If you’re a writer, you know exactly what I mean when I talk about facing deletions. You’ve all been there … you’ve either been told by your editor that some elements aren’t serving the content or the story well, or you’ve wondered yourself if something you once thought was brilliant should go. UGH. This is when you know this passion isn’t for the faint of heart.
I know firsthand these comments or inklings aren’t easy to receive, believe me! I’ve done my fair share of struggling with this topic, but then—Boom!—something incredible happened. Suddenly my perspective shifted, and when it did, I came to embrace deletions in an almost giddy fashion. It was, however, still a process, so I’m going to bare my soul and share with you exactly how I conquered it.
I started out many years ago as a writer who had an extremely difficult time with criticism. Now to be clear, this is NOT because I’m arrogant or thought I was a brilliant writer; rather, I just had a super-sensitive ego, and it got bruised way too easily.
Fast forward a number of years to my second novel (I call the first one my “practice novel,” the one I’ll never seek to publish). After over a year of carving out blocks of writing time after work and giving full days off to nothing but my characters and chapter development, I finally had a draft I had been editing all along as I went. For that reason, it didn’t feel like a true “first draft,” but rather a solid third draft or so.
Now as you know—being a writer—when you’ve spent countless hours with your material, no matter what the genre, you simply can't see it anymore the way others might. You miss things you’d never overlook if you were reading someone else’s book; you shudder when during the tenth read you find a grammatical error or skipped word, an error you’d never commit on a regular basis. You likewise get attached to sentences and paragraphs you worked on for an hour—or even a day—before you deemed them just right. How in the world could those not be wonderful? you think.
And then you take the plunge and entrust your work to a professional editor, which every writer needs no matter how brilliant they may be.
Now, I’ll tell you—the editor I chose was someone I trusted and who had a long track record of editing fiction. She’d been in her profession for many years, and she was a published author as well. With those credentials, I was nervous as all get out to hand over my manuscript, because although (let’s face it) writing is subjective, I put a lot of faith in her for what opinion she’d have of my novel. And, truth be told, I wanted her to love it. At the same time, I was terrified she’d think it was awful. With those emotions churning, my stomach was in turmoil the entire two months I waited before I heard a single word from her.
We met in person, she gave me a typed, detailed evaluation of each element, and she actually had many favorable things to say to me. I was thrilled! Overall, she was impressed with the story arc, the characters, the mechanics of my writing style, the plot points and intrigue. Then the bomb dropped.
“The thing is, though,” she said, “you tend to overwrite. The story is wonderful, but the book really needs extensive tightening.”
“What exactly does “tightening” mean?” I asked, trying to be a grown-up about it.
“Well, basically, you say more than you need to at times, describe scenes and characters' thoughts more than necessary.”
“Oh,” I nodded, taking it in, remembering my best friend had told me the same thing but I had dismissed it.
“Basically,” she said, “you need to delete 80-100 pages.”
WHAT? I thought. She’s crazy! But what I actually said was, “Wow, really? I don’t even see how that’s possible.”
“It’s possible,” she assured me.
My heart sank. She was telling me my book could stand to lose 20,000–30,000 of the words I worked so hard to write? She was nice about it and everything, but there was no denying I was stunned and devastated. While I greatly appreciated her insight, I admit I was skeptical about her proposal. I actually thought, We’ll see about that.
Boy, did I see.
Now because I don’t want to be accused of overwriting in this blog post (!), I’m going to get right to what happened to me next as succinctly as possible.
- I returned home and read through all of her evaluation notes again, savoring all the good ones.
- I opened the box and started flipping through my manuscript pages to find multiple notes and post-its—some were praise, while many others told me what to get rid of, tighten, etc.
- I wanted to cry (I didn't, but I wanted to).
- I picked a page and studied what she said against my actual writing.
- I deleted what she told me to.
- I read it.
- I put my words back.
- I read it again.
- I deleted the words.
- I started to get it.
She was right about that page.
