The most important part of writing is rewriting.
–Every published author, writing teacher, and book on writing in the history of the field. (paraphrased)
It’s hard to make yourself sit down and write. Once you break through that barrier, you come face to face with the much worse truth that you’ve just done the easy part.
The fact is that even you can write pretty good first drafts, your writing is a weak copy of what it is supposed to be until it’s been thoroughly edited and rewritten.
But damn is rewriting hard. One of the hardest parts about it happens at the level of the individual sentence. When you go back and read your own writing, it’s easy to get trapped into thinking that your sentences are “just fine.” The might not be great, but it feels difficult to come up with a way to change them. They do the job. They’re not beautiful, but they’re structural. They hold the whole thing up, and you are worried that if you fiddle too much everything will come crashing down.
This exercise is here to help. This is a deliberate practice exercise, which means that it is intensive, tedious, and a lot of work. But if you do it enough times, it could transform how you look at your own sentences.
Here it is:
Take a sentence you have written. Now rewrite the sentence 50 times.
That’s it. Sounds simple, right? But not easy. Like I said, it’s tedious. Like practicing tiny variations on your golf swing over and over and over until you get it right.
To really get the benefits from this exercise, you have to do it a lot. Just like any other exercise. Say, three times a week for a month, just for starters. Just like starting a new workout routine, you won’t even know if you are getting benefits for a few weeks. But once they come they’ll be enormous.
I’ll post a link first try at this exercise at the end.
Here are a few rules about the exercise. They’re designed to give you some focus so you get the most out of the exercise. Don’t worry so much about whether you’re following the rules that you spend 20 minutes memorizing them and never get to the actual work! That’s a method of stalling. The rules are designed to be intuitive, so just read them through and get going.
Rule 1: To start, pick a sentence that’s long enough that you can play with it. The shorter the sentence the more challenging the exercise. It would be very difficult to write “See Dick Run” in 50 different ways. That’s like starting with a 200 lbs bench press. Work up to it!
Here’s my sample sentence:
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake, where they picked crabapples from the tree and skipped them across the water.
Rule 2: Copy and paste your sample sentence 50 times in a document, and then work from there. That way you have to edit the sentence directly, just like you would do while editing a manuscript. For some of your entries you’re going to want to delete the sentence and write it over again. That’s fine. But by making yourself delete the sentence it will feel more like editing and less like brainstorming.
Rule 3: Minor tweaks are fine. It’s not cheating to flip a few words around. That’s a huge part of the rewriting process, and one that beginnings often miss. Sometimes flipping the order of two words has a surprising impact on the meaning.
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake…
is a different sentence than
Every summer Lilly and John spent their days up by the lake…
Putting Lilly first places a different spin on the sentence and it’s meaning. It looks small, but rewriting isn’t about making a few powerful changes. It’s about making hundreds of tiny changes that add up to a much better manuscript.
Rule 4: You can add or subtract information, as long as it’s all accurate.
Every summer John and his sister Lilly spent their days up by the lake…
That’s fine because I know they are brother and sister. You’re allowed to include or remove that kind of information, but don’t change it. You can’t suddenly decide that Lilly is John’s mother. That’s not editing, that’s changing the story. It’s a valuable skill, but not the one we are practicing here. At the same time, your original sentence might be too wordy and contain unnecessary information.
John and Lilly spent their summer days up by the lake.
The crabapple detail might be unnecessary and distracting.
Rule 5: Don’t change tense. You wouldn’t change tense in the middle of a manuscript, so don’t do it here either.
Rule 6: It is fine to break the sentence into multiple sentences. Don’t feel artificially constrained to stick to one sentence just because that’s where you started.
Every summer John and Lilly spent their days up by the lake. They loved to pick crab apples from the tree and skip them across the water.
Rule 7: Every sentence needs to be usable. They need to be grammatical, but also stylistically viable. They don’t have to be beautiful, but the goal here is to improve your writing, not just finish the exercise. Any sentence that is so hideous that you’d scrap it the second you put a period on the other end doesn’t count.
Up by the lake it was crab apples that John, during summer days, picked and skipped across the water, along with Lilly who did it as well.
I feel dirty. That sentence is grammatical—or close enough for prose work—but it’s so ugly that I wouldn’t use it. So it doesn’t go in the 50. Whether a sentence feels “viable” is up to you. Don’t spend more than a second on it. If it doesn’t make you say “blech” when you read it, it’s probably fine. Even if it does you might want to just move on and perhaps add a few more after 50 just to be sure you’ve done the exercise.
Rule 8: Don’t go back to check your earlier entries as you write. That’ll just kill your momentum. It’s okay if you have a few repeats. Just keep writing.
That’s it! Give it a try, and let me know what you think.
Here is a link to my first go at this exercise. Read it if you want to see an example. Prepared to be insired…and also bored to tears. It’s 50 of the same sentence! What do you want from me?
It is a flavor that longs for a curious rebellion.
