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Great books aren't written, they're rewritten - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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Great books aren’t written, they’re rewritten

“Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words”

This phrase trailed me long after reading it in Strunk and White’s famous guide to English usage. Lately I have been reading On Writing Well–essentially Strunk and White plus. Its author, famed journalism professor William Zissner, focuses on the craft of writing rather than usage alone. Mostly I am aiming to tighten my academic writing, but naturally I hope for some benefits to rub off on my blog as well.

It seems I am less lonely in my struggle than I thought. Good writing, Zissner writes, doesn’t come naturally (though most people, including me, think it does).

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

And I thought I was simply obsessively meticulous and fussy.

I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite economists, John Kenneth Galbraith:

There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. However, when I’m greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed before, as I’ve often said, I put in that note of spontaneity which even my meanest critics concede.

Unfortunately, my blog posts only have time for three revisions, so you dear reader will have to be satisfied with mere impulsiveness.


Postscript: The original guide to usage by Strunk–but sadly not the version updated and popularized by E.B. White–is freely available here.

3 Responses

  1. I particularly appreciated Zinsser’s counsel to read Strunk & White once a year. I don’t read it once a year, but I love it and feel that I should. I highly recommend Dierdre McClosky’s slim Economical Writing. McClosky has strong opinions, and I don’t agree with all of them, but she makes a lot of sense.

  2. I wonder how many times Catherine Johnson had to re-write her latest book, Shades of Darkness, Shades of Grace, before it became as perfect as it is? I have no idea, I guess just a question. DO you ever ask yourselves these questions perhaps to yourself while you’re reading. I do – and maybe I’d have a problem if I answered my question… Hahaha.
    Anyways, If you’re looking for a great book that’s very well written (perhaps re-written i don’t know) then check out Shades of Darkness, Shades of Grace – you wont be disappointed. I also think this book is for everyone. You know how some books are written for women or kids or just men, well My husband read this book, and told me this is one of the best books he’s read in a long time as well… So coming from 2 avid readers – this book is excellent – guess it had to be re-written :P

  3. Good observation from Galbraith.

    William Empson said something similar to a friend, after being reproached for not yet collecting his essays…

    “I still have to put in the careless ease. The careless ease always goes in last.”

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