Post to the Host

Host Garrison Keillor answers your questions about life, love, writing, authors, and of course, A Prairie Home Companion.

Send GK Your Question »

All Good Writing is Rewriting

January 23, 2012 | 26 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I am 38, a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history for three years at Kent State. I'm writing my dissertation on U.S. civil defense during the Cold War and how gendered language led those efforts to fail. I have written...about 35 pages.

It seems like every few months, I hear about another contemporary earning his or her doctorate, and even though I know I'm a good writer, I'm feeling increasingly inadequate and hopeless.

My question is this: how do you pacify the voices in your head that conspire to make you feel like whatever you write will not be good enough? That if your work is not perfect, even the first time, it means you are an abject failure? In other words, how do you make peace with the omnipresent potential for mediocrity?

Melissa Steinmetz, a Perfectionist Ph.D. Candidate with Procrastination Problems  

Welcome to the club, Melissa. A lot of us get discouraged looking at the mess we've made on paper. And one can make an even worse mess on a screen, sprawling windy pretentious paragraphs that any sensible reader would automatically leap over. Writing on a computer is an exercise in mediocrity, if you ask me. Just keep telling yourself: the first draft has to come before the second and the third. All good writing is rewriting. If you're writing on a computer, print out hard copy and revise it with a pencil and then type the revisions into the digital version. Don't give up. There is an embittered editor up in your brain who expects your first draft to be classic literature. Tell him to sit on it and spin. Finish the dissertation before you're 40, kid. At 40, take a year off and work as a chanteuse in a roadhouse, leaning against the baby grand in your little black dress slit up to the thighs, a cigarette in your left hand, singing bittersweet ballads for lovelorn truckdrivers.


Great advice! So many of us forget that accomplished writers rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. But ask them---that is what they do. 1) Write the first draft. 2) Write the second. 3) Write the third.

I love this! I am one of those people that will write a piece - fiction, essay or otherwise - then go and read another work.

I inevitably end up pledging for the eight-hundredth time that I will never write again because it will never be as good.

('s a very dark and scary place to be.)

Until I (just as inevitably) realize that I could never give up writing.

So, I revise, rewrite, rework - all that good stuff.

And guess what? It turns out pretty swell.

An additional suggestion: If you' do I say this? If you're, not obsessive, but very...prolific like I am, and you tend to write 20-30 page chunks at a time, try to break it up a bit when you edit. Instead, try editing 5 pages at a time, or something to that effect. :)

That is the best advice I have heard since I was told "So you want to be a writer - so write"!!
The re-write is the best part - that is when I find my mistakes, dumb comments and after they are corrected the "editor" is finally pacified!

This is indeed good advice. Another entertaining rendition of this same advice is Anne Lamott's essay, "Shitty First Drafts."

Because I was writing my dissertation while working full-time, I established a writing schedule with a set number of hours per week. Then, as long as I could honestly tell myself that I had used the time earnestly and well, I didn't worry as much about how long the task was taking or the quality of the first draft.

To get to the finish line of my dissertation, I also relied on the "chapter completion gift"--some little reward that I promised myself as I got through each chapter.

Hang in there!

You’re leaps and bounds ahead of me, my dear. At 49 I’m finishing a BA, with a master’s thesis looming in my future. I have the same problem with writing. The perfectionist editor gets his hands around my throat and chokes off my air supply. Remember, “respiration” has the same root as “inspiration.” Tell the perfectionist editor to go away now, and come back when you’ve finished the final draft. Allow yourself time to enjoy something that’s not working on your dissertation but is related to it: read Bird by Bird, by Annie Lamott.

Melissa, participate in NaNaWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) next year. 50K words (of a novel) in the month of November. It forces you to let go of the inner editor & just WRITE.... you edit later. Check out their Facebook page & their home pages.

How interesting, Meilssa! Language-based downfall of Civil Defense during the Cold War! I thought it fell apart because, unlike my classmates and me, the generals couldn't squeeze themselves under their third grade desks, thus rendering themselves impervious to the effects of thermonuclear heat, the blast wave, and the subsequent radiation. My own daughter completed her dissertation about the take-over of the birthing process by male physicians, meaning the ouster of midwives and those assisting them, through language selection and deformation, or, that's what I THINK she said. But, as an old, old English teacher who manned, er, personned, the high school trenches during the Great War of 10th Grade Composition, I'd encourage you to put as much of your thought volume as possible on paper or on a hard drive or into an old cassette recorder. Do this as quickly as you can. In fact, quite a few of my students found the cassette recorder, or whatever technovation (to coin a word) now subs for the cassette, to be very useful. Press "record" and tell me, or your best friend, or your mother, tell someone ... your whole idea, the whole story in one sitting. Nothing seems so miserable as a student staring at one or two, or in your case multiple, paragraphs-pages-chapters, trying to bring those relatively few items to perfection! It's as though the Great Composer sat for years staring at those four notes, you know the ones, DUH-DUH-DUH-DAHHH, trying to figure out what the fifth one should be. The key for my students, over almost four decades in those trenches with them, seemed to be to put as much down as quickly as each one could, going for the whole product. To switch metaphors, there'll be at least some sense of accomplishment seeing the entire body, no matter how grotesque or stunted some limbs might be, lying on the table. Then you can begin your work: bringing it to life. And don't be afraid to leave the hard stuff until last. Once it's all stretched out before you, you can pick and choose the parts you feel like working on, as far as the situation and the day are concerned. But GK and Mr. Nelson are correct in saying that good writing, and, when it occurs, great writing, is revision. And you can't revise until you've "vised"! As far as the roadhouse, take a beefy friend to keep the low-lifes away and don't inhale. (By the way, you would NOT believe how much I revised this comment before pressing "submit"!)

