Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rewrites: Practice is Helpful

I took French and German in high school. The languages themselves have a pretty low role in my daily life—I don't read foreign news, I don't speak the languages at work, I don't write in them, etc. But studying those languages taught me things that I apply to my writing. I learned about cases, idioms, and translation, and how people of other cultures think, which I don't think anyone will deny is helpful to a writer. But I also learned something even more awesome. I learned how to rewrite sentences.

If you've ever studied a language, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, well: when you're learning grammar in a formalized, school-type setting, you "get" to write sentences, paragraphs, letters, essays, recipes, and all kinds of texts that demonstrate or drill in the lesson of the day. In German, for example, any verbs in a subordinate clause and any verbs after a modal (e.g., can, will, ought, must) get shunted to the end of the clause, so you get stuff like "I want to the store go" and "because I short am". Because this is slightly tricky for English speakers, I was assigned a lot of practice paragraphs, which I often got to make up based on a prompt.

… Unfortunately, I didn't always have the vocabulary to deal with the topic. I was prone to thinky-thoughts and metaphors and convoluted sentences even then, and it's hard to convey those when you only know how to find tourist attractions and buy food. Even looking words up didn't always help, so I was forced to stop and think about what I was writing. Specifically, I thought, "Is there a simpler way to say this?"

There usually was. Sometimes there was a simpler word I could use. I could split the idea into multiple clauses. I could use multiple sentences. In really terrible cases, where I'd written myself into a corner because no language is designed to convey the images in my mind perfectly and I'm a fan of hugely complicated sentences, I'd have to restart entirely. I maintain that this process—recognizing a problem with my writing, identifying the problem, trying various solutions until one of them worked, repeating the steps—helped me become a better writer, long before I knew that writing was something I wanted to do.

Examples!


The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Let's assume that we can't use 'lazy'. It has the wrong connotation, or the narrator/POV doesn't have the concept, or something.  What else can we use, then? Alternate words might be 'sleepy', 'tired', or 'bored'. Not quite the meaning, but they get the job done. We could also use a phrase, such as "the dog who didn't want to do anything" or "the dog who didn't like working".

This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the cheese that lay in the house that Jack built.

This sentence is very hard to follow. Too many clauses. We need to break it up a little.

  • That cow with the crumpled horn tossed the dog, who'd worried the cat. The cat had killed the rat that had eaten Jack's cheese.
Not the best solution, but again, it gets the job done and we can worry about smoothing things out later. However, I'd prefer to show the sequence of events in order, more gradually, as happens in the original rhyme. That way we can space out the events and maybe elaborate on them a little as we go.
  • One day, in the house he had built for himself at the edge of the forest, Jack made cheese. He hung it from the rafters in a bag of cheesecloth, and left to gather wood. As soon as he'd gone, a rat scurried up the drainpipe, through a gap in the wall that Jack didn't know about, and was soon nibbling at the edges of the cheese. Jack's cat, Mr. Mouser, saw this and …
We could string that out even further, if we wanted, and turn it into a full-fledged adult plot or at least several paragraphs, rather than the text of a picture book. I'll leave that to you, though.

She gave her book to the girl, and she liked it.

Ambiguous! Who is "she" in the second half of the sentence?
  • She gave her book to the girl, who liked it.
  • She gave her book to the girl, which made her happy.
Er… we still have ambiguity in the second example. Trying again:
  • It made her happy to give her book to the girl.
Yeah, now we have a sentence starting with 'it' but at least we know who's happy.

After a long day of work, in which I will walk around and climb ladders and organize shelves and help customers and clean and put out stock, I will travel approximately 30 minutes via public transit and foot in order to watch the final, ultimate, very last Harry Potter film at midnight, with friends, who'll be holding our place in line from at least dinner time, and it's the only thing I'm going to think about all day.

Agh, another long and convoluted sentence! This one has the problem of too much information, along with being maybe a little hard to follow, so what are we going to do this time? Take out the needless and redundant stuff.
  • I'm going to the last Harry Potter film tonight, with friends. I'm excited!
Of course, these sentences were deliberately found/written as easy examples. The sentences I come up with in my writing are generally worse and require more trying and more thinking before I find a workable solution. But y'know, that's okay, because the more I rewrite sentences and the more terrible examples I fix, the better I'll be at rewriting in the future. It's all about the practice!

So here's a challenge for you: Find a text—a blog post, a news article, a book, an email, whatever—and rewrite it. If it's badly written, make it well-written. If it's well-written, make it terrible. If it's one genre, make it another. Adopt a different writer's style. Make it your own style. If it's past tense, make it present. If it's first-person, make it third. The goal is to rewrite the work in some form, for the experience and the practice. I bet it'll be eye-opening, because it is for me.

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