On the plane to Cancun last week, I ended up sitting next to a writer. Inevitably, our conversation focused on the art of writing—at which point, I asked her my typical question, "So, what was your greatest writing lesson?" After she shared hers, she asked me, "So what was yours?"
My goes like this.
When I was at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century—and the founder of Christianity Today, Carl F.H. Henry, was present for a week long intensive course. Knowing his background in writing, and desiring to write some day, I set up an appointment to meet with him. When I walked into his office, he was pouring over a manuscript. I sat down and then asked him my big question. "As someone who aspires to write sometime in the future, what advice would you give a young writer?"
He looked at me and said, "Come over here." I walked up behind his desk as he was pointing to the manuscript he was correcting and I was shocked. I had never seen so much red on a document in all of my life. Whole paragraphs were crossed off. Sentences red lined. Words circled. New words written above crossed out ones. Arrows pointing to new places. It was a bloody mess.
Then Professor Henry said something I’ve never forgotten. "Bruce, this is my third draft."
I was shocked. The great Carl F.H. Henry had just butchered his own third draft. He then went on to say the second thing I’ve never forgotten, "You see, the difference between an amateur writer and a professional is that an amateur writes something and says, ‘Oh, that’s good!’. But a professional always thinks, ‘That could be better,’ because the essence of good writing is rewriting." And then came the clincher, "Bruce, the only thing that stops a professional from continually rewriting a piece he’s written is a deadline."
Any writer, worth their salt, could feast on those three statements for a lifetime. So go ahead. Take a bite. Chew on them. And then never forget them. They’ll feed you for life.