The #1 Secret of Great Writers

    No 1 Secret of Great writers

    I started out writing just like everyone else—sitting in Mrs. Thompson’s (or whoever else’s) English class writing about The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

    The problem was that I wasn’t very interested.

    I didn’t care to write about old books or classic stories. I just wasn’t interested.

    Instead, I wanted to write about Michael Jordan or Larry Bird. I wanted to write about the Bulls vs. the Celtics, not the plot of Pride and Prejudice or the theme of The Old Man and the Sea. Those books were too mature for my taste.

    Not surprisingly, my writing suffered.

    Instead of drafting a paper and crafting a final product, I penned a rough draft, quickly proofread, and then turned the draft in as final.

    There were no second, third, or fourth drafts. Why? I just didn’t care about what I was writing. I didn’t care enough to put extra time into something I wasn’t interested in.

    But all of this changed when I went off to college.

    As a junior studying marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, I took a creative writing class as an elective. I’m not sure why I took this particular class, but it was probably the most appealing elective after Lying and Deception. (Yes, that was an elective and not a pre-requisite for marketing.)

    As I started the class, I began studying the required reading—Writing with Style by John R. Trimble. As I read, my eyes were opened to a writing process I had never heard of—drafting a paper and crafting a final product through multiple revisions and not just turning in a glorified rough draft.

    A second draft I had heard of, but four, five, or even six edits? Really? Some people did that?

    I had no idea. And then I came across an interview snippet with Ernest Hemingway that was the entire content of chapter 10—Revising. Here’s what it said:

    Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
    Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.
    Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
    Hemingway: Getting the words right.

    Thirty-nine revisions to get the words right? I couldn’t believe it.

    I thought great writers had golden pens. As soon as they started writing, the words flowed and everything fell into place. Did Hemingway really need thirty-nine revisions of the final page just to get the words right? The answer is yes, and that happens to be the number one secret of great writers—rewriting.

    The greatest writers are great, not only because they have a way with words and not only because they have great ideas, but more importantly, because they carefully craft their writing into a final draft that reads better than the first ever possibly could.

    They’re great writers because they’re great rewriters.

    Here are a few more quotes that illustrate this point:

    Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.
    —William Zinsser, On Writing Well

    For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really [terrible] first drafts. —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
    —Elmore Leonard, in Newsweek

    Ernerst Hemingway, William Zinsser, Anne Lamott, and Elmore Leonard all agree that rewriting is an integral part of the writing process. In fact, it’s the number one secret of great writers, and the number one secret that will propel any writer to become better at their craft.

    If you’re looking to improve your writing and hone your craft as a writer, look no further than spending more time rewriting what you’ve already written.

    Always remember, rewriting is the number one secret of great writers. Start keeping this secret, and you’ll be on your way to better writing.

    What’s your experience of rewriting? Please share in the comments.

    A guest post by Joseph Putnam. He is a freelance writer and the proud owner of 5 North Marketing. You can read his list of articles about marketing to learn more about what he writes, or follow him on Twitter @josephputnam to keep up with his latest posts.


    About the author

      Joseph Putnam

    • Joseph, this is valuable learning indeed! Thank you.

      For many people, the very act of writing is challenging. I’ve found that in such cases, writing is the goal. But as people get better, they begin to re-read what they’ve written, and demand a bit more from themselves. And so, they begin to re-write. After this, as you say, it can only get better! 🙂

    • For me, rewriting is the true joy in writing. If I write something I love and then rewrite it the next day, I love it even more. There is no greater reward than reducing a great thought to the fewest, right words.

    • kcclamb says:

      I neglected to mention that the book-blog will one day be taken down once it is complete and will then be published traditionally.

    • Steph says:

      Agree! Agree! Agree! All my students (whether undergrad writing, paralegal or law students) will tell you that the thing I say the most is: “You never turn in the first draft of anything.” It’s a mantra, really. 🙂

      • kcclamb says:

        Just wondering… How do you know if it is a first draft? What if their first draft is really just that good? I hope you don’t think I’m being rude or sarcastic or anything. I really I am wondering.

