The Secret Behind Great Writing

August 5, 2022

Think of your favorite author. You know, the super-talented person who sells thousands of books, and gets interviewed everywhere, and has a blue checkmark next to their name, and rakes in beaucoup bucks because they’re whip-smart, side-bustingly funny, and oh-so likable. Well, guess what: they’re none of those things in their first draft. 

That first draft, what I like to call the “cringe draft,” was probably a bagged word salad just like yours. Because that’s what cringe drafts are and what they’re supposed to be. Cringe drafts are a starting point, a launchpad, and a scratchproof vessel for even the roughest ideas. Every good writer writes cringey first drafts—but they’re excellent at revising their work. Good writing, as it turns out, is actually good editing. Revisions and rewrites are where the magic happens. 😏

And yeah, I’m 1000 percent biased. But my point stands. Here’s why:

Good editing will fine-tune your ideas as much as your writing. 

And you can take the first step from cringe draft to finished manuscript even before you reach out to an editor by doing your own re-read and considering a few questions.

First things first, you need to give yourself a pair of fresh eyes. Set your manuscript down for a couple weeks and don’t look at it. Go do something else and create some much-needed distance between yourself and your writing. (But like actually go do something else. It doesn’t count if you just shift your attention to another book-related thing, like your marketing or jacket copy.)

Once you’ve enjoyed a bit of breathing room, pull up your manuscript, keep your favorite note-taking method close by, and if necessary, pour some wine into your most nondescript coffee mug. 

Then read and consider the following questions.

Is your writing paying its rent?

Every line of your manuscript’s pages is valuable real estate—so the writing occupying that space better earn its keep. Consider each paragraph through the lens of an uptight landlord: Does it carry your idea? Does it express your thoughts clearly? Is it pretty? Is it funny? Does it progress your reader’s understanding without messing up the flow? (Or is it like the blowhard neighbor you avoid sharing an elevator with because he loves to hear himself talk?) Ax the blowhard sentences, chop out the paragraphs that repeat what’s been said, and prune away the fluffy bits.

And speaking of fluff…

Where are you zoning out? 

Note the places where your mind starts to wander and try to figure out why. Did you hit a dense patch? A section that’s drier than sand? A vague description made you wonder, “WTF did I mean by that??”? Mark those pieces for revision, rewrite, or the chopping block. Because if they made you, the writer who so lovingly composed them, want to skim or skip past them, just imagine how your reader will feel. 

Where did you play it safe?

Writing is an inherently vulnerable act, which means writing with the intent to publish can feel intimidating. Putting your ideas out there is scary because it opens you up to criticism. What if your idea isn’t as good as you thought? What if people don’t like what you have to say? And what if they’re total assholes about it? And so you retreat to the safe side, rehashing what’s already popular so that no one could dare accuse you of being original. What do you actually think? What would you say if you didn’t worry it’d catch you an eye roll? Say that! Whether it’s a word choice or an entire chapter, I’d rather see you take a risk. 

How are you talking to your reader?

At its heart, your writing is a conversation, an exchange with your reader. So it’s worth considering what you’re bringing to the chat. If you hate it in person—jargon, condescension, pretension, pomposity, pointlessness, awkwardness, TMI—assume your reader will hate it on the page. Conversely, the same stuff that fuels good conversation will make your reader want to stick around: usefulness, value, clarity, simplicity, beauty, humor, humanity.  

Are you keeping your promises?

I’ve written about this at length, but it bears repeating: Broken promises will undermine your readers’ trust in you. If you state in your introduction that you’re going to teach them [X], then you better make sure your reader can [joyfully X] by the time they reach the conclusion. 

Are these the only considerations you should make during your initial revision? No, of course not. But they’re a great first step in your initial review and revision. Best of all, they’ll give you gut-check level clarity on your manuscript’s biggest trouble spots. 

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