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This Writing Life: Don’t be Afraid to Delete

3 May, 2013

I may have mentioned once or twice (ha!) recently that I’m in the middle of editing a novel. Editing has always been a long and tortuous process for me, far more so than writing the first draft. I’m constantly have to teach myself new techniques, to improvise and to make guesses, and that’s if I can even get myself to sit down in front of the computer. Still, I have actually reached the halfway point in my edit, and one very simple lesson has started to jump out at me: you can’t be afraid to delete.

Now, clearly you don’t want to lose work, particularly when you might decide to reinstate something after previously chopping it. If you’re working on a computer though, any concern about losing work becomes virtually meaningless. Text documents, small as they are, can be backed up almost endlessly. If you choose to keep something safe from hard drive failures, computer crashes and spilled cups of coffee, it’s easy to do so.

And this is where the first part of my ‘don’t be afraid to delete’ mantra comes in. Making yourself get rid of words – paragraphs, chapters, half a novel – is hard. Every time I contemplate ripping out anything from a single sentence to a few paragraphs, my brain starts screaming at me. “You can’t do that! Think of all the hard work that went into that! What if you’re making a terrible mistake!” Thankfully, technology comes to my rescue. Saved to my hard drive, and to several back-up locations, is a pristine copy of my first draft, safe from the ravages of my edit. If I decide I’ve made a mistake and really have deleted some pure gold prose? I can simply go back and copy it from that first draft, into my second one.

There’s a phrase in that last paragraph that set me laughing. I wonder if you can see it too? It is, of course, ‘pure gold prose’. The idea that any prose is really perfect is laughable in itself, but considering anything from a first draft ‘pure gold’ is even more ridiculous. Sure, you’ll sometimes hit on just the right sentence, the right line of dialogue or description, first time. However, there is nothing you write that cannot be improved upon in some way – and that’s the biggest editing lesson I’ve learnt. Worrying that I’m deleting writing so good I’ll never replace it is pointless. Unless you genuinely believe the sun shines out of your every orifice (and if you do, you’re probably not going to be reading writing blogs like this one), your work – no matter which draft number you’re up to – can always be improved.

In the end, to edit a novel you need both an awareness of your work’s failings and a bucketful of self-awareness, too. Of course we can strive for perfection – most of the fun is in trying. However, knowing there’s always room for improvement is incredibly liberating and makes editing so much more enjoyable. Go forth and delete! Rip out those ‘perfect’ sentences – murder your darlings, as the saying goes – and write something better.

  1. 4 May, 2013 9:50 pm

    A mentor of mine from years ago used to say, “You can’t be afraid to kill your darlings.” I’ve never liked the way she put it, but the idea was that sometimes the passages we are most proud of are the ones that pound the keys a little too hard anyway. Sometimes understatement is better. And I’ve already broken that rule in this comment!

    • 5 May, 2013 9:31 am

      Understatement can indeed be powerful, although I think a lot of my ‘darlings’ are paragraphs where I think I’m being very subtle… Which reminds me just how difficult it is to judge your own work!

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