The Rewrite: Good and Bad Literary Habits of Great Writers

Some months ago I wrote an article on “Literary Beginnings,” which contained many excellent suggestions, such as, “Practice is a great educator and teacher for the writer. To write much, and to publish little, is the axiom in this profession.”

This brings to mind a recent conversation with a well-known short story author. Regarding his literary habits, he said:

I wrote four books before I felt my writing was worthy of publication. The manuscript of my fourth book was accepted, and passed through several editions. Since that time I have rewritten the second and third manuscripts of short stories, and they also have been published in print and digital book form.”

He continues, “The process of writing all of my short stories is the same. I will tell you how I write them. First, I evolve the idea. I form the plot. I study the story mentally for weeks. I then revise it and then rewrite it. I then share the story with friends and ask their opinions as to how this or that will turn out.

If they are able to tell, I underscore that portion and later rewrite it to make it more obscure. From 2-3 weeks I do not look at what I have written. I forget about it so it sits and has time to ‘ripen,’ as it were. Last, I make final revisions and make sure my writing is in top shape. This thorough preparation has been one of the secrets of my success.

Here are some other lessons I have learned about the good and bad literary habits of great writers:

Thoroughness

Many great writers owe much of their success to thoroughness. Isaac Newton, the noted English scientist and mathematician, wrote his “Chronology” fifteen times over before he was satisfied with it. Famous historian, Edward Gibbon wrote his “Memoirs” nine times. English poet Thomas Macaulay rewrote chapters several times before he felt his book was suitable for publication. Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, and we might add many others, were just as thorough.

Perseverance, also, adds to success

E. Bulwer Lytton is a good example. His first book, “Weeds and Wild Flowers,” proved a failure. He wrote another, “Falkland,” but it met the fate of the first. Determined to succeed, and brushing off his failures, he worked on. He was incessantly hardworking and read non-stop. In less than a year he completed a third book, which attracted some attention. From this time his literary life was a succession of
triumphs.

Failure is important

Literary writer Benjamin Disraeli reached success only through a succession of failures—his first works were laughed at and regarded as “indications of literary lunacy.”

Stephen King believes in inspiration, but also lots of study and hard work. “Talent is cheaper than table salt,” says King. “What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Uncover diamonds by rewriting work

On the rewriting process, Piers Paul Read, a British novelist and non-fiction writer, says: “Good novels are not written, they are rewritten. Great novels are diamonds mined from layered rewrites.”

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