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Rewriting: A 20th century phenomenon

The essence of writing is rewriting, says William Zinsser in his book, On Writing Well.

With the arrival of the word processor, he says: “Two opposite things happened: good writers got better and bad writers got worse. Good writers welcomed the gift of being able to fuss endlessly with their sentences – pruning and revising and reshaping – without the drudgery of retyping. Bad writers became even more verbose because writing was suddenly so easy and their sentences looked so pretty on the screen.”

He is right. Revising one’s writing is a 20th century phenomenon, says Craig Ferhman in a Boston Globe article.

“Perhaps the only belief that today’s writers share is that to produce good writing, you have to revise,” he writes.

“In a new book, The Work of Revision, Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature. Those authors, Sullivan writes, were the first who ‘revised overtly, passionately, and at many points in the lifespan of their texts’.

TS Eliot, The Waste Land, manuscript

TS Eliot, The Waste Land, manuscript

The typewriter effect

“What caused these writers to put their faith in revision as the key to good literature? In part, it was the philosophy of Modernism—the idea that a novel or poem should challenge the reader, break with tradition, and, in the words of Pound, ‘Make it new.’ But Sullivan, who belongs to a new wave of scholars trying to understand literature through the physical and historical realities of its creation, finds that our value of revision was also driven by something else: the typewriter…

“In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. Printing was slow and messy, and in the rare case a writer got to see a proof of his work—that is, a printed sample of the text, laid out like a book—he had to travel in person to a publishing centre like London.

“All of these factors suggest that revision was not something that happened on the page. Indeed, during the 19th century, the Romantics made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed, flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts. ‘I am like the tyger (in poesy),’ Lord Byron wrote in a letter. ‘If I miss my first spring—I go growling back to my Jungle. There is no second. I can’t correct.’

“But something would soon change, with writers like Hemingway and Eliot insisting on not just a second chance, but a third, fourth, and fifth. Sullivan argues that this change was driven in part by a new philosophy of what made good writing. The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic…

“An equally big part of this change, Sullivan suggests, was a shift in literary technology. In 1850, Britain was producing about 100,000 tons of paper per year; by 1903, that number had increased to 800,000 tons per year. Printers started setting type by machine, which was five times faster than setting it by hand and allowed page proofs to be easily shared and corrected. Before long, authors were guiding their books through a long and potentially fertile process: first a manuscript, then a typescript, perhaps a magazine serial, and finally a series of proofs for the book. ‘One thing it allowed for that revision by handwriting didn’t is massive structural transformation,’ Sullivan says. ‘Some writers reduced their work massively, and some expanded it massively.’

“In all this, the most important technology may have been the typewriter. Today we equate a keyboard with speed, the fastest way to get words down, but as Sullivan points out this wasn’t always the case. In fact, a typescript offered a chance to slow down. Most Modernist writers, like Hemingway with The Sun Also Rises, wrote by hand and then painstakingly typed up the results. That took time, but seeing their writing in such dramatically different forms—handwritten in a notebook, typed on a page, printed as a proof—encouraged them to revise it aggressively. ‘Much as I loathe the typewriter,’ W.H. Auden wrote, ‘I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism. Typescript is so impersonal and hideous to look at that, if I type out a poem, I immediately see defects which I missed when I looked through it in manuscript.’…

Computer era

“In the last 30 years, however, technology has shifted again, and our ideas about writing and revising are changing along with it. Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.

“So why do we continue to champion revision? Sullivan suggests it’s partly due to the literary ideals and habits we’ve inherited from the Modernists. She also mentions the professionalization of creative writing, which pushed authors like Carver and Oates to teach at universities. ‘Writers need to look more like professors and to discuss their laborious processes,’ Sullivan says. ‘We can’t teach you how to write, but we can teach you how to revise. And it’s a big business.’

“Still, at a time when we’re losing the technological incentives that helped create our style of revision in the first place, there’s a chance our commitment to it may wane. We now revise in real time, doing something closer to Milton fiddling in his margins than to Hemingway retyping his work. Perhaps this is already encouraging more spontaneous and conversational kinds of literary writing.

About the author: Abhijit Nag loves reading, writing and getting news and information online.