I read that sentence today about a vodka made from grapes. What a beautiful and nuanced sentence. The most intriguing poetry suggests thousands of tiny variations of meaning, all blending and splashing together, by virtue of being meaningless.
Some of the best sentences are the ones that make you pause and say, “Huh,” not because you immediately know what they mean, but because you don’t. They suggest meaning by their unusual construction. Or their ironic twist on conventional structure. Or merely by virtue of being both obtuse and beautiful. A beautiful sentence cannot be ignored and will therefore make you linger. The longer you linger on a supposed messenger of meaning like a sentence, the more you will search for that meaning.
Longs for a curious rebellion. It is intriguing because it feels like it makes sense for a split second, and then it ceases to allow full access to its meaning immediately afterwards. Not right away. Not without crawling deeper into the foxhole. A curious rebellion? Rebellion, as a word and a concept, can be and often is modified by many words. A violent rebellion, a just rebellion, a bloodless rebellion, a futile rebellion. Curious isn’t on the list of usual suspects.
Yet doesn’t take long to find the meaning. It is a vodka made from grapes. That is an unusual thing to do. Perhaps even a rebellious one. But it is not a rebellion in any traditional sense. Why rebel against grain vodka? This neutral distilled grape spirit would seem to have its reason, but we can only guess at what it is. It hides its motivations behind mystery and nuance.
Grapes cannot speak, save through their flavor. Clearly these grapes speak. They speak of longing. Of a desire to break from tradition for the pure aesthetic thrill of quiet, beautiful defiance. Like someone who attended a Mariner’s game dressed as Franz Kafka, and spent the whole game in a reserved and non-pushy attempt to read his latest work to the others near him in the stadium.
This sentence, short on length but long on depth, tells you nothing literal about the flavor. Yet in refusing to do so it tells you more than a sensory description ever could. Our language is tearfully inadequate at true, granular nuance. We speak in large clunky words that convey great gobs of meaning all at once. Speech is a jury rigged monstrosity that launches semantic water balloons and hopes their overlapping splash will coalesce into something that recognizably resembles the complex pictures we have in our heads. They rarely do.
Nowhere is this more true than in food descriptions. Listen to anyone try to describe what something tastes like to someone who hasn’t tasted it and you will know what I mean. Or read any food magazine. It’s like watching someone perform delicate surgery wearing welding gloves. People try to compare the unexplored flavors to others in combination, but it never works well. I had an inside joke with a friend about how Rachel Ray described every herb in her lexicon as tasting “woodsy and lemony.” She used this for both thyme and basil. Even if it was an apt description for both, thyme and basil taste nothing like each other. So the description is useless.
If you taste a dozen different vodkas you will have no difference telling that they all taste different. The differences are both subtle and obvious. But you won’t be able to describe them. Not in a meaningful way. The predominant taste in all of them is the same: they taste like vodka. The nuances can only be described subjectively, even though they aren’t really subjective. They might be subjective to the extent that a more delicate pallet will pick up volatile compounds others will miss. But that’s true of every single food ever. Fundamentally everyone has the same chemical experience. Nuances only matter in the culinary experiences where people pay attention to nuance. Like wind, or chocolate, or coffee. Or vodka.
The taste longs for a curious rebellion. It doesn’t tell you what it taste like. Nor, I suspect, does the fact that it was distilled from grapes. For all that the origin certainly informs the final product, vodka distilled from potatoes doesn’t taste like potatoes. It’s a neutral distilled spirit. It’s designed to remove the flavor of the original fermented ingredient. All that is left is alcohol, and water, and the trace volatiles that make one distinct from another.
The curious rebellion tells you nothing of the flavor, but it tells you something more important. What the flavor means. Why it matters. Wine connoisseurs have trouble telling the difference between a $10 bottle and a $40 dollar bottle when the labels are switched. It’s not because they are frauds. They can demonstrably and repeatably identify 10 or more wines when they know what their options are. Their palates are amazing. But their minds are more amazing. Of course they are. Most of palate is in the mind. They are changed by what they bring with them. Studies have shown that food with an elegant garnish tastes better than identical food without the garnish.
A curious rebellion is what the makers of the vodka were after. That was the dream, even if they never articulated it. They undoubtedly fermented distilled after batch, making tiny corrections, until they could taste the dream inside the liquor. Maybe it was then that the phrase arose. Sometimes we do not know what to call the path we are on until we reach the end.
Or maybe it was a poet who teased the words out of the vodka-mist air. Perhaps the distiller heard it and their eyes lit up and they said “yes! That’s it! That’s it exactly!” We can capture indescribable experiences with clunky and imprecise words. That’s why writing is infinite. That’s why poetry can put mountains into couplets and sunsets into lines.
The difference between two similar sentences may be tiny at first glance. They are both sentences. Nonetheless, one might be hideous, flat, and with a single perfunctory meaning. And the other might be a thing of beauty and depth that evokes tears and rage and contemplation. The difference might be slight, but the important ones often are.
Nuance is everything.