        • Steph says:

          Okay, big generalization coming here and I’m not trying to be mean, but many students are lazy and so I can just tell. When you get papers turned in with errors that a simple spell check could have caught, you pretty much know the student hasn’t even looked at what he’s typed. I give this whole spill about how you write something, walk away from it, then come back with fresh eyes. It’s to encourage not just catching silly mistakes, but also rethinking what they’re writing … and it helps to encourage them not waiting until the last minute to throw words on the page. Oh, and on larger projects, I make them turn in multiple drafts (but I still tell them I don’t want to see their first).
          Yes, I’ve had some students that I know haven’t really put much effort in and their drafts are pretty good; but everyone — EVERYONE — could use a little editing. For instance, I’m certain this comment could use a little editing … 🙂

          • kcclamb says:

            Haha, OK. That makes sense. It is hard for me to see people not taking their writing seriously. Or having to come back with new eyes. Just putting words down? When it is something creative? No Way! But that’s because I almost have to write to live. Be it songs, poems, or books (books are more common than the others). If I can’t write, I read. When I can’t do one or the other, I get stranded and am virtually forced to draw. Haha, I guess creativity is important to my existence. But I suppose that some people actually can’t stand it. I simply can’t fathom that.
            For me, editing is tends to be more handy when it comes to grammar. And I ALWAYS have people reading during the first draft. I”m too excited to keep it to myself, you know? Anyways, one of these days (and I hope its soon_ I will quit being a writer and will start being an author. I can NOT wait fro that day to come!

            • Steph says:

              I understand that “stranded” feeling but I call it “crazy.” LOL. I have to write or I get crazy (or crazier than usual, I suppose).
              And don’t ever “quit being a writer”! If you’re fortunate to become a published writer then that’s awesome and I wish you the best of luck. But you’re a writer/author/doodler … whatever you call yourself now … you’re creating. And, of that, you should be proud.

            • kcclamb says:

              HAHA! I don’t mean that I’ll quit writing. I meant an Author. I hear so many people wanting to be a writer. I just want to tell them that being a writer is easy. All you have to do is either type or else put your pen to paper. And say what you want to say. Write the story. That part is simple. It’s being an author that’s hard. Being an author is a writer who get published. They write things well enough that people want to buy and sell what it is you have to tell them. THAT is an author. Not a writer.

            • Steph says:

              I see what you’re saying; I just disagree. 🙂 The two words are interchangeable. Both mean creating something. One is not better than the other. I’m working on a novel right now that I hope to get published. I’m the writer/author of that novel, whether it gets published or not.
              Also, I don’t think writing is easy. I think it comes more easily to those of us that have been gifted with that talent. But just like some people are talented at sports and some aren’t, it’s the same with writing.
              Just my two cents 🙂

            • kcclamb says:

              I guess I take the word choice personally because I want to actually be published. I already write. In fact, I’m writing a book-blog currently. If you care to check it out, I believe you only need to click my comment name (or whatever that is called). Unfortunately, the only person who ever comments is my best friend. I would welcome any criticism you can give me (Grammar, characters, plot, etc). I always feel like I ‘m pulling teeth when searching for feedback from people I actually know.

            • Steph says:

              Yes, I just clicked your name and it opened your site in a new window. I’ll take a look and let you know what I think on there. 🙂

    • Maggie says:

      Thank you! I thought I was the only one writing and rewriting. Maybe there’s hope for me as a writer after all ;0)

    • Betsy Borchardt says:

      I’ve completed my first novel and have had to do a fair amount of rewriting, some parts more than three drafts. I came to realize this greatly increases the impact of my scenes, however, as I realized the need to rewrite, I felt I was a second class writer. Thanks for the great post, Joseph. I’m beginning to think of myself as a writer with much promise.

    • Great post with valuable insight (and I love the quotes, especially the one from Hemingway). I think authors have to see themselves as artists just like painters, sculptors and musicians. I saw an interview with a favorite musician of mine, Jason Mraz, not long ago and he said he wrote over 100 songs for his latest album and had to whittle it down to 12, adjust choruses, rewrite some lyrics, etc. It’s definitely a process — I’m not always a huge fan of it, at some point I get tired of reading the same few lines over and over again, but in those cases I just have to take a break and come back to it later.

      One small side note — to the folks who are criticizing this lovely guest blogger, please note that there is a big difference between errors in a blog with valuable insight that someone has shared with us other writer folk for free and a final product that we intend to sell in the marketplace.

      I thought it was a great piece Joseph, thank you for sharing!

    • Rewriting is what makes your story better, but there is a danger of landing in the ‘never-ending-rewrite’ land. I know people who have been writing a single (!) novel for years now because they keep rewriting it. At some point you need to stop and move on, start on the next story, because no story will ever be perfect.

    • kcclamb says:

      That may be true for most writers. However, I must say, I disagree in my regard. To me the biggest thing in writing is patience. And when inspiration strikes, don’t wait to finish your current project. Write it down!!! Become your characters! If you can’t become them, make them YOU. Run with your ideas. Don’t stop until you hit a writers block. Then you just need to wait. And be patient. Until you finally get the right way to put your words down. To me, the only re-write you should do is this: edit. You edit for grammar and synonyms. Not your plot or characters. Do you notice that a character is slacking off, but you feel they are vital to the plot? Incorporate them into the very next plot. Sorry. I could wind up writing my own whole blog post on this subject. Don’t get me started. (No, that is not a threat. Haha. I just don’t think you want to hear my endless ranting about it.)