I went to the next one and did the same. She was right again. Danged if she wasn’t going to be right throughout the whole manuscript. Hmmm …
For good measure, though, I created a document where all my deletions went, because what if she was wrong after all and I wanted those words back? (I admit I disagreed with her here and there and kept a few things, which of course was my prerogative as the author, just so you know.)
I revisited those deletions several times at first, like trying to get off sugar a little at a time. But then the cravings ceased because I knew the sugar was damaging me and I grew to prefer my life without it, if you know what I mean. But until the “bad stuff” was out of my diet, I didn’t really know how different things could be. This was the gift she gave me.
With her guidance in the form of scrawled margin notes and stickies, I developed momentum. Reading my material without those words I thought were so important, or rewriting paragraphs with less instead of more, gave me a newfound sense of myself as a writer.
In short, I grew up.
Because I’d been away from my book for a couple of months, and with some structure to lead me, my manuscript was truly getting better before my eyes. I felt it. From a reader’s standpoint in place of an author’s, I understood exactly what my editor was trying to teach me about “showing” instead of “telling.” I realized that I needed to allow my reader to organically absorb a scene and the feelings of my characters without being told too much. Until I began the process of deleting, I didn’t even recognize that I was offending my reader by over-describing, even though that hadn’t been my intention.
Instead of being sad to let go of paragraphs—and even whole pages—I began to feel, well, triumphant. I stopped remembering how long certain parts had taken me to write and let them go like children who needed to find their own way (mind you, at first I kept them in the “deletions” file, just in case, but that was part of my process).
As I read my newly tightened story, I felt liberated, evolved, and proud. The improvement of my fiction writing skills spilled over into my non-fiction writing as well, and it ultimately added a layer to my editing expertise that I hadn’t quite possessed before—the same way studying foreign languages enhanced my knowledge of English. That, coupled with further study and refinement of the talent, allowed me to become a professional editor myself. I'm very grateful to my original editor from years ago for contributing to that.
And that novel that lost 70 or 80 pages? (Yes, I really did delete that many.)
While I’m sad to say it’s had to fall onto the back burner since I’ve been working as a professional book doctor to bring the dreams of other authors to fruition, it will definitely one day be published.
After stepping away from it for six months after that initial rewrite, then revisiting it and doing even more tightening, I realized that the best thing I could do for the story was give it space. This is precisely why I recommend that all of my authors do the same—I know firsthand that doing so is invaluable. It takes many subsequent visits to see your material from a new perspective and fine-tune it accordingly, which is why no writer should ever rush a book. It's usually a recipe for disaster—I know it would have been for me.
And what about that deletions file?
To be honest, I’m not even sure I kept it. Those “babies” I thought I couldn’t live without? I discovered that I could, and then some. In fact, once I learned that those excess words were hurting the flow of my narrative and the level my reader could engage with it, I was more than happy to say goodbye to them.
So there you have it, a story that when it first happened, I was too embarrassed to want to share with anyone. I was worried people would think I wasn't a good writer because I was told to delete so much (but my editor also did say it was better to have too much than too little, which was a nice consolation!). And now here I am, shedding my former self-consciousness in hopes I can help other writers with the same deletion dilemma …
It’s my sincere wish for you that if you haven’t reached this point yet, you’ll remember my experience—maybe even utilize my process—and be inspired to learn, grow, and improve your writing the way that I was able to.
Embracing deletions is a gift that keeps on giving … and that feeling of triumph? Well, I truly hope you'll experience it too.
Stay tuned for my next post, “When's the Best Time to Release My Self-Published Book?” where I'll share some insight on planning your particular book's time frame and release to the world!
In the meantime, if you think other writers could benefit from my story of how I overcame deletion-o-phobia, please do share it on Facebook, Twitter, and/or LinkedIn. And please leave me a comment too so I don't feel all alone! :-)
With love and best wishes for many triumphant deletions,
Stacey Aaronson is a professional Book Doctor who takes self-publishing authors by the hand and transforms their manuscript into the book they've dreamed of—from impeccable editing and proofreading to engaging, audience-targeted cover and professional interior design—rivaling or exceeding a traditional house publication.