'My Pencils Outlast Their Erasers': Great Writers on the Art of Revision

Even the greats don't nail it on the first try.

banner_leonard.jpg

It's a new year, and hopeful souls around the world are working diligently on their plans to revise—their health, their attitudes, their lives. But who knows more about the art of revision than great writers? Below, 20 famous writers share their thoughts on revision. The consensus? It's pretty important.

elmore leonard.jpg

"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." —Elmore Leonard, Newsweek, 1985

"Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings." —Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing, 1916

"I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers." —Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966

"Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that's what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings) ... I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: 'Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%. Good luck.' —Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." —Mark Twain

hemingway.jpg

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right. —Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

"I don't write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn't work, or what simply is not alive." —Susan Sontag

"I'm all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil." —Truman Capote, Conversations With Capote, by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

"Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."
Samuel Johnson

"Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out." —Kurt Vonnegut, How to Use the Power of the Printed Word

dorothy parker.jpg

"It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and write it sentence by sentence—no first draft. I can't write five words but that I can change seven." —Dorothy Parker, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

"Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it." —Colette, Casual Chance, 1964

Presented by

Emily Temple is an editor at Flavorpill.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

Just In