Michael Nielsen
Six Rules for Rewriting

August 19, 2008

The only way I know to write well is to first allow myself to write freely, and then to rewrite. The trick to rewriting is to recognize which bits of my writing are good, and leave those be, while improving or eliminating the bad bits.

Here is a list of six rules that help me recognize the bad bits in my own writing. Until these criteria have been met, or the exceptions identified and understood, my writing is still in draft, not yet ready to be abandoned to the reader.

1 Making your writing striking

Every sentence should grab the reader and propel them forward: Academics are wont to ignore this rule, believing the reader should be willing to endure any pain for a sufficient payoff. Of course, academics aren’t paid per reader. Good bloggers and journalists know better.

2 Every paragraph should contain a striking idea, originally expressed: In the meat of your writing, this rule ought to be easy to apply. If you are finding it difficult, you may not have thought deeply enough about the subject, and perhaps should think more before attempting to write.

Where the rule causes difficulty is when you are covering background material. Some readers may already be familiar with the background, and you run the risk of boring them if you offer the standard account. Renowned for his originality as a teacher, Richard Feynman once taught inclined planes to physics undergraduates. Do you believe he offered the standard account of inclined planes that has bored students around the world for generations? I have no doubt he found a new and fascinating take on the material. If Feynman can do it for inclined planes, you can do it for your background material, no matter how apparently mundane.

The most significant ideas should be distilled into the most potent sentences possible: These provide a focus for the reader, a message that helps them understand your main points. To apply this rule, go through each section and chapter, asking yourself what the most significant ideas are, and if they have been distilled into a simple, memorable core.

Stylistic rules

There are many rules for writing with good style. Here are the two rules I find most useful.

A Use the strongest appropriate verb: Identify the verb in every sentence, and ask if you can improve it, perhaps eliminating adjectives and adverbs in the process. This is simple and mechanical, but often yields great improvements with little effort.

B Beware of nominalization: A common way we weaken verbs is by turning them into nouns, and then combining them with weaker verbs. This bad habit is called nominalization. Contrast the wishy-washy “I conducted an investigation of rules for rewriting” with the more direct “I investigated rules for rewriting”. In the first sentence I have nominalized the strong verb “investigated” so that it becomes the noun “investigation”, and then combined it with the weaker verb “conducted”.

C Meta-rule

None of the above rules should be consciously applied while drafting material: While drafting, your mind must be fully concentrated on the subject matter at hand. It is nearly impossible to think clearly about the subject if you are simultaneously trying to obey a bunch of rules. Think deeply about your material; write with all the passion, speed and concentration at your disposal; only once you are done should you identify problems, and then rewrite any parts that offend.