Why Rewriting is Important (and why students don't think so)


One of the hardest things to get students to do is submit early drafts of essays for review, so they have a chance to rewrite them before the final draft is due. If you give students a deadline for an essay that is a long ways away, and tell them that you’ll happily give them feedback on drafts of their work, unless you require an early draft, you can confidently predict that less than 10% will hand in a draft.

Now, the honest truth is that many teachers don’t really want all their students to submit drafts, because if 100% of them did, it would be a huge additional load on their time.

But I’m not really concerned with teachers and their workloads here. I’m directing this at people who want to improve their writing.

The fact is that one of the best ways to improve your writing is to write multiple drafts and get feedback on those drafts. In this video I want to talk about why rewriting is important and valuable, and why so many students never both to rewrite.

I think it surprises students to learn that for many writers, rewriting is the most enjoyable part of the writing process. Students need to hear this and think about why this is so.

Given what we covered in the last video, one obvious answer to the question, “why is rewriting important and valuable?”, is that it is intrinsic to the nature of writing that it is a process that unfolds over time, and this process involves a co-evolution between the writer and the text.

In other words, both the writer and the text change over time, each in response to changes in the other. The writer has something he or she wants to communicate. Words are put down and organized into coherent thoughts, and as these thoughts become expressed in the text, the writer reflects on those thoughts, makes adjustments and changes, and the text is revised, and this process continues.

If you don’t allow the writer a chance to rethink and rewrite, you short-circuit this process before it can bear its full fruit.

I appreciate that from the perspective of most students in school, working under deadlines, what I’ve just described doesn’t match their experiences with writing. If you tell them that they should never expect their first draft to succeed as a completed piece of work, they can point to many examples of students who can write an essay in a crunch and still get good grades.

A lot of students think that the mark of a good writer is the ability to wait until the last night before a deadline, write one draft and still get the grade they want. They don’t associate the concept of good writing with the activity of rewriting.

On the contrary, they associate good writing with the activity of NOT rewriting, of NOT HAVING TO rewrite. So, if a student can’t get good grades on their first attempt, they infer that they’re just not good at writing, and that’s that.

I wish more students were exposed to how professional writers think about the process of rewriting. I tell my students that every article I’ve published has been rewritten many times, and the ONLY reason why they were published is BECAUSE they were rewritten many times.

But it’s easy for students to take away from this that I’m probably not a very good writer. I mean, if I have to work so hard to get something published, that must mean I’m not very good at it, right?

That’s one way to interpret it. But if they heard more writers talk about the value of rewriting, they wouldn’t be so inclined to interpret it this way.

Writers on Rewriting

Take this quote from an interview with Ernest Hemingway.

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.
”“Was there some technical problem? What was it that had stumped you?”
Hemingway’s answer: “Getting the words right.”

John Irving is more informative.

“There's no reason you shouldn't, as a writer, not be aware of the necessity to revise yourself constantly. More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina. I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do. . . . And I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something.”


“I have rewritten--often several times--every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.”

Robert Louis Stevenson:

“The swiftly done work of the journalist, and the cheap finish and ready-made methods to which it leads, you must try to counteract in private by writing with the most considerate slowness and on the most ambitious models. And when I say “writing"-- O believe me, it is rewriting that I have chiefly in mind.”

Bernard Malamud:

“I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times--once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”

This second quote is interesting.

“First drafts are for learning what one's fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”

That last line is striking. “Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing”.

Not every writer feels this way, for many it’s always a tough slog, but I get the sentiment. Once you have a text on the page that has some shape to it, rewriting can feel like sculpting — it’s where artistry can enter the picture. The work becomes a successful piece of writing through the process of revision.

One last quote, this one from Ken Follett:

“Everything is planned. I spent a long time outlining. It's the only way I know to get all the ducks in a row. . . . The research is the easiest. The outline is the most fun because you can do anything. The first draft is the hardest, because every word of the outline has to be fleshed out. The rewrite is very satisfying, because I feel that everything I do is making the book a little better.”

What’s true for fiction writers is also true for non-fiction writers. The writing goals are very different, but the experience of the process has a lot of overlap. Academic writing is not that different. Research is the easiest part. The first draft is the hardest. Rewriting can be frustrating but it is also, often, the most satisfying part of the process.

Many students go through their whole schooling experience never having to rewrite anything, or come to believe that rewriting is a sign of failure, something you’re forced to do because you’re not good at writing.

If you want to improve your essay writing, you need to rethink your attitude toward the writing process, and specifically, rewriting.

It’s not a punishment, it’s not a sign of failure.

On the contrary, it’s the place where truly successful writing is forged; it’s where writing can evolve, where it can transcend its basic utilitarian functions and become something closer to art.