Getting the Words Right.

A published author and a Facebook friend posted the following exchange to her profile, excerpted from a Paris Review Interview with Ernest Hemingway.


How much rewriting do you do?


It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.


Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?


Getting the words right.

His is a marvelous and pithy response, underscoring again that brevity is not only the soul of wit, but devilishly difficult to achieve.

I’m curious, can you top Papa Hemingway’s 39-times-a-charm ? Have you rewritten a scene not dozens but scores of times? If so, what sort of scene were you struggling with?

11 Responses to Getting the Words Right.

  1. John says:

    In an interview I saw with Stacy Schiff, author of the best selling “Cleopatra,” she said that the first 364 drafts weren’t any good, but the 365th was “alright.” Doubtless a slight exaggeration, but an encouraging incentive to keep searching for “alright.”

  2. Yeesh, I’ve been through quite a few drafts of some scenes, but not that many. Sometimes it’s very difficult to find the precise phrase that conveys the idea and feeling you have in your head, since we think in more than words. I wonder how many of those 39 times he had to start from scratch and how many were just tweaking. If I approached several dozen revisions, I’d assume there was a fundamental flaw with the story!

    I’d love to know how many times Fitzgerald worked on the ending of THE GREAT GATSBY. That information must exist somewhere…

  3. ryan field says:

    I’ve been around for twenty years and I know what it is like to submit hardcopy. At one time all I did was rewrite. Before electronic submissions rewriting encompassed everything fron grammar to typos to story. But I don’t rewrite anymore, ever, now that everything is electronic. I edit. Nowadays to rewrite/edit an ending we cut paragraphs or words with one click and it’s nothing. Hemingway had to rewrite on hardcopy until he did, indeed, get the words right.

  4. Lorelei says:

    I have written one of my novels four times, and am about to take it on again. I think the first two might be recognizable as having a common origin, but not the rest. Just a theme I haven’t executed to my satisfaction as yet. So four have been tossed out thus far.

  5. My current WIP is about to meet it’s 6th full revision… But I think the worst rewriting of my life was yesterday– I sat at the coffee shop for four hours laboring over two sentences. TWO SENTENCES. I burned over 10 pages in my moleskine trying to figure them out. I even illustrated them with arrows and squiggles and dotted lines. AGONY.

  6. ward jones says:

    Read this and others from that Paris Review, and no I couldn’t match his 37 times on one page. I have learned, however, during the last 15 years the importance of revising until you’re sick of revising. My most recent required 7 drafts.

  7. Teri Carter says:

    I don’t keep track, but I’m sure I’m in the dozens for the really tough scenes, particularly where there’s a long stretch of dialogue.

  8. Megan B. says:

    I can’t count my revisions because I tend to pick. I’ll start thinking about a scene and go back to it again, and sometimes I rewrite parts of it, but sometimes I just change a word or two.

    I do this most with scenes that are heavier on dialogue. I really want to make sure it sounds natural, and make sure no character is being long-winded. My gosh, one scene in my current WIP was driving me crazy, because one of the characters was just info-dumping. I finally rewrote that entire section of dialogue.

    Oddly, I think the bits I mess with the least are the last couple of lines. I think my writing is less inhibited when I write a nice image to end a story on, and I’m happier with what comes out. As much a I may struggle with the rest of the manuscript, I know exactly what I want from a last line. (It took years to figure it out, though!)

  9. Emily says:

    Who knows? Seeing my drafts in print is a must, so reading a print out means noticing small things, such as logical flow of thought, repetitious use of words, over use, and finally the poetic balance between an opening, the middle and the closing of a particular segment.

    All those noticings require rewriting. It goes on till I have a draft for the editor. Then the editor notices things.

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