There’s No Such Thing As Good Writing

As fellow editor Gary Deddo likes to tell the story, his ninth-grade English teacher was the perfect stereotype. Glasses, tight face, hair in a bun, outdated dress that came up in a tight collar around her neck, leaning over her desk and in a crackly voice exhorting her students, “There’s no such thing as good writing. [Dramatic pause.] There’s only good rewriting.”

That was the last thing Gary and his classmates wanted to hear. But he remembered. And now, as an editor, he knows it’s true. He rewrites. His authors rewrite. I rewrite. Even geniuses rewrite. Contrary to myth, Mozart and Beethoven regularly reworked their compositions.

William Zinsser famously begins his classic On Writing Well with a story about a time he and “Dr. Brock” were on a panel about writing:

Dr. Brock was asked if it was important to rewrite. Absolutely not, he said, “Let it all hang out,” and whatever form the sentences take will reflect the writer at his most natural. I then said that rewriting is the essence of writing. I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences repeatedly, and then rewrite what they have rewritten. I mentioned that E. B. White and James Thurber rewrote their pieces eight or nine times. (pp. 3-4)

Zinsser generously suggests that there is a range of writers and writing patterns, that not everyone is alike and that whatever helps you write is for the good. But since his whole book is essentially about how to rewrite, clearly he thinks a piece that required no rewriting would be as rare as a hole in one by a first-time golfer. (That his book is now in its seventh edition also bears witness to his belief in rewriting.)

Rewriting is not the message we want to hear because it means work. It means taking time. It means hard thought. It means trying several variations to see which works best. It means listening to an objective voice from the outside who points out problems. It means paying attention to word choice, and taking the time to find the best one. It means being brutally honest with yourself about those phrases (and pages) you are in love with, and being willing to mercilessly consign them to the eternal destruction of the recycle bin.

Gary’s ninth-grade teacher summed it up well by quoting Ernest Hemingway: “The test of a book is how much good stuff you can throw away.”

2 responses to “There’s No Such Thing As Good Writing”

  1. I think it was Flaubert who spent one whole day in the writing of Madame Bovary agonizing over whether to use one word. He finally put it in. The next day, if memory serves correctly, he took it out.

    On the other hand there are those moments when the words flow of their own accord and any rewrites are superfluous even deleterious.

  2. That’s a great story about Flaubert. And yes, when writing all comes together in a rush, it’s a delight.