Information Sheet # 49
January 21, 1991
FAMOUS AUTHORS TALK ABOUT REVISING
[Coe's writing emphasis program is based on the principle
of multiple revisions of texts. The following passages perhaps
provide some helpful inspiration from various authors who have
written about their habits when rethinking and revising words
on a page.]
I'm happy when the revisions are big. I'm not speaking of stylistic
revisions, but of revision in my own understanding.
We take it that all young writers overestimate their work. It's
impossible not to--I mean if you recognized what shit you were
writing, you wouldn't write it.
I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.
...the last act of writing must be to become one's own reader.
It is, I suppose, an schizophrenic process. To begin passionately
and to end critically, to begin hot and to end cold. and, more
importantly, to try to be passion-hot and critic-cold at the
The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get
it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can
always do it better, find the exact work, the apt phrase, the
Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.
For me, most writing consists of siphoning out useless pre-story
matter, cutting and cutting and cutting, what seems to be endless
rewriting, and what is entailed in all that is patience, and
waiting, and false starts, and dead ends, and really, in a way,
All the best cutting is done when one is sick of the writing.
What makes me happy is rewriting. In the first draft you get
your ideas and your theme is clear, if you are using some kind
of metaphor you get that established, and certainly you have
to know where you're coming out. But the next time through it's
like cleaning the house, getting rid of all the junk, getting
things in the right order, tightening things up. I like the
process of making writing neat.
I am to be content with what I produce. It's an aim I never
achieve, but I go over my work word by word, time and again,
so as to be as little dissatisfied as possible.
I do not choose the right word. I get rid of the wrong one.
I have rewritten--often several times--every work I have ever
published. My pencils outlast their erasers.
Joyce Carol Oates
The pleasure is the rewriting: The first sentence can't be written
until the final sentence is written. This is a koan-like statement,
and I don't mean to sound needlessly obscure of mysterious,
but it's simply true. The completion of any work automatically
necessitates its revisioning.
Rewriting is when playwriting really gets to be fun. In baseball
you only get three swings and you're out. In rewriting, you
get as many swings as you want and you know, sooner or later,
you'll hit the ball.
Isaac Bashevis Singer
The main rule of a writer is never to pity your manuscript.
If you see something is no good, throw it away and begin again.
A lot of writers have failed because they have too much pity.
They have already worked so much, they cannot just throw it
away. But I say that the wastepaper basket is a writers best
friend. My wastepaper basket is on a stead diet.
W riting well involves two gifts--the art of adding and the art
of taking away. Of the two, the first is more important, since
without it the second could not exist.
Robert Penn Warren
I do think one thing is always true: the degree of self-criticism
is only good for a veto. You can throw out what you've got wrong,
and you can even try to say why its wrong, but you can't say,
"Now I'm going to do it right."
No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone