Books Aren’t Written, They’re Rewritten. Including Your Own

Michael Crichton? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Michael Crichton wrote numerous popular books and screenplays including: Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Westworld, Congo, Sphere, and The Lost World. Yet, each work entailed strenuous effort and required multiple drafts. Apparently, he offered the following advice to aspiring authors:

Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1983 Michael Crichton published a non-fiction book titled “Electronic Life: How To Think About Computers”. He included a short section about debugging computer programs containing a few sentences about rewriting. Emphasis added to excerpts:[ref] 1983, Electronic Life: How To Think About Computers by Michael Crichton, Chapter 2: Practical Matters A to Z, Section: Debugging, Quote Page 50, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

The whole idea of debugging puts people off, though I don’t know why. Writers often say that books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. And in fact most formal assemblies of information—proposals, applications, speeches, presentations, designs—go through several drafts or revisions.

Crichton disclaimed credit for the remark about rewriting because it was already in circulation. Also note that the text above did not contain an exact match for the target quotation.

The earliest exact match located by QI occurred in the September 1986 issue of “Writer’s Digest”. The managing editor Thomas Clark published “174 Tips From Bestselling Writers”. The article introduction suggested that inquiries were sent to a large group of writers, and the responses were gathered and edited by Clark:[ref] 1986 September, Writer’s Digest, 174 Tips From Bestselling Writers, Compiled by Thomas Clark (Managing Editor of Writer’s Digest), Start Page 24, Quote Page 24, Writer’s Digest, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

We asked some of today’s bestselling authors for such scouting reports: for opinions on the difficult realities writers face, for the most valuable advice they received from mentors and other guides; for the suggestions they wish they’d received at the start of their careers.

Here are three items from the collection. The ellipsis occurred in the original text. Emphasis added to excerpts:[ref] 1986 September, Writer’s Digest, 174 Tips From Bestselling Writers, Compiled by Thomas Clark (Managing Editor of Writer’s Digest), Start Page 24, Quote Page 28, 30, and 33, Writer’s Digest, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

Treat it as a job—not a mystical calling. Then you’ll get up every morning and go “to work” instead of waiting for the muse to attend you.
—Jean Brody
A Coven of Women

Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it. . . .
—Michael Crichton

One must develop his or her individual voice—that’s what we call style, the name of the writing game.
—Judith Crist

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Similar statements about the importance and ubiquity of rewriting have a long history with applications to many types of art including: plays, operas, and novels. A QI article on the topic is available here under the title “Plays Are Not Written—They Are Rewritten”.

In 1994 “Science Fiction Writer’s Marketplace and Sourcebook” edited by David G. Tompkins included Crichton’s statement with attribution as a filler item.[ref] 1994 Copyright, Science Fiction Writer’s Marketplace and Sourcebook, Edited by David G. Tompkins, (Filler item), Quote Page 114, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

In 2000 a columnist in the “South Bend Tribune” of Indiana printed a variant statement attributed to Crichton:[ref] 2000 October 11, South Bend Tribune, New club forms to hone skills of area writers by Izola Bird, Quote Page 1, South Bend, Indiana. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM) [/ref]

If the craft of writing and making a lot of money from writing were easy, as many believe, then everyone would be a writer, and we’d all be wealthy. But it’s not that easy, primarily because the initial inspiration must be fine-tuned until it’s a work of art.”

Author Michael Crichton has reminded us that “writing is all about rewriting, which can be depressing, especially when after the seventh rewrite you find that’s still not working.”

In conclusion, the 1983 citation revealed that Michael Crichton was familiar with the existing adage about rewriting, and the 1986 “Writer’s Digest” article provided substantive evidence that Crichton deserved credit for the distinctive quotation mentioning a ” seventh rewrite”.

(Great thanks to mcepl whose tweet led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Update History: On January 21, 2019 the 1983 citation was added, and the article was partially rewritten.

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