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One Simple Trick That Makes Editing Less Painful

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Most writers (myself included!) have an awful time cutting words during the editing process. After all, we pour out our life blood trying to come up with the words. We spend weeks and months laboring over the story, getting details just right, the metaphors perfect, and descriptions dazzling. 

So the thought of hitting delete makes our fingers tremble with terror.

How can we part with our beloved words? How can we so callously kill our darlings?

Yes, over the years I've struggled with deleting during the editing phase. But every first draft will need pruning, and sometimes lots of it. In all my editing from macro down to line edits, I usually delete anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 words of the original document. (Of course most of that gets replaced with new words and scenes.)

But of a 100,000 word document that means I could essentially cut a tenth of the book. I know some authors do even more rewriting, perhaps changing up to a quarter of the book.

The truth is that we can't cling too tightly to our words. We established that in this post: The Unnecessary Shame Writers Feel When Getting Feedback. But, how can we make it easier to pry our fingers away from our words, so that it's easier to let them slip away?

I've found one simple trick that makes it less painful for me to delete. 

Here's what I do: When I get ready to edit, I open a brand new Word document. I label it "Title of Book.Deletions." At the top of the first page, I type "Chapter One." Then I start going through Chapter One of my first draft. I cut everything I absolutely don't need, and I paste it into my new document under Chapter One. I do the same thing with every chapter.

Sometimes I delete only lines here and there. Other times I cut multiple paragraphs.

But knowing that my precious words are safely tucked away in some other document gives me the freedom to slice away at my manuscript. I'm fooling my mind into believing that those words I once labored over are still safe and secure. 

The whole mind-game frees me up to edit with abandon. I can chop without feeling guilty or disappointed. I don't cling too desperately to the original words. I'm able to let go of paragraphs I once crafted with sweat and blood. Because I'm not destroying what I've written. I'm still keeping everything . . . just in case.

In reality, I've realized that I rarely go back and use any of what I ruthlessly delete. But even so, the process of knowing my words are still there, provides a safety net that allows me to edit with more freedom.

Other than releasing us to edit with more ease, there are additional benefits to saving our deletions in a separate document.

If we want to paste a description or theme somewhere later in the book, we have them saved and can weave them in elsewhere. I usually highlight the sections in my Deletions document that I want to try to add back in.

We can use those deleted sections as "bonus" material for readers after the book is published and we're in our promotional phase. We can use a bonus scene on Facebook that we give to readers as added content for "liking" us, or we can even add a page to our website for "extra" or "deleted" scenes. 

Sometimes in interviews we'll be asked for a deleted scene or to describe something we changed. Having the deleted material to refer back to has been a lifesaver for me.

So how do you handle your editing? Do you save your deleted sections? What other tricks or tips do you have for making the editing less painful?


30 comments:

  1. You know what? I've never, ever opened a new document and just saved all my cut words and paragraphs. If I have to cut several pages, I'll save that. But never, ever have I done this as I start a revision. And I totally go through every novel I write and trim the extra. In fact, I'll be doing this with my third book in a couple more weeks. So I just might try this.

    And call me crazy, but when I save deleted scenes, I usually do go back and pull a couple paragraphs from it later on in the novel. Sometimes it's even a mere sentence or two. But I tend to think about my books with emotional arcs in mind, not with plot points foremost. So I'll be like "Oh, I need this emotion here, and I know I had it portrayed perfectly in that scene I cut." Then I go back, grab the emotion, and tweak it to fit the current scene.

    Okay, this probably makes me sound like a crazy person, but I swear it works for me. :-) Good post, Jody!

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  2. I do that too. My cut pages file for one of my books was over 60K. So I almost wrote two books. I was still learning how to write and plot and a lot of things got rearranged and redone. It gave me a very good visual as to how I had evolved over the course of the story.

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  3. Note: While more writers seem to be prone to writing too much and thus needing to cut, some writers write too little and need to add.

    I usually need to add. The trimming happens as I write. (And I've done the math for how long it takes me to just write it all out vs. how long it takes me to edit as I go. I'm faster the latter way.)

    Whenever I need to trim, it's usually in the beginning, when I revealed too much, too fast, because my brain was solidifying the mental processes. I then trim a bit here and there, but with what I need to add, the end result is that the final product ends up longer than the original.

    I had one story, for example, wherein the first draft was 17k words. The final was over 70k.

