Why do authors rewrite?

I’m a big fan of rewriting.  But here’s an article from the Boston Globe making the point that rewriting hasn’t always been the standard.  One reason was technology:

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.

Another was a philosophical opposition to revisiting your original inspiration.  If you believe that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, you’re not going to approve of a writing method that is deliberately unspontaneous.

The author points to Modernism as the source of our current deification of rewriting:

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.”

This is all pretty straightforward, although I’d point out that there’s solid evidence that Shakespeare did do some rewriting–for example, of King Lear, where the Quarto version is substantially different from that of the First Folio.  And I think the author doesn’t give enough weight to writing-as-a-job vs. writing-to-create-art. If your next meal depends on getting your novel finished, you’re not going to spend months revising its conclusion.

I’m on board, though, with the author’s discussion of the typewriter’s effect on rewriting.  The typewriter didn’t actually make rewriting easier; in a sense, it made the process harder.

Today we equate a keyboard with speed, the fastest way to get words down, but as Sullivan points out this wasn’t always the case. In fact, a typescript offered a chance to slow down. Most Modernist writers, like Hemingway with “The Sun Also Rises,” wrote by hand and then painstakingly typed up the results. That took time, but seeing their writing in such dramatically different forms—handwritten in a notebook, typed on a page, printed as a proof—encouraged them to revise it aggressively.

This was certainly my experience when I wrote my original drafts by hand.

Finally, the author points out that the computer may paradoxically make us less inclined to rewrite:

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.

I think that’s right.  As I approach the end of the first draft of the novel I’m working on, I’m mulling how to approach the rewrite.  Do I start with the existing Word document, and just edit and add and cut and paste until I’m satisfied with the result?  Or do I re-keyboard the whole thing?  The former is certainly easier; just thinking about the latter makes me tired.  But re-keyboarding might cause me to re-imagine the story at a deeper level, and that might ultimately lead to a stronger finished product.

What’s a writer to do?

2 thoughts on “Why do authors rewrite?

  1. Good points all, but there’s another potential as we move forward into a predominantly digital world. I self-published a novel about a year ago. Since then, I’ve gone back on three occasions and fixed typographical errors that slipped past the editor. They were nothing major, consisting mostly of punctuation and one spelling error. The total was eight corrections.

    I see no problem doing that. But, with the ease of making changes in a digital release only, the temptation to make major content revisions is sometimes difficult to resist. Based on the updates that I get from Amazon for the ebooks on my tablet, many self-publishers aren’t successful resisting that temptation.

    I have two or three chapters that I’d love to rewrite. I haven’t because, in some way, it seems like denying a part of my growth as a writer. I hope that my writing gets better as time goes on and my experience level increases. Not being able to go back and see that improvement somehow seems wrong.

    In the days before electronic publishing, significant re-writes were rare. One that I can remember in the sci-fi\fantasy genre was when Marion Zimmer Bradley did the re-write on “The Bloody Sun” to improve the plot and correct some inconsistencies with the rest of the Darkover series. They were good changes but now, when I recommend that book to someone, I have to tell them to be careful that they’re reading the later version.

    Technology can be a two edged sword.


    • I meant to blog at one point about Tolkien’s rewrite of The Hobbit in order to better align it with Lord of the Rings. Now that I’m working on my third novel in the universe of Dover Beach, I’m itching to go back and adjust a few things in that novel. But at some point you just have to give it up and move on to something new.


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