A couple of weeks ago I published the Introduction to my workshop “Teaching Writing by Teaching Rewriting.” Here are some highlights from “Rewriting Exposition” (essentially, “non-story”).
If somebody is trying to write an article . . . or a newsletter . . . or a research paper . . . or a nonfiction book . . . . being aware of a few potential pitfalls can help.
First, in the organization. If you don’t start with an outline but instead write your piece as if you were writing an email (“here’s something I thought of, and oh I don’t want to forget this”), then you’ll need some help with rewriting. I actually really enjoy, in my editing work, helping people get their papers organized.
Second, in the tone. Writers can sometimes sound pompous and condescending or too flippant. There can even be an angry or downbeat or bitter tone to a work that can obstruct the writer’s message.
Third, in the use of passives and nominalizations. (Passive: “Permission was granted to us” instead of “She let us.” Nominalization: “She met the requirements of qualification” instead of “She qualified.”) For some reason, people who write exposition often think that they need to use lots of big words and write in a way that’s somewhat obscure. But just because our government does this all the time doesn’t mean the rest of us should do it—we actually want to be understood. (I think some people in the government are afraid of being understood, but that’s a matter for a different time.)
And last—and this is the hardest one—getting creatively specific. It’s all too easy to write exposition in generalities. After all, that’s what I’m doing right now.
But I gave a specific about getting specific, borrowed from Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (mentioned in my previous writing post).
Original statement, to rewrite: “People who live in big cities are generally threatened by street crime.”
Nothing wrong with that statement. It doesn’t violate any rules. But the replacement he has rewritten in the back is even better:
“A New Yorker can’t walk down Park Avenue without getting hit over the head.”
And suddenly, you see it.
Writing is all about drawing the reader in to your own thinking, to help him see what you see through his own eyes. Writing with creative specifics helps accomplish that goal. (After all, fiction isn’t the only “creative writing.”)
I gave my students—who were all teachers—a rewriting assignment. It was a (real) newsletter, poorly organized, full of passives and nominalizations, with a very negative and pompous tone. It needed to be cut in half and lightened up and given a positive tone, with a few creative and specific touches. Some of the teachers did an excellent job—maybe almost as good as the rewrite that my ninth-grade student did years ago.
This original newsletter came from the president of a Christian women’s group that eventually folded. As the teachers read the newsletter, someone said, “I can see why.”
If someone had helped with a rewrite?
It could have changed their history.