Rewriter’s Checklist for 2020

Over the years, I’ve worked up this checklist for my writing classes and my own rewriting. The ideas mainly come from Helen Sword, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Gottschall, and Joseph Williams. See the reference list below.

Ideally, we use these principles — not for first-drafting, but for revising.

Clarity — Make main actors subjects. Put important actions in verbs, helping readers read more easily. 

  1. Find actors or actions hidden in zombie nouns or phrases. 
    1. BAD: “Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action…” (Williams, 2014)
    2. GOOD: We knew nothing about local conditions, so we could not determine…
  2. Make ACTORS the subjects of sentences. Express the actor’s actions in active VERBS, that ideally show concrete, physical imagery. 
  3. Diagnose. If it takes 7-8 words to get the the verb, then watch out for ZOMBIES. 
    1. Find zombie nouns as subjects and late verbs–that come after 7-8 words. (Readers struggle with long, complicated, zombie subjects.)
  4. Analyze. Decide who the concrete actors are.
    1. Find the actions the actors do — often hidden in zombie nouns; change knowledge to know; determination to determine. 
  5. Rewrite. If you hid actions in zombie nouns, put actions in active verbs.
    1. Make real or virtual actors the subject of verbs. Virtual actor = a short, concrete subject: Freedom, Taxation, etc. 
    2. See below about passive constructions. 

Push for Verbal Verve & Concrete Language; Avoid Prepositional Podge (Sword, 2016)

  1. “Favor strong, specific, robust action verbs (scrutinize, dissect, recount, capture) over weak, vague, lazy ones (have, do, show) (Sword, 2016). 
  2. Favor concrete language over vague, abstract language.  Put abstract ideas in concrete language. Show concept with examples. 
  3. Limit the use of abstract, “spongy, sing-songy” zombie nouns.  For example these nouns suck the life out of their verb-roots: “measurement, calculation, displacement and designation.”
  4. Avoid 3 strings of prepositional phrases: ““in a letter to the author of a book about birds” unless you [want] to [get] a specific rhetorical effect.”
  5. Do not interpose more than 12 words between the subject and its verb. Use a concrete subject and an active verb instead. 
    1. “The possibility that the “man,” whose being seems so self-evident and whose nature provides the object of modern knowledge and the human sciences, will one day be erased as a figure in thought is precisely what…” That’s 31 between subject and verb (Sword, 2016). 
  6. Let your concrete nouns and active verbs do the work of description, so use adjectives and adverbs only when they give new information. 

Cohesion — Make the last part of a sentence set up the first part of the next.

  1. Underline the first 7-8 words in every sentence or the first 5-6 words of every clause.
  2. In most sentences, use subjects to name topics.  (A topic is what the sentence is about).
  3. Make sure the topics are familiar to your readers. 
  4. Follow coherence logic: Move in order from (1) old, shorter, familiar, simpler to (2) new, longer, unfamiliar, and complex. 
  5. Use passive construction mainly to set up this coherence logic. 

Emphasis — Move from simplicity to complexity; Move ideas you want to stress to the end.

  1. Trim the end of your sentence.
  2. Move functional or peripheral information left.
  3. Move new information to the right.
  4. Use syntax to move words to the stress place of emphasis — at the end… There is/are; Passives, What & It Shift, Not X, but Y…

Concision — Remove all unnecessary details. 

  1. Cut words with little or no meaning.  A basically depends on B. >> A depends on B. 
  2. Cut doubled words that repeat meanings. Do a full and complete revision. >> Do a full revision. 
  3. Cut words implied by other words. It’s past history. >> It’s history. 
  4. Replace wordy phrases with a word. In a situation where… >> When…
  5. Change negatives to affirmatives.  They are not the same. >> They are different. 
  6. Cut useless adjectives and adverbs.  Translate this abstract idea into daily practice. 

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.

Pulitzer Prize Winner, James A. Michener

Write in classic style.

  1. Write in this frame of mind: (A) Show the READER something in the world while (B) engaging the READER in a conversation. 
  2.  appropriate, use the pronoun “we” as it fits within the above frame. The pronoun “we” refers to the reader and writer in conversation. 
  3. Direct the READER’s eyes to the characters or events in the real world. 
  4. Hold the READER in conversation. Direct the READER’s gaze to something in the world. 

Overcome the curse of knowledge — You CAN’T easily imagine that your READER doesn’t know what you know. 

  1. If you know something well, you can’t remember how hard you worked to learn it.  
  2. Imagine your reader looking over your shoulder. 
  3. Read your text out loud, preferably to a real person.  Have someone read it to you. Have your computer read it to you. 
  4. Show a draft to yourself — after your work is no longer familiar. 
  5. Avoid or reduce jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, and technical vocabulary. 
  6. Write in concrete terms; show who did what to whom.

