of your article behaving radically abnormal for his or her position in life, and then explaining why and how this came about. I opened a story showing a school principal being spanked in his office by students. Turns out, it was for a promotional video about violence in schools. I opened another article by telling of a woman, who was terrified of heights, leaping off a bridge for a bungee jump. It turned out the bridge was only a projection on a screen, and the woman was only simulating the jump as a way of helping her confront her fear of heights while being in no actual danger.
  3. Comparison. Most folks don’t like to be confronted by a lot of math or statistics, but for some reason they are fascinated by comparisons. I wrote an article once about a new Disney cruise ship, and the lead noted, “Being three times larger than the infamous Titanic, this cruise ship is not only a floating hotel but also the city that surrounds it.”

In striving to create a good lead, look over your notes. Underline the best quotations, the most fascinating statistics, the oddest or most surprising facts about the matter, or any perplexing new point of view being offered. Then step back and examine what you’ve brought to your attention. Odds are, the lead will be in there somewhere. Snag it!

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Drawing In Your Readers

Part 1 in the series, “Entice Readers with Clever Leads

A recent cartoon in a national magazine showed a freelance writer on the phone with his editor. The writer, surrounded by crumpled papers, disheveled books, and a cup of spilled coffee, is shouting into the mouthpiece, “But it really was a dark and stormy night.”

And there you have it. You may be telling the truth, but if the lead to your article is bland, your editor will reject it—and probably the rest of the article with it.

In the late 1970s, when I was cutting my journalistic teeth as a young reporter for the Muncie Star, I was expected to investigate the news, get back to the office, and pound out the information in time for an early morning press run. That meant an article’s lead didn’t have to be flowery, just accurate and succinct. My editor expected the who, what, when, and where information, but he cared very little about the why or how. I’d pound out the information on an electric typewriter in time for an early morning press run.

Today, with online reporting, news-streaming, and media convergence, readers still want to be drawn immediately into a work of nonfiction, but they also expect more in regard to the relational aspects of news. How will what is being reported impact their lives? Could such events or situations transpire in their sphere of day-to-day activities? What seems to be the national mood regarding this occurrence? Thus, a modern lead must also set the tone for the story and establish the voice in which it will be shared. This is especially true for people who read blogs, where elements of personal opinion or individual perspectives are frequently injected as part of the reporting or analyzing of events. Unlike previous generations, today’s readers are actually curious as to why the reporter decided to cover such an event and what his or her “take” on it is.

Next week: “3 of My Favorite Leads”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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