The secret to great writing! It’s right here! Promise!

My daughter hit me up to write about rewriting for her English class. I think she got out of doing homework for this. You’ll note that I backpedaled off some of the words I’d usually choose to use, and I also mentioned Instagram to make it seem like I’m hip to the kids’ fresh lingo these days. Anyway, here you go: the secret to great writing.

People often ask me what the secret is to writing. It’s like they think there’s this little one bit of hidden knowledge that, if you learn it, you’ll become a rich and famous author, beloved by millions who read your books (or at least see the movies based on them). Guess what? There is. Gather round, lads and lasses, and I’ll tell you:

The secret to writing is rewriting.

That’s it. That’s it right there. Sure, there are great authors who wake up and spit out paragraphs of timeless prose, who can roll out of bed and write lines that people will be reading a hundred years from now. But those types are few and far between; they show up about once a century or so. For the rest of us, it’s all about writing something down, looking it over, deciding that some (or all) of it stinks, and tearing it down to build it better.

This isn’t like building a bridge. You get halfway through a bridge and you decide you don’t like it, you don’t get to knock it down and start over. You’re stuck with what you’ve started. But the words you write for your next research paper aren’t written in stone. Heck, chances are they’re not even written on paper at all. Don’t get too attached to them, and for heaven’s sake, don’t just write the first thing that comes to mind and think, “Heck with it. That’s good enough. What’s on Instagram?”

The writing gets it out on the page. The rewriting makes it shine. Ernest Hemingway, an author you may or may not have read but should, rewrote the final paragraph of “The Sun Also Rises” 39 times. One paragraph! Thirty-nine times! He did that because he knew that last paragraph had to be absolutely perfect, to say exactly what he wanted it to say.

(As a side note: Hemingway said that what every writer needs is a very good … well, let’s call it a “garbage detector,” though he didn’t use the word “garbage.” What he meant was that you need to be able to read your own writing and know when it stinks. And generally, if it’s a first draft, it stinks, no matter who you are. Your garbage detector will go off, and you should listen to it.)

So when you’re planning for time to write, don’t just plan on writing your paper once. Plan on writing it two or three times. (You probably don’t need to do it 39 times.) Sure, it’ll take more time. But you’ll get closer to the truth, and — guess what — closer to a very good grade.

Now, you’ll pardon me. I’ve got to go back and make sure this says exactly what I mean hope it says want it to you need to hear.


3 Responses to “The secret to great writing! It’s right here! Promise!

  • Great advice to which I’d humbly like to add a snippet from my geography teacher, keep it simple, keep it clear assume you are writing for someone who knows nothing about the subject you are writing about.

  • Steve Elling
    ago5 years

    So does this mean I should proofread my stories before I send them to the desk?

  • Of course not. Editors need a reason to exist. Makes ’em feel better about themselves.

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