Quote Origin: Writing and Rewriting Are a Constant Search for What It Is One Is Saying

John Updike? William W. West? Donald M. Murray? Catherine Ann Jones? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: An accomplished writer must constantly grapple with the difficulties of expressing events and ideas cogently with polish and precision. A famous prose stylist once illuminated the purpose of rewriting. Here are three versions:

(1) Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying.

(2) Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.

(3) Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what you are trying to say.

Would you please help me to find the correct phrasing together with a precise citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1966 Professor of Education William W. West edited and published “On Writing, By Writers” which included a section about prominent author John Updike. The section presented commentary about several drafts of Updike’s short story “A Sense of Shelter”. The incremental changes revealed that several paragraphs were composed and subsequently excised from the final draft of the tale. Details about the setting and secondary characters were ultimately deemed superfluous. Updike commented about the process of revision. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

Reading this transcript of my drafts of this story, I was struck by the several omitted paragraphs. I had forgotten them and, if my instinct was correct, they never did belong to the story …

Not all revisions are excisions. In a story about similar material, written a few months before this one, “Flight,’ I added hundreds of words of the kind of family-background material that was cut here. The earlier story was about such material; this story, somehow, was not. Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying. —J. U.

Additional details and citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a hand writing from “The Book of Knowledge: The Children’s Encyclopaedia”, Volume 1, (1912) edited by Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Brad Kemp whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

[1] 1966, On Writing, By Writers, Edited by William W. West (Syracuse University), Author Section: John Updike, (Comments by John Updike), Quote Page 121, Ginn and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)

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