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The key to editing is to think of words as LEGO pieces

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The key to editing is to think of words

Once we’ve written something down, even if it’s a terrible first draft (and we know it’s a terrible first draft), it’s difficult to imagine having written it any other way. It’s as if once the words are strung together, we think that’s how they were meant to be. When we approach editing our own writing, too often we leave large chunks of the draft untouched because we simply don’t think about how else we could explain the concept or describe the situation.

The key to editing your own (or someone else’s) writing, though, is to constantly remind yourself of this truth:

There is always a different way to write a sentence.

I’m sure you know that there are an infinite number of ways to write any sentence, but how often do you challenge yourself to think of a better way to word a sentence?

To edit any piece of writing, shift your mind into thinking of the words on the page as flexible, changeable, and full of potential.

Think of your words as LEGO pieces.

I used to say that words, sentences, and paragraphs were like puzzle pieces that you could move around. Yet, that analogy isn’t quite right because a puzzle is usually solved when you identify the correct position for each piece. There’s only one solution for a puzzle.

Instead, I now think of words as LEGO pieces (probably due to the hours I’ve spent building “creations” with my four-year-old and two-year-old). If you’ve ever dumped out a giant bin of LEGO pieces and started sorting through them to build a tower or castle or spaceship, then you’ve caught a glimpse of how it feels to simply build when there is no blueprint and no single solution.

Writing is much the same way. You have a giant bin of words, which you stack next to each other to build concepts, ideas, and entire theories. There’s no one, right way to stack those words together, though, and there’s no blueprint for your writing.

Since there is no one, correct way to string words together, you should not be afraid to destroy what you’ve already written.

We are terrified to destroy something we’ve worked on. My four-year-old screams like a ferocious lion cub when her little brother destroys her LEGO tower. I know clients who have lost as little as a single blog post and as much as an entire dissertation, and regardless of the length of the lost writing, the anguish is substantial. The fear of losing what we’ve written is so strong that we don’t even want to tamper with a draft that already exists, even if we know it needs revision.

But destruction is an essential part of the editing process. You will have to delete everything from filler phrases to entire sections of a manuscript. Without destroying some part of your writing, you cannot re-write, and if you do not re-write, you will never improve how you explain your concepts, ideas, and theories.

Even though there’s no one, correct way to build, some constructions are more solid or beautiful than others.

Certainly, I think I build a more structurally sound tower than my four-year-old can because I have some grasp of physics. The foundation has to be wider than the top of the tower. You can only stack so many pieces on top of each other before it begins to lean. I even stack the colors in a pattern for an aesthetic touch. My four-year-old would say that her tower is just as good as mine, but I’d say every LEGO tower could use some improvement.

Writing is the same way. There’s no one way to write a sentence, but some versions of a sentence are better than others.

Here are some ways you can challenge yourself to re-write your next draft to change up the structure.

  • Focus on one sentence, cut it down to the most basic version of what it says, and then build it back up. Allow yourself to play with the order and different ways to convey the basic message. Let’s take an example.
    • Original text: “Certainly, I think I build a more structurally sound tower than my four-year-old can because I have some grasp of physics.”
    • Basic version: “I build a better tower than my four-year-old because I understand physics.”
    • Rebuild A: “My grasp of physics gives my LEGO towers an edge of my four-year-old’s precarious structures.”
    • Rebuild B: “Since my four-year-old doesn’t understand physics much beyond the gravity that makes her fall out of bed some nights, I can usually build a tower that’s more structurally sound than her replication of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
    • Rebuild C: “After a little experience and practice, any LEGO builder can start to see dramatic improvements on her structures. Only a year ago, my oldest daughter was building precarious towers that fell over when you turned on the ceiling fan. With a few hundred hours of LEGO building under her belt, though, she now builds tree houses that are both sturdy and color-coordinated.”
    • See? An infinite number of ways to communicate the same basic idea. Have fun with it!
  • Now, take an entire paragraph and experiment with re-writing it three different ways. The more different each iteration is from the last, the more creative you’ll become at re-writing.
  • Use a thesaurus. Seriously. I always keep a browser tab open to http://www.thesaurus.com.
    • In the example sentences earlier, Rebuild A, the only word I could think of was “my four-year-old’s unsteady structures,” but I wanted something with a little more pizazz. I flipped over to my handy thesaurus tab and found “precarious” instead. Much better.

Above all, do not fear messing up your writing.

Your brain has already done most of the hard work, absorbing, categorizing, and storing an enormous amount of information on your topic. Writing is simply the task of communicating that information, and since there’s no one way to explain your ideas, you shouldn’t fear destroying and re-writing.

You can always re-create, and each re-creation will probably be better than the last.

True, eventually you’ll have to let it go and publish the writing, but that’s a topic for another day.

For now, I think I’ll go build a LEGO tower and ruminate on how to re-write my own writing project.

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