February 21, 2022
Re-Write Every Sentence
Rewrite a passage of about 1000 words. Keep going until you are down to thinking about one last teeny decision, like a specific word choice or a decision about whether or not to remove a comma. Be as OCD about it as you can be. How long did it take you to get there? If you hit comma-level diminishing marginal improvements in less than 4-5 hours, you are not an advanced writer. Assuming you do care about your skills and the ideas/story the passage was about, if you can’t sustain 4-5 hours of rewriting (remember, this is about 4000-5000 words of first-dump writing), it means you can’t see potential areas for improvements and/or don’t know how to execute those improvements. Rewriting is NOT tedious, brainless grunt-work. It’s actually what I call “first-dump writing” that is tedious brainless grunt-work. Rewriting takes skill. If you merely schedule 5 hours to do rewriting work on a 1000 word piece, and don’t have the skills to fill those 5 hours, you cannot log them. When you are starting out on your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, you will initially only be able to achieve about 10% rewriting. As you improve, so will your rewrite capacity. I estimate that it will take a serious writer about 20 years to hit 10,000 rewrite hours at an average pace. If you start at age 13 (a typical age for discovering a love for writing) and go like crazy, you could be a skilled writer/word-thinker in 10 years. So yeah, you can “arrive” as young as age 23.
The Two Types of Rewrites If you actually tried the exercise, you probably noticed that some of your rewriting was about the ideas (including/excluding ideas, compressing them, clarifying them) and that some of it was about the language (word choice, sentence structure, paragraph breaks…) > The first kind is thinker-rewrites. It is about the accuracy of the content with respect to the pre-verbal ideas you are trying to capture. > The second kind is writer-rewrites. It is about the precision with which you express the ideas. At the level of typing you cannot tease them apart. It is a subconscious mix. > But at the deliberate learning level, you can. To become a better word-thinker, you have to constantly be reading (reading like a writer, in the sense of Francine Prose) about more complicated ideas from different domains and even other media. Programming and math can help, as can visual thinking. You should constantly be picking up intellectual tricks, clever metaphors and frames, interesting ways of dissolving dichotomies, subtle rhetorical devices. Things like that. I won’t say more about thinking-rewrites, since this question isn’t about becoming a better word-thinker (my book IS about that, hint hint). > So let me elaborate on what I have seen of the path I have not taken, to the extent that I can see ahead from the fork in the road.
Writer Rewrites To become a better writer, you have to read people with a much better ear for language itself. The range of suitable input material is much narrower. You may pick up some decent thinking tricks even from a bad writer/thinker like Thomas Friedman (his success is more due to his boundless energy and enthusiasm), but you will pick up no writing tricks. Great fiction, poetry and some very precise kinds of philosophical writing are what you need to consume. Screeplays and plays are great too. The key here is that all these types of writing impose severe constraints on form, so it makes sense that to work with these types, you have to improve your formal precision with language. There are two main sub-skills: semantic precision and grammatical precision. Semantic precision is easiest to see at the word level. When I read a DFW passage, it is like looking at a pinprick-sharp photograph, compared to my own blurry photographs. He unerringly picks words to use that simply work 100x better than my choices. It’s like he has a 15 megapixel camera and a tripod, while I am using a 3 megapixel point-and-shoot. A bigger vocabulary isn’t enough. The skill lies in matching words to needs. > In fact his language is so precise that it makes his writing almost too rich to read. I’ve never finished any of his novels because they are too rich for me. My brain can’t handle it. And this isn’t just at the word level. His sentences, paragraphs and chapters are massively precise as well. James Joyce is another example. His prose has been described as having the precision of poetry (an amazing feat, given that typical good poetry is generally 100x more precise than typical good prose, and Ulysees is HUGE). Grammatical precision isn’t about knowing the rules. It is about knowing what to do where there are no rules. It is an instinctive sense of evolutionary direction in your chosen language and being ahead of the curve with respect to the Grammar Nazis. They codify, legitimize and enforce the rules you make up. Great writers don’t just push the boundaries of language and get away with it. They actually move the language itself and create and destroy jobs in the Grammar Nazi labor market.