      • PJ Reece says:

        You aspire to publish your story via the traditional press. That’s great. If you attract a publisher, and you begin working with their editor, DON`T TELL THEM that you`re not interested in editing for plot and character. What else is the editor going to do? Grammar and “synonyms” will be dealt with by the copy editor. In my experience we often don’t know exactly what kind of monster we’re creating when we write. Often, it takes an insightful third party to point out the diamond in the rough. To polish a gem usually requires reshaping, rejigging, rethinking. My greatest joys in the writing process come from the delightful surprises that emerge from fine-tuning plot and character. I wish you the same joy.

        • kcclamb says:

          I suppose that you could say that the plots and characters are edited as I go, now that I’m thinking about it. (sorry that it’s been a long time to reply). I like getting people to read a work in progress. I’m so hooked on emotion and what is going on that, if it isn’t edited as I go then I will have to re-do it all. There was one point in one book where my friend felt there wasn’t enough on a sub-plot. So I added things in. If I hadn’t, the next chapter would have been very different than what it is now. I liked what I had in mind before and all, but because it was done during, it changed the story in a way that I love. Had I waited later to edit, I would have done everything in my power to change it to make it fit in with what I already had.

          Maybe it is easier to say I’m more of an impromptu writer. I go with what ever is written previously, because I rarely have the stories pre-mapped out.

    • Waterfall says:

      Of all the articles I’ve read on this site since I first joined, this has stood out to me the most. I’m very new to writing, and I know my stuff isn’t that great. Right now I don’t have the time I need to dedicate myself to writing as a profession, but I figure I can get some practice in the mean time by using writing memes and such.

      The idea of rewriting has never appealed to me, but I often do it without realising (like now on this comment, I’ve done it twice, ha). I think this is an area I can work on to make what I write better.

    • My worst experience as a writer was around rewriting. Some years ago I wrote a book called, “Learn to Love” (which has now been translated into 8 languages). When I finally finished writing the 120,000 word book, I sent the publishers my draft and heaved a deep sigh of relief.

      But then the editor started working with me – and I had to rewrite every darn chapter. It was heart-breaking work. Now, when I read the book, it doesn’t really sound like me. Well, one day I’m going to write a new version of it.

      These days, I’ve learned to love the task of rewriting. It’s such a creative act to pare down what you’ve written and strip it of everything superfluous. I think the key is to first write fully, fluently, and wildly. Then pare down.

      It reminds me of how Michelangelo was said to approach carving. He was intent on slowly releasing the beautiful figure hidden within the block of rock.

    • Hengameh says:

      I don’t really pay attention to rewriting. When I write, that’s it, in one sitting… feel lazy to revise.
      I have a sample of my writing here, would be great if you can comment. 🙂 thanks

    • Great post. I have a writer friend and I suspect he re-writes drafts often. Re-writes must be frustrating but I experience similar challenges in my line of work.

    • Rewriting is something I should pay more attention to, especially since I’m interested in writing my own novel. Thanks for a lovely post!

    • My experience with rewriting is 100% this. High school: easy A’s on a draft-plus-proofread just because I could string together words without sounding moronic. YEARS of assuming good writers got it right in one, or at least got close. I could not even imagine what they would be changing in rewrites. Wasn’t a third or fourth draft like a third or fourth coat of paint? What was going to change at that point except a word here or there? And the only thing that ever made me understand rewrites–and I’m still in my infancy of understanding them–was realizing how many invisible elements make a story GOOD, then learning to conscientiously apply them to make a story BETTER. Which sometimes requires replacing pages of work with completely different pages. Crazy!

      Anyway, this is a long biographical post just to say that yes, rewriting–actual writing again–is where the magic happens.

    • I just wrote my first ever draft . And your piece of advice is going to help me alot !! THanks 😀

    • David says:

      An often overlooked secret to great writers – a great editor.

    • Quite recently Marie Forleo in her Marie TV episode “Four steps to find Your voice” said: to find your voice say one and the same thing in 5 different ways, then you will find your voice, among those variants. I believe, this principle can be applied to rewriting, in order not to confuse it with proofreading.

    • Speaking of- I meant draft – not daft! Oh, auto correct!