Create arcs of coherence. 

  1. Start with an outline. 
  2. Make a claim. Front the claim in the right place, near the start. 
  3. Answer a question in your claim. Answer the “so what” question. 
  4. Start analog. Make a physical outline, storyboard, or mind-map of your argument, using a large piece of paper or whiteboard. 
  5. Write your ideas and topics freely on index chards. Then arrange the ideas in an order that fits. 
  6. Decide on an ordering scheme.  A hike. A hero in a battle. A mock debate. A court case. A journey. 
  7. Use paragraph breaks as visual bookmarks. Don’t make monotonously long paragraphs. 
  8. Keep paragraph topics clear, so the reader knows the topic.
  9. Make the point of paragraphs clear; make the “so what!” clear.

Weave story grammar into non-fiction. 

  1. Stories serve as the best way to put information into the world. 
  2. Remember basic story grammar: Character + Conflict + Attempted Extrication (Gottschall, 2012). 
  3. Use a story “inciting incident” with a character who faces high stakes conflict to start a non-fiction piece. 
  4. The inciting incident might come as a life or death, risky, dangerous, or trouble-filled situation. 
  5. The character needs to extricate herself from it. 
  6. Weave the whole story-push through the piece or use more than one story-push to make non-fiction more compelling. 


The points about clarity, cohesion, emphasis,, and concision come from Williams (2014). The points about classic style, the curse of knowledge, and arcs of coherence come from Pinker (2014).  The point about story grammar comes from Gottschall (2012). The ideas about verbal verve and concrete language come from Sword (2016). 

  • Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: how stories make us human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking Adult.
  • Sword, H. (2016). The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Williams, J. M., & Bizup, J. (2014). Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (5 edition). Boston: Longman.

Songs as Spice in Language Classes

People all around the world enjoy music and song every day. Because songs are universally enjoyed and often memorable, language teachers often use them to spice up their classes. But how can we use songs not just to fill up the time, but to provide students with valuable opportunities for meaningful input and output? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Use High Frequency Language. Choose songs that feature high frequency vocabulary and grammar, especially for lower levels. Find texts at the right difficulty level for students. Learn to profile the texts at: lextutor. Help students understand and use the high frequency language.
  2. Focus on Parts. If parts of the song are difficult, you can focus only on easier verses. Often it’s good if the students can understand the chorus because it’s usually the most memorable part.
  3. Make Meaningful Connections. Introduce the song with a little story, example, or a question that helps students make meaningful connections to the song. Don’t just start by saying, “Today we are going to listen to Let it Be by the Beatles.” Rather say something like, “Have you heard of the Beatles?” What songs do you know and like? How many records did they sell?” If you make meaningful connections when you start, the song will be more memorable.
  4. Make Song Activities Interactive. You can give the students a print with the lyrics, or you can give them a song activity template with blank lines for the song and a set pattern for dealing with songs. See the “Song Template.”
    1. To get the words for the song, students can do “running dictation,” writing the lyrics down in the bank lines on the sheet.
    2. Leave the title blank. Students guess the title or make up titles.
    3. Do fill in the blank activities with variations. From Let it Be: “in times of ______,” “in times of tro______,” or “in times of tro__ __ __ __.”
  5. Use Song Topics for Output. Songs often touch on interesting topics, and they often deal with universal human problems and experiences. You can use these topics for output activities in language classes.
    Do problem solvers that have clear outcomes, such as “list, rank, choose, suggest.” In response to Let it Be, pairs or groups do these tasks:

    1. (1) What worries or troubles do people often have? Make a LIST of 5. (2) RANK the troubles from easiest to hardest. (3) CHOOSE one trouble or worry. SUGGEST a solution. In other words, answer: “How can I help someone solve this trouble?”
    2. Dialogs. Make simple dialogs based on song topics, and have students practice them in pairs. From Let it Be:
      1. A: I’m really worried about the test.
        B: Did you study?
        A: Yes, I studied hard.
        B: Then relax. Just let it be.
  6. Limit Language-Focused Activities. Practice pronunciation, speaking and repeating lyrics with students. Students make word cards for the high frequency vocabulary in the songs. Quiz them on the vocabulary. Focus on grammar points with examples. From Let it Be: Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom. Santa came, bringing gifts. Mary arrived, wearing a beautiful dress.
    1. Don’t spend too much time on language-focus. It goes against the “natural reason” we listen to songs, and “teaching too much” doesn’t get results. Instead, help students “notice” grammar and language points as they enjoy the songs.
  7. Plan Spacing and Retrieval. Return to the song in later classes. Have students quiz each other by practicing retrieval of the lyrics or individual words with word cards. If appropriate, sing the song with students, eventually from memory.

The above talk was given on February 26, 2016 at the “Charlie Zemi” for MGU future teachers. 

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