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No Golden Words or Sacred Cows

November 19, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 20, 2015

Earlier this week I was thumbing through Writer’s Digest’s Handbook of Novel Writing and reread the chapter by Dorothy Bryant on rewriting. She made several good points, but what struck me (probably not for the first time) was this:

The trouble is that when you’re just beginning to write, you may believe that words committed to paper are sacred, fixed, immutable. But you’re not dealing with a finished, printed, copyrighted book, only with an idea, a pile of words that will change many times before they take shape as a book.

Dorothy Bryant isn’t the only one to have ever stated this, of course. But I like her take on the subject. She makes it clear that the words are simply words, nothing sacrosanct about them.

I’ve come across more than a few first-time authors—most often in writing groups—who want to hold on to their original text, as if it indeed is sacred or fixed.

But it isn’t. And a writer shouldn’t look at any line of text as if it’s been set in stone by a deity.

No matter how perfect one line may seem to be in a first or second draft, once you’ve gotten to the end of the initial writing phrase, it’s likely that you’ll need to rewrite that line. You’ll probably have to rewrite something in every single sentence.

And doesn’t that sound like work.

But that’s where the power of writing comes in—not in accidentally hitting on a perfect sentence while writing a first draft, but in deliberately crafting sentence after sentence in the rewrite stage. Crafting sentences that fit one another in terms of sound and rhythm and look, that fit grammatically, that fit in terms of meaning. Sentences that fit in ways that create a vivid fictional world and a path that draws readers ever deeper into that world.

Sentences that create what seem to be real people out of imagination.

No sentence should be held apart, as if it doesn’t need a second or third look, no matter how exquisite it sounded as it flowed from flying fingers.

There are no sacred-cow sentences spared from sacrifice if the good of the story calls for that sacrifice. Any sentence, even the one that pushed you and your lead character through the troubling middle chapters, can be changed—or cut—if the story calls for a change.


First Lines, Last Lines

Sometimes we spend days on our opening pages, often coming up with the perfect first line. Yet by the time the basic story is finished and we rewrite and rearrange and then edit, that first line may no longer be so perfect.

Just because one line gets you through the first draft, that doesn’t mean that the line will fit the story that you ultimately write.

The focus can shift once you get writing, so what once worked may no longer be quite right.

Maybe the change to a single word will be sufficient, but maybe the sentence isn’t subtle enough and needs an overhaul. Or maybe that opening line is now too subtle and needs to be bolder.

Maybe a line from page seven, with a bit of tweaking, is the actual best beginning line for the story.

Maybe the opening line, while having motivated you, isn’t the best opening line for the characters or the readers. Maybe it’s not quite right for the genre. Maybe it doesn’t start the story out on the right foot, leading where you once intended the story to go but not leading to the story that is shaping up under revisions and rewrites.

Or maybe it’s the final line that’s not right. Once you start making changes, what worked for a climactic ending line may now seem overdone. Or maybe that final line uses the wrong tone. Maybe it concludes what you originally wrote but not what the story has come to be.

Maybe that last line should be more universal, something to speak to all readers everywhere. Or maybe it should be more specific or exclusive and focus on only your protagonist.

The point is that any line can be changed. And most probably should be altered between first draft and final product.

Even the closing line of a rousing speech—one that made you cheer when you wrote it—or the heart-tugging zinger at the end of an emotional outburst can be changed and refined.


(A Short List of) Reasons Changes are Needed

~  Individual words or word order might need to be changed. Sentence length might not fit with surrounding sentences. Hedge words, your favorite go-to words, and words that don’t mean exactly what you need them to mean might all need to be changed.

~  You might need to make changes as a result of alterations in plot, but changes could just as easily be required for clarity.

~  Words or sentences might need to be changed due to the construction of and changes to surrounding sentences.

The effect of a line depends on the lines that precede it. If the lead-up doesn’t work well, what follows also might not work.

The effect of a line depends on the words that follow it. The earlier sentence might diffuse the punch of sentences that follow. Or might be unnecessary given the sentences that follow.

The effect of a line depends on the earlier introduction of the ideas that it contains. Depending on what was already said, a line of text might be repetitive or overkill. Or conversely, it might not cover enough information.

