The surprising effectiveness of writing and rewriting

17.53, Thursday 9 Sep 2021

In The New Yorker earlier this year: The first major interview with one of the most revered comedy writers of all time.

John Swartzwelder, comedy writer, separates “writing” and “rewriting.”

Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue–“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.

I wonder what’s going on here, deep down, because I recognise it. Sometimes I’ve been circling a topic for weeks and just can’t figure out how the essay, or talk, or report or whatever is going to work – and what unblocks it is to tell myself: stop thinking, just write what’s in your head however poorly.

I always come at that realisation far too late. One characteristic of this trap is that I’m slow to recognise that I’m in it.

But if I started writing too soon, it would be terrible and not in a redeemable way.

So there’s a difference between productive thinking and procrastinating thinking, even though they feel the same.

RELATED (in my head) is this post about decision making from Rands’ blog on leadership: Ok. So, You Can’t Decide.

First, the paralysis might mean you’re subconsciously aware you’ve missed an essential aspect of the decision

BUT, says Rands, sometimes the move is sometimes to just yolo decide.

And then:

You instantly become mentally limber.

And:

A profound change of perspective follows making a decision. It’s no longer theoretical; it’s happening. You are doing something as opposed to talking about doing something. Even better, as potential consequences begin to arrive, you gather initial essential data on the quality of your decision.


Three guesses about why writing/rewriting works as a process:

  • The act of writing the first draft creates new “essential data” that feeds the imagination and makes possible figuring out the second draft. (An analogy: sometimes working with numbers is unblocked only by making a graph. The visualisation has provided “essential data”. So perhaps there’s something similarly illuminating about a textual linearisation of mental forms.)
  • Or: In your head, ideas expand until they max out “working memory” – and it’s only be externalising them in the written word that you have capacity to iterate them.
  • Or: Good writing necessarily takes multiple edits, and the act of writing and act of rewriting are sufficiently different that performing both simultaneously is like rubbing your tummy and patting your head.

Writing often feels like having a conversation with myself. I stare at a sentence and reply by revising or writing another.

Writing-as-thinking and writing-as-communication and the interplay between them. A creative act of sculpting thought outside an individual mind. What a magical thing is the written word.

(I wonder if software tools could support this process more directly. Like, could I dictate in a rambling fashion a vague idea, and an AI text generator turn it into a cogent paragraph for me to revise? And so on and so forth.)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.

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