Donald M. Murray
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1924, Donald M. Murray taught writing for many years at the University of New Hampshire, his alma mater. He has served as an editor at Time magazine, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for editorials that appeared in the Boston Globe. Murray’s published works include novels, short stories, poetry, and sourcebooks for teachers of writing, like A Writer Teaches Writing (1968), The Craft of Revision (1991), and Learning by Teaching (1982), in which he explores aspects of the writing process. Write to Learn, (6th ed,. 1998), a textbook for college composition courses, is based on Murray’s belief that writers learn to write by writing, by taking a piece of writing through the whole process, from invention to revision. In the following essay, first published in the Writer in October 1973 and later revised for this text, Murray discusses the importance of revision to the work of the writer. Most professional writers live by the maxim that “writing is rewriting.” And to rewrite or revise effectively, we need to become better readers of our own work, open to discovering new meanings, and sensitive to our use of language. Murray draws on the experiences of many writers to make a compelling argument for careful revising and editing. 1
themselves from their own pages so that they can apply both their caring and their craft to their own work. 5
Such detachment is not easy. Science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury supposedly puts each manuscript away for a year to the day and then rereads it as a stranger. Not many writers have the discipline or the time to do this. We must read when our judgment may be at its worst, when we are close to the euphoric moment of creation. Then the writer, counsels novelist Nancy Hale, “should be critical of everything that seems to him most delightful in his style. He should excise what he most admires, because he wouldn’t thus admire it if he weren’t…in a sense protecting it from criticism.” John Ciardi, the poet, adds, “The last act of the writing must be to become one’s own reader. It is, I suppose, a schizophrenic process, to begin passionately and to end critically, to begin hot and to end cold; and, more important, to be passion-hot and critic-cold at the same time.” Most people think that the principal problem is that writers are too proud of what they have written. Actually, a greater problem for most professional writers is one shared by the majority of students. They are overly critical, think everything is dreadful, tear up page after page, never complete a draft, see the task as hopeless. The writer must learn to read critically but constructively, to cut what is bad, to reveal what is good. Eleanor Estes, the children’s book author, explains: “The writer must survey his work critically, coolly, as though he were a stranger to it. He must be willing to prune, expertly and hard-heartedly. At the end of each revision, a manuscript may look….worked over, torn apart, pinned together, added to, deleted from, words changed and words changed back. Yet the book must maintain its original freshness and spontaneity.” Most readers underestimate the amount of rewriting it usually takes to produce spontaneous reading. This is a great disadvantage to the student writer, who sees only a finished product and never watches the craftsman who takes the necessary step back, studies the work carefully, returns to the task, steps back, returns, steps back, again and again. Anthony Burgess, one of the most prolific writers in the English-speaking world, admits, “I might revise a page twenty times.” Roald Dahl, the popular children’s writer, states, “By the time I’m nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least 150 times…Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” Rewriting isn’t virtuous. It isn’t something that ought to be done. It is simply...