Writing Lessons

Writing Means Rewriting


By William S. McFeely

November 18, 2013



I was sitting in a graduate school office with a problem: “I keep writing one try after another; it’s never right.” I was struggling with the paper the professor had assigned. Without a word, he opened the big bottom drawer of his desk, reached down, and lifted out a thick mass of messy paper, some of the pages handwritten, some typed (this was a very long time ago), and all of them marked up with scrawled changes. “And that was just a review,” he pronounced.

I was astonished. I thought the books of his that I had read, and liked, were so simple and clear, despite the complexity of his subject that I had assumed the prose had flowed effortlessly from his pen. Professor Morgan’s unspoken message to me was: keep writing and perfecting and eventually you will get there.

I have never forgotten that moment. Now, with the computer, with its ability to almost-automatically erase what you have altered, I no longer have the documentation of all the changes that go into my writing. Back when I was typing drafts and editing by pen or rewriting whole pages by hand, I accumulated a formidable number of boxes crammed with drafts of my books. I don’t feel a bit apologetic by what could seem evidence of a terrible lot of misplaced effort.

That simple incident unlocked a door for me. Just accept it—writing is a messy, arduous enterprise, but it can be done. It got me going.

William S. McFeely is the Abraham Baldwin Professor of Humanities, emeritus, at the University of Georgia. His Grant: A Biography received the Pulitzer Prize.

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