word craft


Revising 80 or more times

I had spent my morn­ing going over a new book—revising it–when I got a let­ter from a read­er named “Mol­ly.” It read, in part: 

Dear Avi. “You said some­where that you revise your books eighty or more times. Is that true? Why do you do that? Do I have to do that?” 

Dear Mol­ly: Every writer needs to find her or his way of cre­at­ing the best piece of writ­ing they can.  There is no set of rules that fits all. A famous writer once told me she couldn’t start writ­ing until she knew the first sen­tence.  Anoth­er famous writer told me she couldn’t start writ­ing until she had the last sen­tence of the book. I myself rewrite the first sen­tences many times. 

Even the way one writes differs. 

Royal No 10 typewriter

The late, great Bob Cormi­er wrote his books by hand, and it was his wife who tran­scribed his words with a type­writer.  I qknew a writer who wrote para­graph by para­graph on 3 X 5 index cards and then assem­bled his whole text.  I recall Richard Peck telling me he wrote his man­u­scripts on a portable man­u­al type­writer. When I tru­ly began to write it was by way of man­u­al type­writ­ers, heavy Roy­al type­writ­ers only thank you, that I searched out in flea mar­kets.  Aside from lov­ing the action of the keys, they had a mar­velous ring! when you threw the car­riage back.  I still miss that. 

I think my own way of writ­ing has been heav­i­ly influ­enced by the fact that I have dysgraphia. 

The NIH defines dys­graphia as: “A neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­der char­ac­ter­ized by writ­ing dis­abil­i­ties. Specif­i­cal­ly, the dis­or­der caus­es a per­son­’s writ­ing to be dis­tort­ed or incor­rect. In chil­dren, the dis­or­der gen­er­al­ly emerges when they are first intro­duced to writ­ing. They make inap­pro­pri­ate­ly sized and spaced let­ters or write wrong or mis­spelled words, despite thor­ough instruc­tion. For exam­ple, writ­ing “boy” for “child.” 

Just today, as I went over a new text (which I had already gone over many times), I found the words “shard hake.”  What in the world did that mean? I looked at it and real­ized it should have been a “hard shake.” 

Or, as a fond aunt of mine once said of my writ­ing; I could “spell a four-let­ter word wrong five dif­fer­ent ways.” 

That meant as I wrote I found the need to go over my writ­ing repeat­ed­ly to find mis­takes.  I was con­stant­ly retyp­ing manuscripts. 

So, part of my many, many reviews of the text hap­pen because I want to find errors and cor­rect them.  That mar­velous day when I first learned to use a com­put­er meant I wasn’t end­less­ly retyp­ing man­u­scripts.  The day I dis­cov­ered how to use a spell check­er was tru­ly a life-chang­ing event for me. 

All that said, what I learned is that all that con­stant review­ing and rewrit­ing of my work led to an improve­ment of the text itself. It stopped being a cor­rec­tive process and became an enhance­ment process. That is, my under­stand­ing of my text was enriched and deep­ened. I came to under­stand my char­ac­ters bet­ter.  I began to know them so well that they began to tell me what to say, and how they should react. My text became tighter. My plots evolved bet­ter. That’s to say my writ­ing improved. 

But beyond all else, my con­stant revi­sions came out of my abil­i­ty to read well. 

Being a vora­cious read­er for most of my life I have devel­oped an intu­itive sense of good writ­ing.  That means as I read and reread my writ­ing I con­stant­ly made changes so that my work reads bet­ter.  That “bet­ter” encom­pass­es so many things, from the tem­po and rhythm of the plot to sub­tle aspects of char­ac­ter. It’s what makes writing—reading—good. 

Ulti­mate­ly, the rea­son I rewrite so much is because I’m try­ing to write well.  It’s hard to write well. That will be true for every writer no mat­ter who you are. 

So, Mol­ly, the process you devel­op for your writ­ing is some­thing you will have to learn for your­self.  All you need to do is find a way to write well. It’s as simple—and hard—as that. 

Good luck! 

Your writ­ing friend, 


P.S. I rewrote this let­ter eight times. Is it okay? 

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