I remember my time as a new journalist for a business paper. I remember the events I had to attend, the free lunches I received, the special access that I was afforded.
I remember mingling with the other reporters, giving them a knowing nod as they typed away at their bulky laptops (workplace desktops were still a thing back then).
“Tight deadline, huh?” I’d ask.
I had it easy. My company went to print every week. These guys? They worked for the dailies. “You going to send this in by today?”
“No, by lunch,” my new friend would reply.
Every time the chairman spoke, this journalist would pick out the relevant quotes and pop it into her article.
“Oh,” I’d say. “So, you won’t be doing any rewriting?”
“Please. Who has time for that? I’m going to send this in once the speech is over.”
I don’t remember much else about this encounter—what was I doing there? Which paper did she work for? What was her name?—but I do remember judging her.
How could you send in your first draft for print? I thought. And you write for the national newspapers!
Back then, everything I wrote had to be rewritten at least five times. This is the way of the writer, I told myself. Writing is rewriting.
I’d later learn about the Dunning–Kruger effect, that it applied to writing, and that I fell pretty damn high on the scale of people who overestimated his own capabilities.
Most of us have probably taken this path in our evolution as writers: write something, think it sucks, wonder why, Google ‘how to be a better writer’, pick a famous author’s advice out of context, apply said advice without actually thinking how it affects our craft.
I fell into that trap too. A bestseller told me to avoid adverbs, so I did, until I read JK Rowling. Style guides around the world advised against starting sentences with conjunctions. I did that too, until I read Tolkien.
Show, don’t tell? Never use the passive voice? Don’t carry a notebook? Check, check, check.
It came to a point where I thought simply knowing the tip made me a better writer, so I hoarded them like a Covidiot hoarding toilet paper. Up to this day, I’ve probably read more examples of ‘show don’t tell’ than I ever wrote.
Pretty soon, ‘writing is rewriting’ also made it into my literary quiver. It would take a while, but I’d finally ditch the notion that it takes at least a billion rewrites before my stories are worthy, and here’s why.
Time equals quality
I used to think that the more time I spent writing something, the better it got. Anything I could bang up in a day was most certainly crap, let alone within the two-hour deadlines I was often given.
Like Oscar Wilde, I fancied myself as someone whose job was to take out a comma from a story only to put it back again later.
Never mind the fact that ninety percent of my paid work involved churning out a piece within a relatively short amount of time. Out of necessity, most of those articles never even made it past the second draft.
And you know what? I’ve been commended on my last-minute work more than I have on features that I’d spent all week on.
This was also reflected in my blog posts, where my drunken first drafts would garner more attention than the ‘perfect’ piece I’d painstakingly worked over.
Eye of the beholder
So who’s to say what’s quality and what’s not? Everybody’s going to have their own yardstick on what makes good writing, and there are so many other factors involved in determining quality—the medium, the formatting, your mood, the retrograde of Venus and Neptune—that it’s pointless to stress yourself into writing the perfect piece every time you write.
As Brandon Sanderson said: “Sometimes rewriting only makes your work different-er and not better.”
Only in recent years did I begin to see the rewriting process for what it actually is: something you do only as many times as it takes. That could mean two passes, or it could mean twenty.
But just because you’re working doesn’t necessarily mean you’re improving it. In fact, I would come to realise that what’s more important is actually coming up with a completed product, imperfections and all.
Forest for the trees
That’s right. Having something in its entirety is much better than writing the best intro ever in history. Focus too much on having each word placed exactly where you want it and you run the risk of giving in to false perfection.
I get it. You want to put out the best work you can. You want to inspire with every word, sell millions of copies of your novel, send in a typo-less entry to every writing competition.
But you know what? Unless you’re a sociopath, you’ll never be truly happy with your work, and beyond a certain point, your edits are just going to make things different-er and not better.
So do what it takes to finish your story. Give us a beginning, an end, and everything in between.
And rewrite it as many times as you have to, but remember that no amount of editing is going to help if it means that you’re not going to share your work with the world.