Writing and Rewriting

My Monday morning zoom partner and I indulge in wide-ranging discussions with no restrictions on our wanderings. We’ve discussed business architecture in Kolkata, the renaming of Indian cities, e.g. from Calcutta to Kolkata, Maya ruins, and the writing process, which fascinates her because she’s a techie and thinks differently, she tells me. More recently we’ve been exploring figures of speech after coming across a book of them by Mark Forsyth. In The Elements of Eloquence he examines over forty figures, with wit and erudition. 

In case he has failed to make his point, Forsyth ends with a final note. “Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.” Obviously not a fan of Hemingway’s work.

Even while reading through his work, I got his other message. Look carefully at what you write. We use these figures of speech all the time anyway, he points out, even if we don’t know what they’re called and how they developed and what some good examples of them are. So, recognize them, and polish the gems in your own work. 

Forysth’s book underscores that writing is rewriting, as Richard North Patterson said (or wrote), along with every other author who has ever given writing advice. Before I even begin a story or novel I craft a first line in my head. Until I understand how I’m going to open, to begin a journey, I can’t start writing. I know those who begin by writing scenes they expect to be in the narrative at some point, sometimes the final scene, but I’m one who has to begin at the beginning, and the beginning is the opening sentence. I draft it again and again in my head, and when I think I have something that will work, that places the main character where I want her to be, then I write it down. But even then it’s not done. This is just the first stab at the opening line on paper, and I rework the phrasing several times. Forsyth’s list of figures of speech draws out the faint opportunities I might not otherwise notice.

I don’t usually feel the need to recast every sentence, but sometimes a paragraph needs to be reworked again and again. My preference is to get a sense of the narrative and characters on paper, and then rework it. I don’t write fast, so I tend to rethink and redraft as I go along, editing until I consider a paragraph or scene finished enough to be allowed to stand. I know I’ll come back to it later, probably several times.

Working slowly also means that I’m more likely to make discoveries as I go along—a character whose back story turns out to be significant to the plot in an unexpected way; a twist in the timeline that I might not have noticed otherwise; and a digression I discover I can use later. But also I can spend time teasing out greater meaning by reworking sentences, building the idea by building the expression.

Forsyth’s book came along at just the right time, giving me another way to consider a passage and recraft lines in my WIP. Reexamining every expression, recasting every line, is all part of the writing process. The first draft is really just throwing the clay onto the wheel, loading film into the camera. Rewriting is the work.