    • Hi Joseph

      I hear other writers and bloggers talk about how ‘quickly’ they write and so I’ve always thought my rewriting obsession was slightly bonkers, that it meant I can’t be very good at this writing lark, or I’d nail it first time.

      How wonderful to find out I’m not mad after all!

      Thank you…


    • It is a skill many adults don’t practice, but kids now learn about the cycle & process of writing. Brainstorming, and dafts are so important. I also have my students write in pen, so they cannot erase- we waste time, and often loose great ideas that way.

      Also – for those who were nasty about the editing error or type-o, it isn’t a sign of poor writing- happens to the best of us.

      • Joseph says:

        Hi Amy, thank you for your support. 🙂

    • Thank you for contributing this guest post: I really enjoyed reading your work.

      However, with all due respect, I beg to differ: re-writing may not always be essential for writers.

      Indeed, it is possible to write the first time and make your work sing a tune.

      It is called “divine inspiration” and it does happen to literary artists every now and then. When you tap into the power of the subconscious mind, such miracles can happen.

      Picture William Wordsworth strolling about in the Lake District of England centuries ago and being inspired by Daffodils dancing in the breeze. He must have jotted down that verse and never revised it, but I don’t know for sure.

      In my case, it has happened many times that I have written for the first time and sent my piece off for publication and it has been published in its entirety without any editing work.

      And I am a writer, but not in the same league as some of the Nobel Prize winners you have mentioned here.
      I would like to open your mind to the possibility of free writing and stream of consciousness writing.

      There are no absolutes here. Sometimes there is a need for revision and other times there is no need at all. Of course, others may give you a second or third opinion. That can be valuable as long as you remember it is merely their opinion. Ray Bradbury and other writers never attended any creative writing class at college.


      • Joseph says:

        Hi Archan,

        I agree with your comment. There are times where the writing just flows and everything falls into place in the first draft. But in my experience, this is the exception and not the rule. When I first learned about rewriting, I was encouraged because before that I thought I could never be a writer unless I could write perfect first drafts like the greatest authors. Later I learned that most of them don’t write perfectly the first time. They spend hours revising and the result is a masterpiece. If you’re able to consistently do this on the first pass, then I’m quite jealous of your writing skills. I’m sure years of practice helps as well.

    • Ivett says:

      I am from Mexico, I studied English Literature and Language and I have started to write in English. It is something that I didn’t do since college, and it is great, though it is hard for me to rewrite, maybe because it is my second language, or because I need to go to the dictionary too often, I guessed reading this article has help me to accept that reality: good writing comes from rewriting. I think I am fluent, at least that is what my husband says, he is from California and English is his native language. I know I have to put more effort in it and not feel bad about rewriting, on the contrary, find the correct words should bring me satisfaction and joy.

    • Liz says:

      The funny thing for me is I tend to do my rewriting after I publish. LOL!

      That happens most when I try to write and publish all in the same day. It really does take several pass throughs to get it right.

      But like you said Joseph, you have to know when to stop and that’s often my hangup.

      Liz 🙂

    • I have to admit, that I was thinking that with a few tweeks here and there my “darlings” (as Stephen King calls them) could be rewritten. But now that I’m over 19,000 words into my novel, I’m realizing, how important rewriting will be.

      I do believe the best writers are the ones disciplined enough to rewrite and rewrite again.


    • I have a love/hate relationship with rewriting. I love it because it makes my writing better. I hate it because I’ll sit up for hours, staring at a piece of paper with words I abhor (that I wrote no less!), stressing about how to fix it.

      I finished a story I’d been wanting to write for three years, two months ago. The other night, I decided to pick it up, revise it a bit and try to sell it. I hated it. Oh my god, I hated it. I grabbed the whiskey from the cabinet and sat down to get to work.

      Slowly, but surely, it got better. That’s what makes revision worth it, because it transforms something mediocre or terrible, into something much, much better.

      Or maybe it was just the whiskey.

    • Rewriting is almost like an obsession. Sometimes I write the shortest little posts and I obsess about one sentence that just doesn’t seem to flow properly. I am sure no one really cares but me… but me.
      Thanks for the great post!

    • If I could get my students to understand how important revision is, maybe they would build in time to revise and not procrastinate to the last minute to write the first word. Bwahahaha.

      Truly, time is the key to the revision process. Begin with enough time to revise.

      Good post. Thanks for being another writer in the revisionist camp.

      • Joseph says:

        What if the first assignment due was a draft, then a second and a third? Would that force students to write and rewrite? 🙂

    • I do a fair amount of re-writing and I thought that meant I wasn’t a very good writer. This article makes me feel a lot better about my writing abilities.

