Steven Pinker on rewriting

When you want to improve a piece of writing, showing it to someone (such as a beta reader) is often a good idea. This doesn’t apply to everything, obviously, but it’s especially valuable for text intended for publication, or when you’re concerned about how the audience will react to what you’ve written.

Steven Pinker, in The Sense of Style (2014), recommends that you also ‘show a draft to yourself’ – preferably having spent time away from it. This too is sound advice. It’s not new, but I like the slant Pinker puts on it, that you should show it to yourself as though you were another person, which, in a sense proportionate to the time that has passed, you are. He says you may find yourself wondering, as he does:

‘What did I mean by that?’ or ‘How does this follow?’ or, all too often, ‘Who wrote this crap?’

He then discusses rewriting:

I am told there are writers who can tap out a coherent essay in a single pass, at most checking for typos and touching up the punctuation before sending it off for publication. You are probably not one of them.

Pinker doesn’t elaborate on these writers who unspool their text virtually complete, but Charles Darwin came to my mind. He once wrote – where, I can’t recall – that he never studied style but would ‘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.’

For most of us mortals, it’s easier to get a rough draft down first and then revise it, sometimes over and over again. Pinker elaborates on his preferred approach:

Most writers polish draft after draft. I rework every sentence a few times before going on to the next, and revise the whole chapter two or three times before I show it to anyone. Then, with feedback in hand, I revise each chapter twice more before circling back and giving the entire book at least two complete passes of polishing. Only then does it go to the copy editor, who starts another couple of rounds of tweaking.

That’s pretty rigorous, but not unusually so for a professional writer – though it varies tremendously at all levels. As a copy editor, I receive some texts polished enough to need only the ‘tweaking’ that Pinker mentions, but it’s more common to receive texts that warrant more involved work.

[Previously: William James on rewriting; James Thurber on rewriting.]

16 Responses to Steven Pinker on rewriting

  1. Chips Mackinolty says:

    It depends enormously on deadlines that face us. Filing, as I did, yarns for daily newspapers, your instructions are clear: “we want x words on such-and-such” (and if it was a Friday, you had to file early). In this case your life depends on copy takers (pre-internet) and sub-editors. Filing into, say, a back page sports story near “live”–ie filing at half time, then five minutes before full time, was a nightmare.

    Writing to generous, even open-ended deadlines, can have its own traps, of course. Pinker’s and others “draft after draft” process can sometimes be a fruitless journey to perfection which a sub-editor/copy editor can knock into shape in a fraction of the time and energy!

  2. John Cowan says:

    I normally need only tweaking, but of course I have to mull a piece in my head for a long time before I can spout it.

  3. Roger says:

    Authors’ corrections to their own drafts sometimes get published. They are instructive — for me at least. I think it may have been Charles Lamb who was horrified by the sight of a writer’s workshop, by which he meant the blemished, correction-filled pages that were the starting points for polished verse. (It was Lamb on Milton. Stephen Matterson quotes Lamb on the repugnance Lamb felt at seeing handwritten versions.)

  4. alexguenther says:

    The Darwin quote reminds me of something I just saw by Gibbon on his composition method:

    “It has always been my practice to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory; but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work.”

    (from here:

  5. Janette Shipston Chan says:

    Love it…all those questions are cropping up on draft #4, so perfect timing!

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Very timely for me. I was twitching at the final pre-publish of an anthology recently. One that I’d edited and finitum. We’re never finished.


  7. sarahlivne says:

    Perhaps the shift between polishing a paragraph in your head first and then writing it, in Darwin’s times, and writing and rewriting several times, as is more common today, has to do with the ease at which we can now rewrite, using word processors, try a new form, read it out loud and then change it, as opposed to them having to do everything with pen and paper, and then copy whole pages to ‘clean’ drafts. But then again – perhaps not. I think the difference is very personal. Some people can ‘see’ a paragraph better and clearer in their mind and are able to polish it more easily before it has been written down. Once it’s written – it’s harder to ‘show it to yourself’ and read it in a critical way and consider changes. It has more substance as an existing text and your mind, while reading it, is too busy deciphering it and wondering what it means to stop and ask yourself why it was put this way in the first place.

    • Stan Carey says:

      All good points, Sarah. I think the change in the medium, from pen and paper to digital, has had a great effect on how we write, for the reasons you say and for others. We can easily afford to be looser with drafts, because there’s so little pain in deleting and revising compared with having to rewrite by hand, especially when materials were in short supply or their cost was a consideration. And there’s also a strong personal element to this, as you say. No doubt there remain many people who write mostly in their heads before putting a fairly polished draft down on paper or screen (though I am not one of them).

  8. scarlett1000 says:

    I’m with Steven Pinker on this one. When writing a book review or article, I always leave it for at least 24 hours before coming back to review with fresh eyes. I am always amazed at the sentences that require re-working, or often the paragraphs that need shifting! A great article and really enjoyed the discussions above. What a literary lot of followers you have!

    • Stan Carey says:

      I think we get very entrained in the writing we do, unable generally to rework it radically enough without first stepping back from it. The longer the break we can take, the better: often whole paragraphs can and should be moved around, as you say, or even removed altogether. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve disregarded my original introduction to a piece of writing because only when it was finished did it become obvious what the introduction should be.

      The readers of this blog are a fine lot, civil and helpful and well read!

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