Thank Heavens for Second Drafts

January 25, 2009

Still at work on The Secret Language of Money, and I unexpectedly found the opportunity to employ a few more of my favorite quotes on writing.

Dave Krueger, my coauthor, is writing about a remarkable study in the UK on how varying one’s habitual ways of doing almost anything can lead to all sorts of positive changes in other, unrelated aspects of one’s life. In the study, people did things like read different books and act more extroverted, or more introverted, than they normally would, and they ended up losing weight—even though they weren’t trying to—and keeping it off even months after the study was over.

I was editing along like a good boy, and all at once my fingers took off on their own again. (Those pesky little digits.) Here’s what they typed:

E.B. White, Pulitzer Prize–winning editor of the classic writing handbook The Elements of Style and author of such beloved children’s books as Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, wrote a single sentence about writing that has served as a lifeline for every writer that followed: “The best writing is rewriting.”

Ernest Hemingway put it a little more bluntly: “The first draft of anything is crap.”

Though expressed differently, both statements mean essentially the same thing: you don’t have to get it right the first time. And thank heavens: because this is true not only for novels and short stories, but also for the chapters of your life.

Another writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, once said that in the process of creating good writing, you have to “murder your darlings.” Sometimes the aspects of ourselves that we most need to let go of—to toss so we can write a second draft—are those we happen to be especially fond of or attached to. But remember the question to ask in the unblinking light of day: Is it working?

Your life story is the manifestations of your beliefs. You are always free to change your mind, always free to change your beliefs, including core assumptions about who you are.

Let’s hear it for second drafts—and third, and fourth.

(Sketch by Doug Neill,

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