    • I completely agree. I’d guess that thoughtful, purposeful rewriting takes up more than 75% of my working time. Only about 15% of my freelance hours are spent on writing phrases or sentences for the very first time.

      You may have noticed that those numbers only add up to 85%. I have to admit, I still waste maybe 10% of my time on the other kind of rewriting – the scattergun, pick-it-til-it-bleeds kind that does my writing no favours. There comes a point where I have to say, “This is not perfect, but it is true and clear,” so that I can get it posted!

      • Um, 90%, not 85%. More rewriting required!

      • You’re totally right. Rewriting is critical for improved writing, but you have to know when to stop. Hemingway rewrote the last page 39 times, but that doesn’t mean he spent as much time on the rest of the book. Every piece can be improved through rewriting, but you’ll never publish if you never finalize what you’re working on.

    • After I have written an article or memoir, I bring it up on my laptop every day and make corrections, or improvements. EVERY DAY until a day arrives that I can not see anything to change or improve. Then and only then I say, “This is the best I can do!” and call it finished.

      • Hi Esther,

        In my experience, rewriting is critical, but I never arrive at the point where the piece is perfect. There’s always something I feel can be improved each time I rewrite, but the secret is getting to the point where it’s good enough for what I’m writing it for. I usually do between three and five passes per article, but I’ve done as much as eight to ten. Maybe someday I’ll get up to 39 like Mr. Hemingway.

    • I seem to remember reading somewhere (I forget where) that 90% of Writing is re-writing. (or somewhere along those lines. Never been good at memorising quotes 🙁

      It is do darn true too.

      Lovely Post. Thanks for the thoughts

      Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    • PJ Reece says:

      I love rewriting. Then after a few rewrites of my manuscript, I begin to hate rewriting. Then, working with an editor, Wow! rewriting is fun again. Then it sucks. Then I can’t stand it anymore. Then the manuscript finally starts to look like a work of art. Then the publisher wants more changes, then… then it’s published. I rewrote my novel, “ROXY”, sixteen times.

      • I take a perverse inspiration from this! I’m in draft 7 of my WIP. I foresee many changes still to come, but I think it’s got good bones now.

    • Peter Usagi says:

      Yes, I agree. This would have been an outstanding article…if the author hadn’t tripped over his shoelaces while cautioning us about the dangers of wayward laces.

      • I think it’s easy to confuse proofreading with editing. Anyone can learn to proofread. (You can pay someone to proofread).

        But you can’t get someone else to rewrite something you’ve written. Rewriting lies at the heart of the art of writing.

        • Yes, and proofreading is different from copy (or line) editing — spell check doesn’t usually help you find a more succinct or active way of writing. As for substantive editing — I am slowly learning the essential steps for taking feedback from an editor during this process: 1) Shut up. 2) Listen. 3) Mull. 4) Rewrite. Repeat, as necessary 🙂

    • You must have read my mind. This post is timely…as I’m about to begin rewriting my 1st draft:) Needed to be reminded that this is the #1 thing that great writers do:) Thanks!

    • Joe Smith says:

      Once I learned the difference between re-writing and wordsmithing, (that’s pretty much all I was doing) the followed much easier.

    • Mike Fook says:

      You are RIGHT ON with this! I have watched some of my books go from barely readable, to masterpieces after 10-20 edits. The technical stuff is easy. Getting it to make sense – is easy. The real masterpiece is crafted when the author rewrites sentences, paragraphs, and whole chapters, to give the book the most impact it can possibly have. Great writers are ruthless rewriters. Nobody is perfect and bangs it out on first try.

    • Vishnu says:

      Thats a wonderful piece of advice , and i’m new to this habit of rewriting . I’m eager to incorporate this habit to my writings and see how it works . Thanks for sharing 🙂

      • You’re welcome. There’s nothing I can recommend more to new writers than learning how important rewriting is for the writing process.

    • Samantha says:

      I so agree. I didn’t start re-writing until I went on a creative writing course a few years back, but my writing has improved no end for it

      • Hi Samantha, I’m glad this advice has helped you with your writing. It’s definitely benefited me very much.

    • Great post! I agree with this “They’re great writers because they’re great rewriters.”

    • phil says:

      One bit of advice that sometimes makes sense to me: “Practise what you preach.”
      The writer of this article could have followed his own advice. He pretty obviously didn’t re-write this draft – or even check for basic errors. Pity.

      • neal says:

        like misspelling practise?

        • “Practise” is the correct spelling for the verb; “practice” is the correct spelling for the noun. Same for “license” and “licence.” 🙂

      • Update:
        A naughty gremlin snuck into the post and created a mistake. We told it off and sent it to its room. The gremlin says, “Sowwy” 8-(

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