Friday, January 17, 2014

Henry Kissinger on Writing, Rewriting, and Rewriting Again

I just heard my new favorite story about writing, perseverance, and the importance of high standards.

The following was said by Ambassador Winston Lord, who was ambassador to China and assistant Secretary of State, about Henry Kissinger in an interview at George Washington University.

Well, basically it was, I went in with a draft, and it was actually of a presidential foreign policy report. This is slightly apocryphal and not directly on your subject here, but I would go in with a draft of the speech. [Dr. Kissinger] called me in the next day and said, "Is this the best you can do?" I said, "Henry, I thought so, but I'll try again." So I go back in a few days, another draft. He called me in the next day and he said, "Are you sure this is the best you can do?" I said, "Well, I really thought so. I'll try one more time." Anyway, this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, "Is this the best you can do?" So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he called me in the next day and asked me that same question, I really got exasperated and I said, "Henry, I've beaten my brains out - this is the ninth draft. I know it's the best I can do: I can't possibly improve one more word." He then looked at me and said, "In that case, now I'll read it."
Classrooms around the country contain young people who are good students but mediocre writers because they believe that finishing the last paragraph means they are finished with their essays. I can relate because I believed this too until my sophomore year of college. These students do not understand the old teachers' quote that "Good writing is good rewriting." Completing the last paragraph is just the start. Effective communicators go through their writing over and over: tightening up arguments, checking punctuation, strengthening vocabulary. After the first draft, there is always a more brief, more elegant, more convincing way to write each sentence.

All of this takes time, commitment, grit, and a tough teacher (or parent or boss). Most students are lazy with their writing at first; they need someone to hold them to a high standard who won't accept their half-hearted work. I certainly needed a professor in college who sent me back to perfect my papers.

This is closely related to my teaching philosophy, which is the same as my parenting philosophy: have high expectations but provide lots of support. That is how writers - and children - succeed. It is also the reason why Clickademics Essay Engine, our essay writing tutorial, does not just stop at the concluding paragraph. Students are shown how to go through three rounds of editing to make their writing even better.

Mercifully, we don't send students through nine rounds of editing like the demanding Henry Kissinger.

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