The best advice is taking a year off at 40. Many of us still regret not marking that milestone with a year of self reflection and a sensual wardrobe.

Perhaps taking this approach would be helpful: Strive for clear prose which helps the reader to understand what you learned.

Don't try to create a literary masterpiece.

Best wishes,
Stuart Frohm
(Not a Ph.D.)

I couldn't take a year off at 40--busy raising my family. Now,at 83, I'm living in a Boulder senior community and the creative juices are flowing. I'm in a writing group, cheerleading at CU basketball games with 8 other bespangled late-developing women, and singing the blues and do-wop with two guys who have played guitar and harmonica for all their long lives. Keep writing--the fun will come.

The best advice I got while struggling to write my thesis? "Sometimes you just have to sit down and get the #&%er done." It worked.

I echo Stuart. I love writing, so when I saw the edit of my first draft of Chapter 1 of my master's thesis I nearly was very rough and I felt deflated and stupid. Then friends in higher ed gently reminded me that this isn't a literary creation. This is academic writing. I hadn't written in an academic voice before, but as soon as I became a little more fluent, I calmed down and gave in and did it. "Writing Literature Reviews" by J. L. Galvan helped, too. You're no doubt reporting on your original research, but this text gives good guidance with academic writing mechanics.

I realize a dissertation is far more daunting, but you can do this.

Hang in there,


Here’s a view from the other side of the fence, from someone who once did a 265 page doctoral dissertation in science. The sad truth is, once your doctoral committee has finished with your dissertation, no one ever reads Ph.D. dissertations or Masters theses after that. If there is anything of value contained in these, it will be separately published as an independent book or as journal papers. My own dissertation sits on a shelf somewhere in my house; I haven’t looked at it in decades.

Most doctoral candidates regard their dissertation as the crowning achievement of their entire intellectual career. It isn’t. It’s only a means to an end, and if the end is successful, the means are justified. You have still more to do in life, post graduate school. Such as dragging your butt over to that roadhouse.

Meanwhile enjoy the writing process for its own sake and for what it is.....a creative process. If you can find satisfaction while doing it, then it is your right and duty to do so. My research adviser systematically edited out all my attempts to put some style into what was, essentially, a dull research report. That really frosted me. Piss on him!

So write your little heart out, get all the enjoyment possible from the act of writing, and then edit, edit, edit! Only Mozart got it right the first time!

I haven’t done any science in a couple of decades, but I’m still writing furiously. Follow your own yellow brick road!


I want to clear your misconception that nobody reads a dissertation. Now, with the interactive services provided by University libraries, when one researches information, dissertations are part of the process. I actually used information from a dissertation for one of my papers (I FINALLY received my B.S. from California State University Fullerton in December, 2010, at AGE 60!).

My husband wrote his dissertation (info about Virginia Woolf) in the early 90's. It also "sits on a shelf," but I found it online!

Take a peek, if you can (you might need to know someone who
has access to an online University library.

Isn't the internet amazing?


As always, thank you Garrison for your sage advice. You tell us writers what we know in our hearts, but refuse to acknowledge.

Thirty years ago, I seriously studied acting. Our coach took a non-traditional approach by having us read Dr. Eugene Kennedy’s The Pain of Being Human. It is an easy-to-read psychology book with great insight.

Dr. Kennedy’s message is that it is through the pain of being human that one realizes life itself. He writes, “Real lovers never escape the pain of life, but they do conquer the restlessness that betrays the unloving and the unloved. They find peace, and it passes all understanding, because they realize that suffering and dying are not enemies, but necessary conditions for real living.”

If one does not experience the storms of life, then how can one appreciate the rainbow or the fresh air that lingers after the final cloud passes? It is especially true for us writers. Can we truly appreciate the beauty of a final copy unless we are forced to painfully edit, rewrite, edit, and rewrite some more? That very experience makes our writing richer in humanity.

Good writing is painful, as it should be.

Take heart Melissa and see the rainbow in the distance. It is there, just beyond the storm clouds.

Jeff Fites

I think Gordon's on to something. The dissertation is merely a means. And it's pass/fail. While Sandy's right that dissertations can be read, and occasionally are read, there are almost no circumstances where a dissertations has made a significant contribution to anything, except in the sciences. Even then, it's the research that's important, and the dissertation merely restates the already published paper. The only worthwhile dissertation I can think of is Kierkegaard's "The Concept of Irony." And that was written more than a hundred years ago.

