History tells us it was an ancient Sumerian who coined the phrase. He was reviewing the first draft of his latest crop report, reading the cuneiform script he’d etched with a reed stylus on a clay tablet. The report wasn’t clear enough, was too long and, to his internal ear, didn’t sing. So he splashed some water on the tablet, wiped out the figures and began again.
When asked why he was going to all that trouble, he said, “Writing is rewriting.”
What applied to the earliest form of writing in 3000 B.C. applies to us today.
How you approach revising is a matter of personal preference.
As he scrawls out his stories in ballpoint pen on his famous unlined yellow paper, Elmore Leonard says, “I’ll probably throw away four sheets to get one. That seems to work for me. The rewriting is done as I’m writing.”
Essayist, novelist, screenwriter/director Nora Ephron traced her development as a reviser in a piece titled “Revision and Life: Take It From the Top—Again,” which was published in The New York Times Book Review on November 9, 1986:
“When I was in college, I revised nothing. I wrote my papers out in longhand, typed them up and turned them in. It would never have crossed my mind that what I had produced was only a first draft and that I had more work to do; the idea was to get to the end, and once you had got to the end you were finished.”
That was in the early 1960s. Not two decades later, she began writing essays for Esquire. They were “1,500 words, that’s only six double-spaced typewritten pages—and I often used 300 or 400 pieces of typewriter paper. . . .sometimes on each retyping moving not even a sentence farther from the spot I had reached the last time through. At the same time, though, I was polishing what I had already written. . . .”
The opposite approach was succinctly stated by a writing teacher named Goren George Moberg: “Don’t get it right. Get it written, then get it right.”
To do that, you need to follow a lesson learned by essayist and novelist Anna Quindlen, a pound-out-the-first draft-and-fix-it advocate: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect.”
When you’re writing a book, getting it right can be a hard slog, as Hallie Ephron, one of Nora’s three writer-sisters, found. Her first mystery novel, Never Tell a Lie, was published in January. It took her three years to write. When she started, she opened a new document file on her computer and labeled it Book 1. Rewriting, she said, “was an ugly process, including throwing stuff out and changing the beginning and the end.” By the time she finished, with each improved version in a new file, she had Book 36.
Shorter pieces are really no different. Suzanne Hoover, a longtime writing instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, leads the independent fiction workshop of which I am a member. More than once, she has told us about reading, in The New Yorker, an impeccable short story by her former faculty colleague, the late Grace Paley. When she ran into Paley on campus one day, Suzanne told her how wonderful the story was and marveled at how the author had crafted such a perfect piece of writing. “It only took me 19 tries,” Paley said.
But beware. Things don’t always work that way. Here’s a story Quindlen once told: “I have on the hard drive of my computer a 672-page manuscript of a novel I wrote in 1995. . . . I still think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done, but I can’t seem to revise it satisfactorily. I figured out my rewriting was making it flatter, not better. I admitted that to myself on a Tuesday. The following Monday I had lunch with my editor and my agent and told them I was starting a new book. . . .That book, of course, is Black and Blue, which has become the most successful book I’ve done.”
A key part of any writing workshop experience, after your group session has ended, is deciding whether to incorporate your colleagues’ suggestions into your piece. What you’ve written is yours, so you should feel free to ignore what fellow workshoppers say about it. (You might ask yourself, however, why you are even in a workshop if you dismiss all feedback.)
Insightful, intelligent critiquing, on the other hand, can provide you with a roadmap to revision. Awhile back, our colleague Joanne flattered us by using the previous session’s commentary in that way. Her rewrite addressed many of the questions and concerns we had. In the end, though, it was her thoughtful and artful revising of the way she strung her words together that blew everybody away.
Whether it’s an Elmore Leonard, an Ephron sister, a Grace Paley or an Anna Quindlen, or you and the others in your workshop, to be a successful writer, heed the words of that scribe from Mesopotamia. You haven’t written until you’ve rewritten.