The effect of a line depends on the feel of that line among the surrounding sentences. You wouldn’t want all sentences of the same length or rhythm. You wouldn’t want sentences all to start with the same word or word type (participles, for example).

The effect of a line of text depends on the choice of words in comparison to surrounding words. You might need words to blend smoothly or to stand out. You might need a harsh word rather than a soft one or vice versa.

The effect of a line depends on whether the line was delivered via thought or dialogue or as action or description. You may discover that what was once a thought would be stronger delivered as dialogue.

The effect of a line depends on where it falls; the location of the line can change the impact. Consider the first words of the opening paragraph in a chapter, the words of the last line before a scene or chapter break, a sentence in the middle of a dense paragraph, and the first sentence of dialogue after a long action scene. Situation and location do make a difference, and a sentence in one location may need adjustment not because of what it says but solely because of where that sentence falls.

~  A character’s motivation, background, or skill set might have changed. And when a character changes, his thoughts, dialogue, actions, and outlook may all need adjusting.

~  The character who initiates or reacts to events might change.

When you give a reaction to a different character or play up one character at the expense of others when you rewrite, you may need to change every sentence that shows the motivation or personality of each of those characters. When characters change, everything related to them will need a reevaluation.

~  A scene might take place in a different setting and so description or even props might need to change.

If you change the setting, be sure to consider all facets of the setting including props and sounds and scents. One small change can create the need for cascading changes throughout a manuscript.

~  Conflict, tension, or the emotional element might have been under- or overplayed and need tweaking.

The need to jack up the conflict or emotional component is common when we rewrite. Yet you might not only need to change the emotion- or conflict-laden scene itself, but the scenes that precede and follow it. Always keep in mind those cascading changes.

~  Empty words might need cutting, especially words that add nothing to meaning.

Unless your writing style is especially lean and sparse, you’ll write sentences that need trimming simply because they contain useless words. Don’t hesitate to cut words that don’t contribute to meaning and that aren’t necessary for clarity or rhythm.

~  References to character names, especially in dialogue, might need to be reduced.

Many first novels contain an abundance of character names. Feel free to cut the overuse of names, especially in dialogue. Most of us don’t call one another by name again and again when we talk.

~  Digressions that you intended to go somewhere but that ultimately went nowhere need cutting or changing.

Be honest with yourself—if you find rabbit trails and unnecessary asides, tell yourself that they don’t belong and then ruthlessly cut them out, no matter how well written you find them. Readers are quick to identify information that doesn’t fit. And it proves to be a negative for them.

~  Sentences with too much telling in place of showing will need changing.

If your story is all tell and no show, you need to be cutting. If you both show and tell for the same scenes—and do so again and again—you need to be cutting.

~  Overdone description will need to be reworked. Absent description will need to be added in.

Some writers include way too much description while others forget it completely. You’ll want to be sure your manuscript has a balance. It’s okay to add or remove words, sentences, or even paragraphs of description.

~  Dialogue that doesn’t fit who a character is at the moment those words are spoken will need adjusting.

Often we don’t get the character details perfectly set in a first or second draft. Don’t be shy about changing dialogue to better fit a character’s personality.

~  Pace will likely need attention, and adding or removing words can affect pace.

There are dozens of reasons to change a line of text as you move from early draft to the final one—the experienced writer knows that text can be changed for any reason and that some lines of text may go through multiple changes.

If you’re a new novelist, don’t doubt that rewriting is necessary. You aren’t less of a writer because you have to make hundreds or thousands of changes in your manuscript. Every manuscript requires rewriting. Every scene needs changes to sharpen the focus and to tighten unwieldy text. Every character and plot thread needs refining.

Writers are often drawn to fiction because they’ve enjoyed or done well with their writing in school. But students don’t often rewrite and rework essays and other projects. Poems and short stories? Yes, there’s likely rewriting involved in those instances—at the insistence of an instructor. But how many students have time to rewrite a twenty-page essay begun two days before it’s due? How many students rewrite a project when the class isn’t English or literature, when the project’s topic has nothing to do with writing and writing is instead just a vehicle for the information and conclusions?

