Science fiction author Robert H. Heinlein had five rules he applied to his own writing, and what he advised others to do. Author and indie publishing advocate Dean Wesley Smith is a major proponent of these, especially the contentious Third Rule: you must refrain from rewriting except by editorial order. When was talking about an editor, he meant a magazine or book editor who was paying you for your work, NOT the “book doctors” who charge would-be authors for their input, often without a single publishing credit to their name.
In one of his posts and an interview he gave (I cannot find either at the moment), he uses the case of Ernest Hemingway and how he would joke about his rewriting habits in interviews. In this short post, I just wanted to expand on Hemingway’s rewriting habits, or lack thereof.
The famous case of this was in Hemingway’s Paris Review interview, where he said he rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times “to get the words right.” In the more recent Anniversary edition of the novel, you can see where Hemingway made his changes. Most of the rewrites were just altered words, or a different final sentence. The substance of the end remained the same. He was changing the WORDS–the underlying creative STORY was the same. The latter is the more important part. Many excellent authors are even the best technical stylists: see Heinlein himself, Cormac McCarthy, or even
The old master was a reporter, used to writing an article and sending it off to the newspaper or magazine on a deadline. Hemingway was a practitioner of the “creative voice” method DWS describes. That is, sitting down and working through a project, getting it right the first time, without allowing your inner critic to bog you down. Premier Hemingway biographer Michael S. Reynolds expands on this in Hemingway: The Paris Years. During the composition of his stories in the winter of 1924:
They all went like that, one story after another, exploding out of his head perfectly onto paper needing little revision. It was like a mystical experience, an emotional rush that took him outside himself almost as if someone else was writing the stories…”I am writing some damn good stories,” he told Ezra…Because he knew that Joyce sometimes labored an entire day getting one sentence right, Hemingway was troubled by the ease with which these stories wrote themselves. Later he would create his own legend of slow composition and tedious revision, but it was mostly protective camouflage. [Emphasis mine] (p. 167)
English professors and creative-writing teachers seize on the rewriting process in part because they’d rather not grade a new project every week, and in part because many of them are not writers by trade. This fiction gets carried over into writing advice sites and forums because the English class training. Professionals learn from other professionals. Writing is no different.