Many new writers don’t know when to stop polishing a manuscript and move on to the next. Part of the reason for that might have to do with Ernest Hemingway.
Many years ago, a writer asked Hemingway, “How many times should I rewrite a manuscript?” Now, Hemingway hated dumb questions, so he answered “Oh, at least 60.”
He loved doing that to writers. On one occasion, a writer asked him what kind of chair he preferred to sit in, as if perhaps the brand of furniture that an author had planted his butt on might somehow confer literary genius.
Hemingway answered, “I don’t sit when I write, I stand.” And a generation or writers began to write standing up. The problem with that is that you can go to any one of Hemingway’s old homes or offices, and see the chairs that he sat on.
On another occasion, a writer asked him how long she should wait between drafts when revising, so that she would be able to look at her story “cold.” He suggested that it should be two years.
Think about it. If Hemingway did sixty drafts of a novel and waited two years between each draft, he would have never finished a single book. Don’t listen to bad advice, even when it comes from a genius.
Back when I first began writing, I used an old typewriter. I didn’t like it. I had to really bang the keys hard, it was noisy, certain keys didn’t work well, and the type was uneven. Because of this, doing rewrites was difficult. I’d type out a draft, make extensive corrections on the page with a pencil, and then try to type out a perfectly clean copy.
Using that system, it would have been foolish to repeat the process sixty times. Because of this, in the 1920s and 30s, a professional writer would typically try to learn to write a finished copy in a single draft. It was simpler to write out a nice outline in longhand, and then thoughtfully type out one clean draft, than to retype a piece over and over.
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Of course with the development of computers, revising became quite easy. My first computer would allow me to put only 2 pages of text on a disk, but by the late 1980s I was able to get first a whole chapter, and then with the addition of a hard drive, an entire novel in a single file. It wasn’t until then that rewriting became so easy that it became problematic.
You see, as an editor I’m looking for stories that have some originality, that carry an author’s own voice, his odd quirks. But when a new writer begins showing a manuscript around to members of her workshop and polishing it further and further, eventually the author tends to lose her own distinct voice. The result is, that the story can become less interesting to me as an editor with every draft.
So the question is, how many revisions does a novel or short story really need?
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As I rewrite, I try to avoid changing both the voices of my characters and my own narrative voice. Rather than polishing away the differences between voices, I think it’s better to look for ways to heighten the unique characters in the tale.
In fact, on one of my last rewrites, I do what I call a “voice edit,” where I go through key characters person by person to make sure that their voices are consistent.