I’m guessing that not many rewrite for most school projects, whether for high school or college. And therefore rewriting isn’t a priority. Rewriting isn’t stressed or even taught. And because of this, when a professor or critique partner or other “critic” suggests changes, sometimes the writer takes offense. Hasn’t the first draft always been good enough? I’m a better writer than the others in my biology, history, philosophy class—I always get asked to do the writing of group reports—so who are you to say I need to rewrite?

Not all writers are defensive or react in such ways. But for the beginning writer, this response can be common. A reminder that every writer—even those who plot endlessly before they write—must rewrite, can be helpful. The truth of that can certainly be comforting.

Tack a notice above your desk if you need to: No writer puts out a perfect first draft. And most sentences will need changing.


General Reasons for Changing Text

Once you recognize that your text will need revision, what should you be concerned with? Why would words or sentences need to be changed?

~  Phrases are common or contain clichés.

We often write quickly when we’re trying to get down an action or dialogue sequence, paying little attention to individual words or phrases. But when we rewrite, we catch all kinds of banal phrases that could be found in any book, phrases that don’t fit our characters or the genre or the setting. There’s nothing golden about sentences that mean nothing special to a specific story and its characters.

Sometimes you need a workhorse sentence or two, phrasings that could be found in other books. But your story becomes familiar—in a negative way—when most of your text sounds like every other book in the genre.

Turn the common into the unique when you can and when doing so doesn’t make the phrasing sound fake or faux literary. Rewrite using story- and character-specific words and phrases.

Clichés should almost always be changed. Sometimes a character might use clichés on purpose, but most characters wouldn’t. Most shouldn’t. Make your characters and books unique by putting together new combinations of words.

~  They’re placeholders.

As we write, we often include placeholder words and phrases that we know don’t quite fit. Rewriting is a time to search for those and replace them with meaningful wording, wording that zeroes in on exactly what needs to be hinted at or revealed.

~  The story has changed.

Story changes create the need for changes at the sentence and word levels—what fit an earlier version or original story thread may not fit changes to the plot or characters.

~  The text is repetitive.

Repetition comes in many forms—in words, actions, back story, and even events. Unintended repetition needs to be eliminated. (Or played up if that would produce a stronger impact.)

~  Word choices aren’t specific enough.

It’s rare that a first or second draft will contain enough specifics in terms of word choice. How can they when you might not know characters well enough to always accurately describe how they move or the words they’d use to describe what they see or hear?

Be prepared to change verbs and nouns in order to hit on the best ones not only for the sentence and scene, but to set up events in later scenes.

~  Conflict and emotions haven’t been pushed enough.

While you might create a few scenes with strong emotions or conflict, writers often don’t push enough in an early draft to truly create a potent or memorable moment of conflict or emotion.

Prepare yourself to push hard and deep in a rewrite. Go beyond what you think the scene or characters or readers can bear. And then step away from the change and let it cool off. When you return to the scene, see if you really went too far. If you didn’t, it’s likely that the push you give the emotions or the conflict ratcheted the story up to new levels.

Until all the scenes are in place, it’s difficult to gauge which scenes need a stronger emotional charge. Therefore step into your rewrites determined to demand more of those emotional scenes and emotion-producing phrases.


Knowing that the first words don’t have to be permanent should be freeing for writers—I’m pretty sure that it’s freeing to any writer who’s taken a story apart and put it back together only to discover an infinitely more entertaining and clear story has been created.

Remind yourself that your phrases and sentences, especially those in an early draft, are not golden, and that even the most beautifully crafted sentences are not sacred or untouchable.



