William James said he wrote every page of the Principles of Psychologyfour or five times over. Vladimir Nabokov made a similar admission: that he had rewritten, often several times, every word he had ever published.
The craft of writing is in large part rewriting. The main thing at first is to get our ideas down — to record rough outlines, key images and impressions. After that comes the slower work of rewriting: changing and rearranging, pruning and smoothing. We strengthen connections, tighten syntax, pare away the clutter, and find words that tally better with our intentions.
Rewriting overlaps with editing. Both aim to enhance the sense, structure, style and coherence of prose. Writers often describe the act of verbal composition in three-dimensional spatial terms, almost as though they were sculpting. The comparison is familiar. Sculptors prod and pester and play with a lump until at last, inspected from various angles, it has become a luminous or at least bearable object.
In a letter to his friend Sarah Whitman, to whom he had sent some proofs of the Principles, William James wrote:
If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified in a crude shape, I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.
Toil, torture, scrape, offends: his words convey concretely the difficulty of rewriting. This is why some people dislike it. It takes practice and perseverance to master the selection and arrangement of words. Ernest Hemingway told the Paris Review that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied with it. Asked what the problem was, he replied, "Getting the words right." James would have sympathized.