How Much Do Writers Recycle?

According to some, there is only one big story, one story for which all writers tell and retell. If this is true, then it is unavoidable that writers recycle. Without discussing the veracity of this “one story for all time” claim, however, I’d like to know the answer to much narrower question: how much does a writer recycle from his own writing? That is, how much does a writer repeat essentially the same words, include the same specific details from the same events to draw the same points, and otherwise recycle his own expressions across different publications?

A writer who I believe recycle, does it very well & without detriment to his oeuvre, is Joseph Ellis. His book Founding Brothers is both a critically acclaimed work (it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001) and a bestseller (it sold “tens and even hundreds of thousands” copies and got Ellis’s name uttered in the same breath as other popular writers such as David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, and Ron Chernow). It is, I think, essentially a compilation of his other full-length biographies on Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams. And so is Ellis’s 2007 work, American Creation.

Ellis recycles; he repeats almost verbatim certain phrases and sentences across different accounts; he retells the same minutia to the same events to illustrate the same points about his cast of characters; he does in his books what I’m doing now (see the last sentence of the first paragraph). But he does it terribly well: his books, original and recycled, make the New York Times Bestsellers List. (For what it’s worth, I enjoy reading him tremendously.) Perhaps Ellis is a writer of the mode that the ultimate computer programmer is extolled to be: the programmer does not code, he copies & pastes from his past work to create a new brilliant app that will sell for millions.

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