Tags:     Posted in: Beginning Writers

20 Responses to “No Golden Words or Sacred Cows”

  1. Frank Green says:

    This is a great installment for your blog. You give your best. I hesitate to point this out but . . . “As we write, we often including [sic] placeholders. . . .”
    It is difficult to make some people understand what Bryant and you so well express. As my mom used to say “Some people you just can’t help.” (I always chuckle at the double entendre.) I refer the hard cases to you but I never hear anything of it from them. They probably don’t take my advice or have the courtesy to let me know if they do.
    One of the greatest pleasures is to be able to look at one’s work and see how easy it is to make it better. It takes a long time–or at least it did for me–to get to that point.
    The process of rewriting is far different from revision (seeing again in a way that makes what your subconscious offered something you did not originally see, for instance) and self-editing or proofreading (the latter must be done by someone other than the author). I find it takes several to many passes and that it’s best for me to concentrate on one thing at a time.
    Usually, my first pass is looking for words that can be struck. I proceed from that to looking for tropes that were not apt or ones I missed; the use of the senses–one at a time; and to make sure that the universe as perceived by our collective psyche as made up of earth, air, fire, and water (the possible combinations of the sense of touch by way of hot and cold and wet and dry) is rendered real–all in an effort to give the reader a felt knowledge rather than intellectual exposition.
    Nothing beats reading one’s work aloud while pacing the floor to discover everything from infelicities to typos or “outs”.
    As for first lines, sometimes it’s in the fourth or fifth paragraph or as far away as on page 40 or more.
    Every writer should have sections in a three-ring binder where one section is great opening lines–by others or the writer; another section with great sentences in their own right; another with great earned lines; another with great last lines. (Books with such collections can be found but each writer should collect his own.)
    Word order is usually nonsensical when it comes to the placement of “only” in today’s writing. We tend to think our words say one thing when in fact they say something entirely different. “Only” is only one example of that penchant.
    When I was a zombie (read “professor”) teaching frosh comp I told the students they could rewrite every paper until they earned the grade they wanted, and that I would not average the versions but give them the highest grade. Very few took advantage of the offer but those who did became fine writers in their own way.
    The only time our words become permanent is in print. Some people, sadly, are content to go into possible posterity with an image of less than class, competence, and conscientiousness.

    • Frank, thanks for the heads-up. I certainly don’t mind having typos pointed out. (I usually don’t see them until a day or so after I post.)

      Your reply has some great tips. I find this to be true—One of the greatest pleasures is to be able to look at one’s work and see how easy it is to make it better. It’s eye opening (and a relief, I think) to see the many ways that a story can be improved. I believe that working with an editor is a great way for writers to discover those multiple ways to change a story. Even a sample edit of a few pages is enough to show how a story can be improved. A sample can’t cover every issue, of course, but just seeing a few options is often enough to have a writer thinking and rethinking.

      Working through text as an exercise is another great way to see exactly how changes can affect story and text.

      Allowing a story to cool down is a good technique for preparing to make changes. Distance allows writers to see what’s on the page and not what they imagine is there.

      So many techniques, but well worth taking on. And as you said, there’s no way to cover every issue in a single pass. Arranging the categories of changes into groups allows the writer to cover every issue and make progress without overwhelming him or her.

      Thanks for sending folks this way. I hope they find something they can use when they visit.

      And as always, thank you for adding so knowledgeably to the discussion.

      • Frank Green says:

        You are wonderful. We love what you do.
        Your comment about a sample edit is perfect, of course. Shamefully, one out of hundred people appreciate such and think their words are golden. So many people say something like “You’ve changed things to make it your novel” when in truth we just try to show the way so they can make it their own and look their best. I think the Max Perkins-Thomas Wolfe contentious relationship is an eye opener. (MAX PERKINS: EDITOR OF GENIUS by A. Scott Berg remains a contemporary classic.)
        So many people just want to have written something rather than BE a writer.

        • I’ve actually found that most writers who see the effects of possible changes understand almost right away what that means—that editing and rewriting can make a story. For editors, it helps to offer multiple options and to remember that a writer gets to decide which changes to make. I make it clear to writers that my suggestions are simply that—the suggestions of one person. I like to open writers to possibilities—there are always multiple ways to change a line of text. If I can show two or three possibilities, then the writer can decide which direction he wants to follow.

          It really is fun, as a writer, to see the ways that changes to text can both deepen and redirect a story. And it’s fun as an editor to highlight some of those possibilities and to suggest that there are even more possibilities that could be tried.

          Writing and editing, manipulating words to create worlds and people and emotions, are the best jobs I can imagine.

