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: 1

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: 2

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: 3

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.

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

Notes:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)

Plays Are Not Written—They Are Rewritten

Steele MacKaye? Dion Boucicault? W. S. Gilbert? Sanford B. Hooker? David Belasco? Daniel Frohman? William M. Tanner? Walter Winchell? James Thurber? Michael Crichton?

Dear Quote Investigator: A magnificent work of art emerges in its final form like Venus from a scallop shell; no modifications are required according to one unrealistic approach to creativity. Numerous writers and composers strongly disagree and emphasize the need for painstaking refinement. A family of sayings highlights this process:

  • Great novels are not written, they are rewritten.
  • A stage play is not written but rewritten.
  • Good stories are not written but are re-written.
  • The secret of good writing is rewriting.

Would you please examine the provenance of this family?

Quote Investigator: In July 1889 the popular U.S. playwright and actor Steele MacKaye published in several newspapers a piece titled “How Plays Are Written: They Are the Product of Study and Patient Toil”. The first line presented his thesis. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Plays are not written—they are rewritten.
In this lies the advantage of the creative, as distinct from the critical, literature of the stage.

By 1894 the saying had been reassigned to the Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault, and by 1903 W. S. Gilbert had been assigned a variant referring to comic operas. Yet, the earliest evidence currently points to Steele MacKaye as crafter of the statement.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Plays Are Not Written—They Are Rewritten

Notes:

  1. 1889 July 28, Democrat and Chronicle, How Plays Are Written: They Are the Product of Study and Patient Toil: So Says Steele MacKaye (Written for the Democrat and Chronicle), Quote Page 9, Column 4, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)