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Michelangelo and the Importance of Rewrite


Several weeks ago, I talked about my novel and warned that in future I wanted to blog about writing and publishing as well as travel and art.

But I haven’t really followed through. I suppose that’s because I find travel and art to be more interesting, and perhaps less personal, subjects. This makes them easier to discuss.

That said, there is one aspect to writing that has been on my mind a lot lately.


I know. It’s hateful and annoying and an enormous pain. It’s even worse, though, when someone else makes you do it, so I’ve learned (the hard way, of course) that it’s better to just do all necessary rewriting yourself before an editor demands it.

I certainly learned this as a reporter, and was reminded again a few weeks ago when I was commissioned to write a piece for a business magazine (and thank God for that – it paid for half of my upcoming trip to Italy.)

I think I rewrote that tiny 1,500-word story 10 times over a week. I actually kept a rough tally because I was paying close attention (for once) to what occurred in each my rewrites.

It made me think of a quote attributed to Michelangelo, who suggested a great figure like his David was locked inside each block of marble; the sculptor’s job was simply to knock aside all of the unnecessary stone to reveal the figure within.

Sometimes, that’s what rewriting is, too.

The first versions of the business piece I wrote as I usually do – just throwing everything I want to include onto the page. Like a kid running wild with a paintbrush, splattering with everything he’s got.

By about the third version, I begin reordering paragraphs to improve the flow, maybe weaving in new material. The fourth version, I might begin cutting bits that are repetitive.

By the seventh or eighth rewrite, the changes become much smaller, more subtle. Maybe it’s just smoothing a few transitions, tightening a bit here and there. Polishing, really. This, I think, is where really good writing can shine through; and it can make the difference between a decent piece and something fine. All the earlier rewrites were steps towards this final process.

There was never time to do this as a reporter, but now I sometimes have the luxury of leaving a project to sit for a day or two before I return to it. At that point, I can often see the piece with fresh eyes; any glaring mistakes, repetition, clunkiness.

With all of this in mind, I recently halted work on my second novel and went back to the first manuscript. There hasn’t been much interest – yet – from literary agents, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to give the whole manuscript another review. I had written and rewritten and edited and written again. But I decided another read-over wouldn’t hurt.

I’ve since cut about 10,000 words from what I had considered the final manuscript, simplified some descriptions of the city of Perugia and its politics during the Renaissance and the novel is better for it.

The challenge sometimes can be to know when to stop; when, as Michelangelo put it, the unnecessary material has been cut away to reveal what’s really inside.

Comments (5)


Great description of your writing process. Mine is quite similar, although less extensive since I only write publically in my blog and that is not at all the same as writing to be published! The good thing about sermons is that they are delivered verbally so at least my spelling errors and typos are seen only by me! I do edit them for repetition and to ensure they have a good flow though.

Best of luck publishing your newly pared down first novel!!! Tell those agents you have a horde of impatient fans waiting to read it! :)


Thanks so much, Anne. And I hope that you publish some of your sermons on your blog, I'd be really interested in reading them!

Sandra: Thanks for writing so clearly about your writing process and the courage you had to reread and review your novel. From your writing, it seems to a bit (a bit, for sure) like giving birth. It takes a lot out of you to conceive what you consider a 'perfect' masterpiece. So, kudos to you for going back again to remold it. I'm sure it was a huge undertaking but seems you are pleased. Yes to Anne's comment - you have a horde of people awaiting your published work!

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, I love the quote by Michelangelo. Congrats on being commissioned to write for that magazine. It's very interesting to me to read about your process. I'm sure your rewrite has made something great even greater.

Have a great day.

Very interesting post! I have to say that when I was in school and had to do a lot of writing, the rewriting part was painfully slow for me. Zipping out a messy first draft was much more fun! So I know what you are going through.

Love the comparison to sculpture and knowing when to stop....an artist (painter) friend of mine told me that it's often a challenge to know when a painting is really finished too.

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