          • Frank Green says:

            I like to think of it as caressing the words, rather than manipulating them but I would not quibble over semantics in this regard.
            I try to make it plain that my suggestions are just that but either I need to do so more forcibly or you have a higher class of proteges.
            Can you name a favorite book? You probably hate that question, as I do, for there are so many “favorites.”

          • Frank, I have no favorite books. I read Little Women a zillion times as a child, but I think my favorite book is always the one I’m currently reading.

            I enjoy history in fiction or nonfiction—learning new facts about the past is so much fun. And those facts lead me to wondering what the world was truly like in those days.

            For example, William Manchester, in A World Lit Only by Fire, describes the dense forests of Europe. I can see lines and groupings of trees that stretch on forever, closing out the sun. Can you imagine living near such dense forests, how the closed-in place might make you feel? Can you imagining traveling for days without meeting another person? Imagine the frustration of a curious man who’d never been able to travel more than a few miles from his birthplace?

            I want to know what the past was like for the people who lived there. I’d also like to see the future.

            Time travel would be awesome.

          • William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire–yes, what a writer! It’s good to know someone else appreciates his work. I read a line today that I’m sure I’ll misquote but it was to the effect that we have a nation of people who can read but who are unable to distinguish what is worth reading.

  2. Beth, minor quibble No link to tweet. So copy, paste, off I go. Am also putting this up on our co-op critique group. (Private Google + enviro, so no ping/trackback.)

    Absolutely spot on!

  3. Roy says:

    This reminds me of what I once read about Fred Astaire—that he was very big on practicing a dance number over and over and over until, as he said, it looked like he was doing it for the first time.
    I liked the point you made that this is not how we wrote in school.The emphasis was on revealing what we knew and, anyway, time constraints necessarily required turning in the first draft of anything, or if there was a second draft, it was “merely” to correct mistakes. I think this is where, in time, grammar Nazis got stuck. I want to say, OK, fine, now write something beautiful.
    I wanted to mention that while I only personally know two or three published authors, they all tell me that the first draft of anything is the chore, and the fun is in the re-writing. At first I thought that sounded backwards, but I’m coming around.

    • Roy, I’ve found fun both in the first draft and in the rewriting. The two are very different in terms of approach and outcome, but together they create strong and enjoyable stories.

      I love the unpredictablility of the first draft, but I also love the way changes make a story come together in the rewriting.


      No worries about the grammar Nazi comment. I knew you weren’t talking about me (she said with a smile).

  4. Roy says:

    Oops. Can’t re-write a comment! I don’t think you are a grammar nazi! I meant those idly critical Internet people who scan everything for mistakes and then gleefully report them. They are not unlike those guys on photography forums who concentrate on whose pictures are the most in focus.

  5. Great post! I am both a writer and editor, and receiving a critique on your work, even if it’s a first draft, is difficult. But, yes, the revision process is crucial. Sometimes it helps to take a break from a manuscript for a while, to allow your attachment to it to cool off a little, before diving into the editing process.

  6. Thank you so much for this information. I’ve shared it generously. Fresh eyes, both the writer’s and a critique partner or editor, truly helps a manuscript become better. And yes, I agree. Work on rewrites in stages. Once I get the timeline correct and the voice in my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, I can work at the sentence and word level. And it’s true, Beth. The comments of others are just that: comments of another person. The writer needs to be in charge of her manuscript. However, the writer needs to truly consider the comments of others.

    • Victoria Marie, after reading your comment, I’m thinking that learning to listen to the critique and suggestions of others is a learned skill, just like any other skill. But once a writer sees the difference an outside eye makes, the writing seems to strengthen exponentially. It’s all too true that we can be too close to a story to see its flaws. But not only too close to see its flaws—we can be too close to understand that there are multiple changes that could strengthen the story in a variety of ways. It’s not always about a story’s problems. Sometimes the story just needs help to move to a higher level.

  7. Kelly says:

    Fantastic post – lots to think about! I was directed here by a fellow blogger {Matt – A Year With Mona} I follow and am so glad I did! I’ll be sharing this with my students — Thank you!