It seems that the dissertation is for the purpose of learning to construct detailed and extensive arguments into a small subject. The process will change you, and will change the way you write and think in the future. That's the point, not anything that you've actually said in the dissertation.

Of course it's better if you write something that might be transformed into a publishable work once you've graduated. But first you need to write it, and graduate.

Best Wishes,

They say a good thesis is a done thesis.

Dear Melissa, you will find your way. Maybe what you are doing is practicing your particular writing process. Even when you are not putting fingers to keyboard, you are probably writing in your head. I spent 18 months writing a Master's thesis, which should have only taken 3 - 6 months, but most of that time was spent knitting items for my children, a great way to procrastinate, by the way. I handed in horrible rough draft after horrible rough draft which was returned to me with voluminous comments; then, I summarily trashed the draft and started over (which was not appreciated by my adviser, I might add). When I was psychologically ready to write the d**n thing, I got down to it and wrote it (150 pages, more or less) in about six weeks. It was pure torture; yet, I was so proud of my accomplishment. But mostly I was SO RELIEVED it was over. When the pain of it hanging over your head exceeds the pain of writing it, you will write it. And you will be glad you did. It will be great to get past this and move on. As Hilary says, above, "The best thesis is the done thesis." You can do it! Good luck!

As a scientist with 3 almost-finished manuscripts awaiting my attention, I thank all of you for lighting a tiny little motivational fire in me through advising Melissa.
And to Melissa, as someone who has both written and assessed dissertations, I can tell you that it's all good advice you are getting here. I sometimes refer to it as 'vomiting on the page', but just getting it all out in whatever form it comes is often the best way to get going. Believe me, you'll feel better. Editing can come later.

I'm surprised no one has quoted Ernest Hemingway, "The first draft of anything is sh**."

@Debra: I absolutly agree with you. Thanks for sharing your motivating words for Melissa. I like it when people on the net a just nice to each other and share their thoughts and experience. I for one get motivated most (well at least as writing is concerned) when I set my target for a certain publishing date and communicate this with my publisher. I say go and look for a publisher which keeps you on track.
I've previously used Cafepress before, and recently looked at a few of these as well.
I like the setup they have over at Grin. (
The nice thing about this is that it allows you to reach people who might not otherwise hear about your work and allow them to order it with the ISBN.
Make the 50 bucks over your life on royalties and buy yourself a nice lobster dinner when you see that check.
I say go for it, of only to see your name associated with an ISBN.

I definitely sympathize Melissa,

I'm 37 and finishing up my PhD thesis It has taken me six years so far due to procrastination and misadventure, however I was also recently formally diagnosed with ADHD and Aspergers syndrome, which makes a lot of sense when I look back on my life.

Having the diagnosis has been really helpful and I am now looking forward to returning to the albatross around my neck and writing with renewed vigor and determination ... I WILL finish it within the next 12 months!

Best of luck with your own albatross.

I earned my Ph.D. in the sciences at age 46. I got some great advice from a very experienced scientist that helped me through a similar wall, and you've read versions of it here. "Everyone wants their dissertation to be great literature and to make a great, earth-shaking contribution to the discipline. Forget it! All it has to do is satisfy your ommittee."

Your dissertation is nothing more, or less, than a means to an end. Its sole purpose is to convince your committee that you really did what you said you would do and that you now know more about this particular, remarkably narrow topic than anyone else in the world. Your dissertation isn't intended to be great literature: it's a means to an end. As a Ph.D. you will be writing for the rest of your career, so use this for exactly what it is: a stepping stone.

You should definitely take up playing the oboe. Then when you get tired of writing, you will have oboe reeds to make with your reed knife. Great therapy…plus playing the oboe will clear your head & writing will become that much easier. If all you do is write, you will become, yea verily, a harmless drudge, as well as a very boring conversationalist at cocktail parties. Oh, & if you take Garrison's advice, & someday choose to lean against a piano, just make dang sure it's a Steinway ;-)



I am a lot like Melissa in that every time I write something I think it is always absolute crap, and that my first draft needs to be perfect. it has taken me quite a long time to realize that you should expect the first draft to be nothing special overall, but that there are many special elements that will come out when you edit and rewrite. Now when I sit down to write a first draft I simply let the words spill from my pen onto the paper without worrying if it is grammatically correct or makes perfect sense. I always have to write my first draft with pen and paper, and then transfer it to computer screen. As I type it I will revise things I catch right away, and then I will print it out and revise more. It is a long process, but I have learned that revising it this way allows me to craft the most perfect version of my original idea that I can.


I'm a former English major who worked for a state civil defense agency for 11 years. Two things happened: 1. The agency morphed into "emergency management." 2. I spent time between the few-and-far-between emergencies that required state assistance honing my writing skills.

One cautionary note if you edit on your computer: Spell check is not your friend.

Previous Post:
« The Goodbye To Childhood You're On Your Own Now Ceremony

Next Post:
One thing leads to another »

Post to the Host Archive

Complete Post to the Host Archive

American Public Media © |   Terms and Conditions   |   Privacy Policy