Steven Pinker on rewriting

September 13, 2017

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?’

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James Thurber on writing and rewriting

August 10, 2012

A few lines from James Thurber today: first, on the fun of writing and rewriting:

The act of writing is either something the writer dreads or actually likes, and I actually like it. Even rewriting’s fun. You’re getting somewhere, whether it seems to move or not.

I do think it’s possible to both dread and enjoy the act of writing: these need not be mutually exclusive. And I know writers who are world-class procrastinators because they can’t bear the thought of writing, but who like nothing better once they knuckle down to it.

I also love this description of how Thurber’s act of writing appears to the people around him:

I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.’

Both quotations are from ‘The Art of Fiction No. 10’ at the Paris Review.


William James on rewriting

December 17, 2010

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.