William James on rewriting

William James said he wrote every page of the Principles of Psychology four or five times over. Vladimir Nabokov made a similar admission: that he had rewritten, often several times, every word he had ever published.

The craft of writing is in large part rewriting. The main thing at first is to get our ideas down — to record rough outlines, key images and impressions. After that comes the slower work of rewriting: changing and rearranging, pruning and smoothing. We strengthen connections, tighten syntax, pare away the clutter, and find words that tally better with our intentions.

Rewriting overlaps with editing. Both aim to enhance the sense, structure, style and coherence of prose. Writers often describe the act of verbal composition in three-dimensional spatial terms, almost as though they were sculpting. The comparison is familiar. Sculptors prod and pester and play with a lump until at last, inspected from various angles, it has become a luminous or at least bearable object.

In a letter to his friend Sarah Whitman, to whom he had sent some proofs of the Principles, William James wrote:

If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified in a crude shape, I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.

Toil, torture, scrape, offends: his words convey concretely the difficulty of rewriting. This is why some people dislike it. It takes practice and perseverance to master the selection and arrangement of words. Ernest Hemingway told the Paris Review that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied with it. Asked what the problem was, he replied, “Getting the words right.” James would have sympathised.

11 Responses to William James on rewriting

  1. John Cowan says:

    Then there’s W. H. Auden (or perhaps some other poet) who spent all of one morning adding a comma, and all of that afternoon taking it out again.

    At the opposite extreme, Robert A. Heinlein and Rex Stout both claimed that they never rewrote anything except by editorial demand (as in “I won’t publish this until you fix these”). Isaac Asimov did exactly two drafts of everything, no more. I’m pretty close to that, but I don’t write for paid publication.

  2. Fran says:

    It’s something you have to force yourself to do, isn’t it … just keep writing even though it seems as though you’re chucking rubbish at the page. The rewriting is most of the work.

  3. Claude says:

    Boileau would approve!

    Hâtez-vous lentement, et sans perdre courage,
    Vingt fois sur le métier, remettez votre ouvrage,
    Polissez-le sans cesse, et le repolissez,
    Ajoutez quelquefois, et souvent effacez.

    (Art Poétique: Chant 1)

    But then, he also said (and it seems contradictory):
    Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement,
    Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément.

    I love the rewriting. It gives me so much satisfaction when I finally feel the work is finished, and I’m pleased with what I have done. I’ve never written a masterpiece. But it’s a deep joy to put down well on paper what is in my heart. I knew I would be a writer as soon as I learned how to read, at 5 years old. Immediately, I had to describe all my activities with rhymes. And I would search for new words to improve what I had written the day before. What fun I had, and still have!

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    The more I revisit the more I rewrite. Are we ever finished or happy with our work?
    I sent out a piece recently, a dark piece, my writing tends to be shadowed, and two completely at odds editorial comments came back at me. One saying he never connected with the character, she lacked ‘motivation” the other saying she totally “got” her because of the way I had written background of the protagonist.
    Writing is soooooooo subjective.
    XO
    WWW

  5. Stan says:

    John: I love the comma remark. I think it was Wilde’s. Auden did revise his poems considerably even after publication, as did Yeats. And Joyce is said to have revised a single sentence in Finnegans Wake over a 14-year stretch.

    Darwin was more on the Heinlein side. He said, “I never study style; all that I do is try to get the subject as clear as I can in my head, and express it in the commonest language which occurs to me. But I generally have to think a good deal before the simplest arrangement occurs to me.” This method must have entailed a phenomenal effort of concentration.

    Fran: Yes, rewriting is usually where most of the work is. But as well as forcing yourself to do it, you also have to force yourself to stop, eventually.

    Claude: Merci pour les vers de Boileau; ils ont beaucoup de sens, surtout les dernières lignes. And thank you for your lovely account of how it started with you. I also felt that urge at an early age. It’s rare that I capture something as precisely as I would wish, but there’s immense pleasure to be had in the attempt.

    WWW: ‘Are we ever finished or happy with our work?’ I’m relieved to say that’s a can of worms I’ve already opened! It can be difficult to decide when a piece of writing is finished. It comes naturally to some; others agonise over it. And yes: assessing prose is very subjective. I think people’s response to art is often primarily emotional, but that they interpret the response intellectually.

  6. peacay says:

    <<"I enquired about Ulysses. Was it progressing?

    "I have been working hard on it all day," said Joyce.

    "Does that mean that you have written a great deal?" I said.

    "Two sentences," said Joyce.

    I looked sideways but Joyce was not smiling. I thought of Flaubert. "You have been seeking the mot juste?” I said.

    “No,” said Joyce. “I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentence. There is an order in every way appropriate. I think I have it.”

    “What are the words?” I asked.

    “I believe I told you,” said Joyce, “that my book is a modern Odyssey. Every episode in it corresponds to an adventure of Ulysses. I am now writing the Lestrygonians episode, which corresponds to the adventure of Ulysses with the cannibals. My hero is going to lunch. But there is a seduction motive in the Odyssey, the cannibal king’s daughter. Seduction appears in my book as women’s silk petticoats hanging in a shop window. The words through which I express the effect of it on my hungry hero are: ‘Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.’ [U8.638] You can see for yourself in how many different ways they might be arranged.”

    –Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses” pp19-20″ >>

    {too tangential?}

  7. Stan says:

    peacay: Not tangential at all! I considered relating the same episode. In a letter to Budgen, Joyce wrote something to the effect that the central thought or idea in his work was always simple, that the complexity lay in its means. Knit enough of those thoughts together, like the various codes and maps in Ulysses, and we’re left with a richly interconnected superabundance. The sort of thing he might have rewritten forever, if he had been even less disciplined.

  8. annie says:

    revision- to see again. I find that writing has to “cool down” for a while before rewriting/editing. Then the words become material to be manipulated /pushed and prodded. Then, it is not about “me” my words, but about getting it right, being clear.

  9. Stan says:

    Annie: That’s a good way of putting it, and it tallies with my own experience. Re-vision indeed. Returning, after waiting a while, to something we’ve created, we’re less likely to get in our own way.

  10. Jeff says:

    I like this one:

    “The purpose of rewriting and editing is not to rewrite or edit. The purpose of revision is to find a significant meaning and make it clear. …leaving what works alone and working on what needs work until the need is gone and the entire piece of writing reads as if it was written the first time, without effort, riding forth on the easy breeze of inspiration.”
    Don Murray

  11. Stan says:

    So do I, Jeff. Thanks for adding it here.

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