The Art of Rewriting

10/25/2016 10:56 am ET | Updated Oct 27, 2016
Photographed by Chris Gentile
John Seabrook

I first got a glimpse into the creative process of pop music when an article featuring Benny Blanco, a producer and songwriter behind some of Maroon 5’s and Rihanna’s biggest hits, came up in my Facebook feed. It was fascinating.

Several months after that, John Seabrook published an article in The New Yorker about industry powerhouse and Blanco’s mentor, Dr. Luke. This article would serve as one of the stems for Seabrook’s fourth book, published in October 2015, entitled “The Song Machine.”

Seabrook first started writing for The New Yorker in 1989, and became a staff writer in 1993. But he isn’t just an entertainment industry observer. In addition to his writing work, he is the band leader of the Sequoias.

“The Song Machine” explores the mysteries of songwriting behind pop’s greatest hits (and our guiltiest pleasures). Seabrook’s journey with the book started with two articles. The first, also entitled, “The Song Machine,” covered songwriter and solo artist Ester Dean, the songwriter behind some of Rihanna’s most popular tracks (including “Rude Boy,” “What’s My Name,” and “S&M”). The second entitled, “Factory Girls,” follows the K-pop industry and their bet on “cultural technology.” Upon reading these articles, Seabrook’s book editor, Tom Mayer, approached him to turn his articles into a longer project.

Seabrook’s conversations and insights into the typically siloed entertainment industry are remarkable. It’s no surprise that managers, artists, and the music industry, in general, are hesitant to reveal their secret sauce. As Seabrook mentioned in this interview with Longform, The New Yorker brand played a huge role in convincing typically closed off individuals to at least have a conversation.

Not everyone has the prestige of The New Yorker to support their writing investigations. I asked Seabrook what he would recommend for aspiring writers, who might be with less wide-reaching or high status publications, or might be completely independent. “You have to make due with the tools you have at hand. No one starts at The New Yorker,” he said.

“What do you have to offer them that can persuade them to do it? If it’s a prestigious publication, that would be one thing,” Seabrook said. “There’s usually a story that they want to tell, either for the reasons of personal vanity or for profit. It’s going to make them money or be able to have success somehow. That’s something that they would accept from almost any publication, if they can get it the way they want it.”

Seabrook mentions the theme in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer as a starting point. “It’s an important theme for all journalists to think about, that there is an element of the confidence man in some of what journalists do,” he said. “You are trying to convince people when it may not always be in their best interest to talk to you. But, you know, that’s part of the gig. There are ways of persuading people. I mean, if you can get into their office or at least get them on the phone, sometimes it’s harder for them to say no.

“You have to be persistent in a lot of cases, and not take no for an answer. A lot of success stories are about people who didn’t take no for an answer in any field. I think that’s probably true of this field, too.”

Writing requires persistence not only in interviews, but in the process of rewriting. But many writers are convinced that they must wait for inspiration or an epiphany to strike. Seabrook’s perspective on the writing process is very different.

“The whole myth of Jack Kerouac writing On The Road in one three-day-long [session] — this is the genesis story of writers as composers, which is that Jack Kerouac took a bunch of speed, and stayed up for whatever, three nights, and wrote On The Road all in one go on a big roll of teletype paper. That it was just published that way. He later on embellished the notion, his phrase was, ‘First thought, best thought.’ He did a lot of attempting to trick his mind into not rewriting or not thinking in that way.”

“But the reality is Malcolm Cowley, the editor of On The Road did a great deal of editing on that roll of typescript, so that’s not really true,” he continued. “And most of Jack Kerouac’s other books suck because he probably did practice the ‘First thought, best thought,’ rule.”

“Writing without rewriting is like typing, or even like talking. Everybody can write, a lot of people can do it pretty quickly on a keyboard. The way you tell a story with your mouth and the way you tell a story with your fingers is very different. What works one way doesn’t necessarily work the other way.”

It’s a very simple observation, but not a convenient one for writers like me. Composing work is easy. Writing is easy. Splashing words on a page is easy. But restructuring, rewriting, and revising a draft are painful.

The internet and the democratization of writing makes it particularly easy to publish work quickly and without editorial feedback. There’s the rush of adrenaline when new work is published, gulped up, and digested by the rapid metabolism of the internet. Yet Seabrook’s years of experience in print and long form have instilled this unusual discipline.

“I certainly don’t know of any of my own colleagues, that just write an article and it comes out 100% perfect the first time,” said Seabrook. “There certainly are writers that require more editing. The question is not whether writers need to rewrite or not, I think the question is whether they can do it themselves or whether they require services of an editor to do it for them. Editor’s time is money, and the magazines are paying them money. If the writer can rewrite themselves, at least 80-90% of themselves, then that writer is a lot more valuable to an organization than a writer that requires a huge amount of help from an editor. The editor is tied up with that writer and doesn’t have much time for other writers. There are no writers, there are only rewriters.”