    Just pointing that out, since it seems as if everyone assumes everybody over-writes.

    I do save a copy of the original draft before I start revising, though (Scrivener: Right-Click - Duplicate). And make gratuitous use of the "Snapshot" function before I start changing a scene. In fact, as I write, I'll cut words and delete lines using the "annotation" function. Then, whenever I hit a point where I need to-reread what I wrote (which can be 100 or 10k words later), I make a snapshot and remove the annotations.

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    1. Wow. From 17k to 70k. I'm amazed! I do often find myself adding to certain scenes, or even adding new scenes during revisions. But I still have my share of extra words (and scenes) as well. :-/

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    2. I under-write also. My rough drafts are mostly dialogue so I have to put some meat on those bones!

      I do have a file for each book where I move large chunks or sentences/ paragraphs I'm especially fond of, but I definitely don't save much.

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  4. I have two folders in my story's Scrivener file. One is labeled "Useable Fragments" and the other is labeled "Extra Fragments."

    If I have something I want to take out that I can't bear to delete, I judge them by how likely it is I'll want to take a second look at them, and put them in the according folder. I name the fragments after their chapters or give them a summarizing title so I can easily locate them later.

    Making a special place for deleted scenes is indeed really good advice.

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  6. I think your method makes perfect sense. Agreed...it's probably a psychological thing tucking away the 'cut' words, phrases, and paragraphs for safe-keeping, but it works. And as you said, you have the material at your fingertips if you need it later. Great idea!
    Blessings,
    Amy O'Quinn

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  7. What a clever idea, Jody. It's a little like tucking away a box of sentimental treasures in your closet. A beautiful container filled with things you don't necessarily need, but can't bear to part with, because they represent something special about you or to you. I like this!:-)

    ~ Betsy

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  8. Jody, As you know, there are also times in the writing of a book (long before the editor gets his/her hands on it) when we decide "that just won't work." I cut those scenes and past them into a new Word document that goes in a folder marked "Recycle." That becomes a subfolder under the novel's heading. Sometimes I use them elsewhere, sometimes I rewrite them for another book, sometimes they die there. But, like you, it seems to make the process more palatable.
    Thanks for the post.

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  9. I have started doing this since hearing you talk about it except I end up deleting whole scenes versus just lines and paragraphs a lot of times. Just goes to show how rough my rough drafts are :)Great tips today!

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  10. I'm in the process of editing for the first time right now, so I was very exciting to see the title of this post today Jody!

    But I have to agree with Carradee; I tend to underwrite, especially in the heat of the moment with intense scenes and whatnot, so while I do delete a bit here and there (and I probably need to do more, I'm just not experienced enough to know what and where) I find that I usually need to add more than delete.

    Question: At what point do you allow a second pair of eyes over your manuscript? Wouldn't the rewrites step be easier with a second opinion? Although, I am a bit fearful to sour my first readers with such an unpolished work, sometimes I feel too blinded to be a decent self editor. :-P

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    1. Hmmm . . . at what point should a writer let others read their work? I think I could write a whole blog post about it! LOL!! Maybe I will! :-)

      Here are my brief thoughts: Yes we are definitely too blinded to be able to spot everything that is wrong. But on the other hand, I think newer writers need to be careful about getting critiques too soon in their writing careers. The wrong kind of feedback can overly-discourage and crush the writerly spirit. I'd almost encourage you (like someone else mentioned below), to set aside your manuscript for a while and work on a new book. Then come back to the book in six months to a year. You'll have gained some objectivity and hopefully some new skills that will help you self-edit it again. And the perhaps it will be ready for outside feedback.

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  11. I used to keep a deletions folder, but I've given up on that idea for three reasons.

    1: I don't want to spend the time cutting and pasting, so I opt to keep older versions of the story that contain the material I subsequently cut.

    2: Much of what I cut is cut for a reason. It's not my best writing and won't be of use later.

    3. Because I tend to be a wordy writer, especially in first drafts, I know I can crank out more words to replace those I delete that actually need replacing.

    I think the reason I find it easier to delete words than others might is that I love the editing phase. I find it a real thrill to watch my story get better before my eyes. And there's also the fact that I had to delete over 75,000 words of my debut novel and start over after my agent read the manuscript. After that painful experience, a sentence, line, or even an entire scene doesn't seem like much. :-)

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  12. I do save my deleted lines and passages, because I can't let them go. I'm impressed that you're able to edit so many words, especially because I always end up writing too many pages.

