Not Once Not Twice

“People say that I write simply, but they don’t realize how much I rewrite.” Brian Moore

Years ago when I was teaching mathematics in high school, I used to tell my students that each time they wrote an exam, they had to check their papers before handing them in. Not once, not twice, but three times; the first time for themselves, the second time for me as their teacher, and the third time for their parents as an appreciation of all the trouble they went through. They whined and nagged at first but then they were surprised to find how effective this method was in spotting their mistakes. So it more or less became a rule. They even joked and said they were lucky I wasn’t teaching them English since it would be harder to revise. True, as Gustave Flaubert said:

“What a beastly thing prose is! It’s never finished; there is always something to do over. A good prose sentence must be like a good line of verse, unchangeable, as rhythmic and as sonorous.”

Are you one of those writers who revise and edit while writing?

“I write five pages a day, every day, and these are finished pages. I make a few pencil changes while the page is on the typewriter roller, but I don’t revise and I don’t retype anything. Essentially what you see is my first draft. Sometimes the five pages will take an hour, sometimes six, but I won’t leave until they’re done.” Robert Parker

Or do you pour everything out on paper and start revising only after you’ve completed the first draft?

“I do thirty-seven drafts. I once tried doing thirty-three, but something was lacking, a certain-how shall I say? -je ne sais quoi.” S.J. Perelman

I belong to the second group, even though while I’m writing, I stop and think about what I wrote earlier and get tempted to rewrite. But I go ahead with my story. Although I find rewriting to be a dull task, it is nevertheless more nerve racking than the actual writing. Many were the times when I started to revise but after a few pages put my manuscript away. The excitement of writing the first draft, the spontaneity, the delight of being caught in the plot, in the story with the characters, is gone when I edit. On the contrary, now comes the task of how to put it right or how to make it more plausible for the reader. I have done my part of writing what I wanted to, now how do I make my readers interested in my story? Whenever I can, I search for the exact words to reveal the exact images and emotions I want, and I delete ruthlessly until I feel I have the done the best I could. And as Ernest Hemingway wrote:

“You must be prepared to work always without applause. When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights and the sounds to the reader, and by the time you have completed this the words, sometimes, will not make sense to you as you read them, so many times have you reread them. By the time the book comes out you will have started something else and it is all behind you and you do not want to hear about it.”


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3 Responses to Not Once Not Twice

  1. missprofessorcasey says:

    “Not once, not twice, but three times; the first time for themselves, the second time for me as their teacher, and the third time for their parents as an appreciation of all the trouble they went through.” I think this is fabulous. I am an English teacher and when we discuss revision, we always talk about it as an act of respect – respect for themselves, respect for me. However, I think your logic is wonderful; if you don’t mind, I think I will borrow it next semester.

  2. maudlin says:

    I’m a bit of a crossover, I guess – I try to write without editing because I feel continuous editing hampers my creative ‘flow’, but at the same time the perfectionist in me wants every sentence to be perfectly sculpted before I move to the next. Which, you know, really doesn’t work. I’m going to have to learn to be more spontaneous!

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