Friday, October 05, 2007


Revise and Rewrite

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (4th ed. rev. Edward A. Tenney, 2000), chap. 5:
Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try. Quite often you will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, a word processor can save you time and labor as you rearrange the manuscript. You can select material on your screen and move it to a more appropriate spot, or, if you cannot find the right spot, you can move the material to the end of the manuscript until you decide whether to delete it. Some writers find that working with a printed copy of the manuscript helps them to visualize the process of change; others prefer to revise entirely on screen. Above all, do not be afraid to experiment with what you have written. Save both the original and the revised versions; you can always use the computer to restore the manuscript to its original condition, should that course seem best. Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.
This paragraph itself has evidently undergone major surgery since Strunk first wrote it. In the process of surgical revision it has acquired an iatrogenic disease, a sort of excrescence or tumor. I refer to the sentences about the word processor, the screen, and the computer. This addition violates one of Gilleland's Elements of Style, viz. "Write in such a way that a reader of a hundred years ago could understand you. The more closely you follow this rule, the less ephemeral your writing will be, the less apt to become obsolete or dated."

I will now get down off my hobby-horse.

The "best writers" who revised and rewrote included Plato and Vergil, as the following anecdotes show.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On Literary Composition 25 (tr. W. Rhys Roberts):
Plato did not cease, when eighty years of age, to comb and curl his dialogues and reshape them in every way. Of course every scholar is familiar with the stories told about Plato's industry, especially the one about the writing tablet which they say was found after his death, with the opening words of the Republic arranged in various orders, 'I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston.'

ὁ δὲ Πλάτων, τοὺς ἑαυτοῦ διαλόγους κτενίζων καὶ βοστρυχίζων, καὶ πάντα τρόπον ἀναπλέκων, οὐ διέλιπεν ὀγδοήκοντα γεγονὼς ἔτη. πᾶσι γὰρ δή που τοῖς φιλολόγοις γνώριμα τὰ περὶ τῆς φιλοπονίας τἀνδρὸς ἱστορούμενα, τά τ᾽ ἄλλα, καὶ δὴ καὶ τὰ περὶ τὴν δέλτον ἣν τελευτήσαντος αὐτοῦ λέγουσιν εὑρεθῆναι ποικίλως μετακειμένην τὴν ἀρχὴν τῆς πολιτείας ἔχουσαν τήνδε "κατέβην χθὲς εἰς Πειραιᾶ μετὰ Γλαύκωνος τοῦ Ἀρίστωνος."
Diogenes Laertius 3.37 (tr. R.D. Hicks):
Euphorion and Panaetius relate that the beginning of the Republic was found several times revised and rewritten.

Εὐφορίων δὲ καὶ Παναίτιος εἰρήκασι πολλάκις ἐστραμμένην εὑρῆσθαι τὴν ἀρχὴν τῆς Πολιτείας.
Quintilian 8.6.64 (tr. H.E. Butler):
Further, it is impossible to make our prose rhythmical except by artistic alterations in the order of words, and the reason why those four words in which Plato in the noblest of his works states that he [sic, actually Socrates] had gone down to the Piraeus were found written in a number of different orders upon his wax tablets, was simply that he desired to make the rhythm as perfect as possible.

Nec aliud potest sermonem facere numerosum quam oportuna ordinis permutatio, neque alio ceris Platonis inventa sunt quattuor illa verba, quibus in illo pulcherrimo operum in Piraeum se descendisse significat, plurimis modis scripta quam ut quo ordine quodque maxime faceret experiretur.
Suetonius, Life of Vergil 22 (tr. J.C. Rolfe):
When he was writing the "Georgics," it is said to have been his custom to dictate each day a large number of verses which he had composed in the morning, and then to spend the rest of the day in reducing them to a very small number, wittily remarking that he fashioned his poem after the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape.

Cum "Georgica" scriberet, traditur cotidie meditatos mane plurimos versus dictare solitus ac per totum diem retractando ad paucissimos redigere, non absurde carmen se more ursae parere dicens et lambendo demum effingere.

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