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  13. I do the same thing conceptually, and it was a huge help, but I have an even easier way of doing it.

    I write in Scrivener (which is totally awesome by the way) and I save a how compressed copy of my project from every day I write in a backup folder. That way I know that any version is available for consultation (and I do occasionally go back to them).

    And there is an even easier way to see what's going on between versions. I compile out both a current and some previous version I intend to compare with so they are nice and clean and then use the "compare documents" feature hidden in the Word "tools / track changes" menu. This allows two documents to be compared and a "track changes" document to be generated with the differences. Since Word 2011 they have really improved this feature too and it even notates relocated passages as such instead of merely showing them as deleted and inserted. This method of comparing changes is light years ahead of traditional track changes as it doesn't show all the incremental modifications but just exactly what is different between the two versions in a very clean manner. You can also do it between any two clean documents.

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  14. Great advice Jody! I usually use Evernote and every time I found some places to edit I would copy/paste into a new note and edit there. Doing the same for every page edited. I think your way is better. Less new notes and all the changes are in one spot! I like that idea. Thanks!

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  15. I have a separate folder for each draft. I write my first draft by scenes and label them D1S01 (draft one, scene one).

    Then it's time for rewrites. And as I work on each scene (or chapter when I get to that point), I save them as a new file in that folder (D2S01 and so on). This way I can go crazy on this second draft and not fear that I'll eliminate a sentence and realize later on that I needed it. I can go back to that previous draft and find just what I need. It's totally freeing.

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  16. There are two things that have helped me this time to really feel some confidence that I have something worth someone's time to read. First - I put it away for about a year. That gave me distance so I could objectively see what needed to go without feeling so emotional about it. The second thing I did was a complete rewrite. Much of it got transferred over, but it was easier for me to retype everything, changing wording or cutting paragraphs, adding new scenes - if I made a brand new document. Thanks for the tips today, Jody! It's helpful to know what helps others a little further down the road.

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  17. I do something similar, but I use MS Word's strikethrough feature, which shows me just how unnecessary those pieces I'm about to cut are, so when I do delete them, it's painless. I also keep my previous versions (and therefore deleted pieces) "safe" in my many backups, but I do like the idea of collecting everything into one document so those pieces stand out - good tip!

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  18. I used to open a document like you, and put all my little lovely deletions there. Now I just save a new version of my manuscript calling it "Title 2." The next round is "Title 3." That way, I can always go back to an earlier version and find what I cut out during a later editing round. I don't very often go back.

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  19. When I'm revising (largely cutting), I always have a file called "Take Outs". Like you, I feel reassured that those words and lines I liked are SOMEWHERE and not lost in space (or cyberspace).

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  20. Hi Everyone!! I'm loving hearing all of your different strategies today! I'm learning so much! Thank you ALL for sharing!! :-)

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  21. This has been so helpful! Thank you for the tip!

    Tell the World

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  22. I use Scrivener, too. I have a "deleted scenes" folder. It has sub-folders for better organizing. That file is pretty large, but I just can't get rid of it! I'll keep it just in case. I probably won't use any of it, but I'd hate to go looking for something later...

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  23. These are great ideas Jody. I save old drafts and can go back to look at them. Usually when I do, I think, "Oh, that's not very good. Let me try something better!" It's kind of like when my son's Lego creation falls apart. At first he's upset, but usually he rebuilds it and likes version two much better! Thanks Jody for starting a great conversation!

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    1. All that said, I think your point about saving material for promotion is an excellent one and I appreciate this insight from a published author!!

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  24. I save a new copy of my story every time I do a revision pass. I rarely come back to it to get anything out, although I have once or twice. I also have a deleted scenes from my first novel up on my webpage, and it gets quite a few hits. It's fun to share some of the scenes I loved, but didn't make it into the final draft, with readers.

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  25. Not only have I always saved all my deletions in a separate file, I can't imagine any writer would *wouldn't* do that!

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  26. As soon as I read that you save your deleted sections in a separate document, I giggled. I do that too. I think I am afraid I'll wish I still had them, or maybe I'll use them elsewhere. I read in "On Writing" by Stephen King that you should use as few words as possible in some situations. I tend to over-explain. I know this about myself. See, I'm doing it right now. LOL

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