Writers on Rewriting

Quotations From Writers on Revising and Rewriting

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) on the cover of Life magazine (September 1, 1952). © Time Inc.
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, "The Art of Fiction." The Paris Review Interview, 1956)

"Getting the words right" may not be a satisfactory explanation of the messy, sometimes frustrating process that we call revising, but we're not likely to find a more succinct description of it. For most writers of both fiction and nonfiction, "getting the words right" is the secret of writing well.

Too often in schools the injunction to "write it over again" is delivered (or at least perceived) as a punishment or dull chore. But as the 12 professionals here remind us, rewriting is an essential part of composing. And in the end it truly can be the most rewarding part. As Joyce Carol Oates has said, "The pleasure is the rewriting."

  • The main thing I try to do is write as clearly as I can. I rewrite a good deal to make it clear.
    (E.B. White, The New York Times, August 3, 1942)
  • There's no reason you shouldn't, as a writer, not be aware of the necessity to revise yourself constantly. More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina. I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do. . . .
    And I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.
    (John Irving, National Book Award Interview, June 3, 2005)
  • If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
    (Elmore Leonard, Newsweek, April 22, 1985)
  • I have rewritten--often several times--every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers."
    (Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory. Random House, 1966)
  • I work extremely hard so that [my editor] will not have to work extremely hard. I write and rewrite and rewrite and write and like to turn in what I think is finished work.
    (Gay Talese, "Birnbaum v. Gay Talese." The Morning News, July 6, 2006)
  • The swiftly done work of the journalist, and the cheap finish and ready-made methods to which it leads, you must try to counteract in private by writing with the most considerate slowness and on the most ambitious models. And when I say "writing"--O believe me, it is rewriting that I have chiefly in mind.
    (Robert Louis Stevenson, Letter to Richard Harding Davis, quoted in "When They Were Twenty-One," by Richard Duffy. The Bookman, January 1914)
  • I would rather have one article a day of this sort; and these ten or twenty lines might readily represent a whole day's hard work in the way of concentrated, intense thinking and revision, polish of style, weighing of words.
    (Joseph Pulitzer, quoted in Joseph Pulitzer: His Life & Letters, by Don Carlos Seitz. Simon & Schuster, 1924)
  • I'm all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.
    (Truman Capote in Conversations With Capote, by Lawrence Grobel. New American Library, 1985)
  • It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and write it sentence by sentence--no first draft. I can't write five words but that I can change seven.
    (Dorothy Parker, "The Art of Fiction." The Paris Review Interview, 1956)
  • I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times--once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.
    Somewhere I put it this way: first drafts are for learning what one's fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.
    (Bernard Malamud, "Long Work, Short Life," quoted in The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud, by Evelyn Gross Avery. SUNY Press, 2001)
  • "Among the questions that writers need to ask themselves in the process of revision–Is this the best word I can find? Is my meaning clear? Can a word or phrase be cut from this without sacrificing anything essential?–perhaps the most important question is: Is this grammatical?"
    (Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. HarperCollins, 2006)
  • To be a writer is to sit down at one's desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone--just plain going at it, in pain and delight. To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again and once more, and over and over. It is to ring changes, not repeat, not fall onto a dead center.
    (John Hersey, quoted in The Craft of Revision, by Donald Murray. Harcourt Brace, 1991)
  • Everything is planned. I spent a long time outlining. It's the only way I know to get all the ducks in a row. . . . The research is the easiest. The outline is the most fun because you can do anything. The first draft is the hardest, because every word of the outline has to be fleshed out. The rewrite is very satisfying, because I feel that everything I do is making the book a little better.
    (Ken Follett, interview with Bookreporter.com, December 6, 2002)

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