The process of writing or, as Seabrook puts it, “composing,” and rewriting are very different. “They’re almost two different kinds of mental processes,” said Seabrook. “Some people may be better at one than the other, but obviously a writer has to be good at both. Some people are great at composing, they don’t really get into rewriting that much. Other people love rewriting and hate the actual composing. I think every work session should combine both but you gotta find the right balance that helps you move the project forward.”

Seabrook recommended a hybrid method of composing and rewriting. He unpacked it in detail.

“I sit down, if I’m not just starting out, there’s something to read over. I read it over relatively quickly without thinking too much about what I might change about it until I get to the end. And then I try right at that point to push it further, right away.”

“Write for maybe five, ten, minutes, and I really try at that point to figure out what the next paragraph is. If I can get 300-400 words forward, then I like to go back again to the beginning and then come forward and do some rewriting of what I’d done the day before, and then come forward again to what I was doing that day and try to leave it in a slightly better state than it was when I first drafted it. Then, the next day, I can read that part and use that part as a way of getting going.”

Rinse, and repeat. “Each day, I try to push it forward in the early part of whatever time I’m spending writing, but then probably the bulk of my time is going back and trying to come forward again. If you do it that way, you do at least have something to show for your work at the end of the day, even if it’s not ultimately something you’re going to keep,” Seabrook said.

It all makes sense, but there’s a part that bugs me. How does a writer know if the rewriting is better than the original? What must they do to know where and how to rewrite?

“You have to read a lot,” said Seabrook. “You have to read a lot in order to get a sense of tone in your head, I don’t know how else to do it other than to read a lot. Read stuff that you like, find stuff that you like, try to figure out why you like it, start to notice similarities between stuff you like. Even try writing like another writer that you like, that’s how you start out even if you aren’t trying to do it. You imitate people and then you find your voice eventually. You have to start that way.”

The final piece of Seabrook’s advice reminds me of how Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write by writing out essays he liked. Without looking at the original, he would then try writing them on a blank sheet of paper. Once he was done, he looked at the differences between his version and the original one. As he developed his style, Franklin would also convert the formatting of the prose into verse, then back into prose again. Seabrook advocates a similar exercise for developing writing.

“In terms of rewriting, I think one of the best exercises — and this is something I actually did in school that I always found to be incredibly valuable — is trying to rewrite something that is 1,500 words long in 300 words. Or in 500 words. Sometimes people have these experiences on Twitter, and they have to do it in 140 characters. You tend to speak precisely and know what words you need and ones you can do without. If you can take the 140 character mentality and extend it throughout the whole page, I think that could be a super useful exercise as well. This is rewriting, obviously, but just imagine if you had to say in far fewer characters than you think you have, and how would you do it? I learned a lot from doing that.”

Similarly, considering longer pieces as combinations of shorter pieces is helpful. “I think writing short pieces for my method of composition has been invaluable. Not conceiving of long pieces as having to be just one 5,000 word piece but conceiving it maybe more as being five 900 word pieces, or something like that, can help a lot.” Longer form pieces are a rare specimen on the internet. Yet, writing these short pieces for the web can still be good practice for writing long form.

“The good thing about the web is there are plenty of opportunities to ‘publish.’ It used to literally be in print. The bad news is the money you get for it isn’t great, but the opportunity to work with publishers is there. I would say, if you’re a non-fiction writer, you’re faced with a unique beat of sorts. Having a beat, having a subject or a set of subjects that define you, helps in all kinds of ways. It helps you in coming up with ideas, it helps you know where to look for ideas, it also makes editors think of you when certain stories come up because they sound like the kind of stories that you would do.”

Ironically, to gain widespread success, you must focus on going deep and becoming known for one thing. “If you’re in the freelance business, and you’re working at different magazines, that can be invaluable. Of course, you learn that way. You’re not starting from zero every time you go into a story, you’ve got a certain amount of knowledge already accumulated. Figuring out what’s your subject, what’s your area of interest, is extremely important too, but not easy to do.”

My conversation with Seabrook could not have taken place at a better time. I’d felt like my writing had plateaued for the past several months. After my conversation with Seabrook, I spent much more time rewriting. My recent drafts look noticeably better. I’m no master, granted, and I’m still new to rewriting. As Seabrook said, it’s quite a different mindset from composing. But I can feel the difference, and I’m excited with the noticeable improvement. I make a note to ask Seabrook if he could write, “The Book Machine.” I’d pre-order it in a heartbeat.

Image via Kirkus Reviews.

Herbert Lui writes a newsletter that explores media, information, and marketing. His work has appeared in TIME, Fast Company, and Lifehacker. 

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