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