Should Writers Rewrite?
There is a saying you've probably heard: rewriting is writing.
Some writers swear by this, for instance Elmore Leonard, Ernest Hemingway and Susan Sontag have all written passionately and convincingly on the virtue, in fact the necessity, of rewriting.
Other writers, Dean Wesley Smith prominent among them, just as passionately disagree. DWS points to writers like Harlan Ellison, writers who wrote stories in one draft, stories which have gone on to win awards. Dean himself has written a 70,000 word novel in 10 days and sold it for a tidy sum.
So, what's the deal with rewriting? Is it a writer's salvation or their bane?
I found this article by the Boston Globe absolutely fascinating: Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists.
Craig Fehrman writes:
It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.
Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature. Those authors, Sullivan writes, were the first who “revised overtly, passionately, and at many points in the lifespan of their texts.”
. . . .
What first got Sullivan thinking about revision was encountering a version of Ernest Hemingway she’d never seen before. While a first-year PhD student at Harvard, Sullivan visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and its Hemingway collection. She marveled at the famous author’s archive—his letters, his family scrapbooks, even his bullfighting materials. But one thing in particular stood out to her: the typescript of his novel “The Sun Also Rises.” It showed Hemingway changing his book dramatically from one version to the next. Monologues vanished, entire plot points disappeared, and, in the end, he arrived at the terse, mysterious novel that became part of the American literary canon. “The Hemingway style that’s so familiar to us wasn’t in the first draft,” Sullivan says. “It was a product of revision.” [emphasis mine]
. . . .
“We often assume that style comes out of nowhere ... But style is produced in revision, and revision is not something writers do naturally.”
The Cost Of Paper
Why this attitude toward revision? For one thing, the cost of paper! CF writes:
In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. Printing was slow and messy, and in the rare case a writer got to see a proof of his work—that is, a printed sample of the text, laid out like a book—he had to travel in person to a publishing center like London.
All of these factors suggest that revision was not something that happened on the page. Indeed, during the 19th century, the Romantics made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed, flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts. “I am like the tyger (in poesy),” Lord Byron wrote in a letter. “If I miss my first spring—I go growling back to my Jungle. There is no second. I can’t correct.”
What Is Good Writing?
This, really, is the nub of the issue. What counts as good writing? CF writes that Hemingway's attitude toward rewriting was ...
"... driven in part by a new philosophy of what made good writing. The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hemingway famously described his “principle of the iceberg”: “There is seven-eighths of it under the water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.”
A Shift In Technology
But it wasn't just a change in philosophy that made rewriting more attractive, there was also an advance in technology that made paper cheaper to make. CF writes:
"An equally big part of this change, Sullivan suggests, was a shift in literary technology. In 1850, Britain was producing about 100,000 tons of paper per year; by 1903, that number had increased to 800,000 tons per year. Printers started setting type by machine, which was five times faster than setting it by hand and allowed page proofs to be easily shared and corrected. Before long, authors were guiding their books through a long and potentially fertile process: first a manuscript, then a typescript, perhaps a magazine serial, and finally a series of proofs for the book. “One thing it allowed for that revision by handwriting didn’t is massive structural transformation,” Sullivan says. “Some writers reduced their work massively, and some expanded it massively.”
Jack Kerouac: Don't Afterthink!
Of course, not everyone is a modernist. That is, not every writer believes "that careful and substantial reworking would ultimately produce the best literature".
Can Revision Be Overdone?
In the last 30 years ... technology has shifted again, and our ideas about writing and revising are changing along with it. Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.
“The ideal environment for revision is one where you can preserve several different versions of a text,” Sullivan says. With only one in-progress draft on a computer, we lose the cues that led the Modernists to step back from their work and to revise it. “It’s that moment of typing things up that led to the really surprising and inventive changes,” Sullivan says. “The authors came back to their text, but it seemed estranged.”
A Cautionary Note
CF ends his article on a note of caution. He mentions that many authors who teach at universities "need to look more like professors and to discuss their laborious processes ... ‘We can’t teach you how to write, but we can teach you how to revise.’ And it’s a big business.”
CF writes that revision has always come with a cost. "... revision can go too far, making something worse instead of better.”
I think John Updike may have said it best: "Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying."
All in all a balanced, fascinating article. The link again is: Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists.
Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for the link.
Photo credit: "corn in the moonlight" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.