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The ‘Delete’ Button: A Writer’s Best Friend

As a writer, I am so often asked advice from aspiring ones as to how, where, what to write and how to get published. Frankly, I feel such a fraud giving any! Even though I have written a few books, I learn something new about the art of writing and my own limitations every time I set out to turn a wild idea into a coherent narrative. As for where I write, generally I do it in my study and envy those who can write anywhere, anytime (though I do occasionally receive ideas in the early hours of the morning and fumble around for the pen and notebook which are supposed to be by my bedside but tend to travel around the house. I flick on the lamp and scribble it down. Then, in the morning, I look at what it was that was so important it disturbed me and my hubby, and mostly think it’s equivalent to automatic writing – senseless and belongs in the realm of the dead).

However, I am now over 30,000 words into Book 2 of The Curse of the Bond Riders, which is called, Votive (I’ll write more about this at a later stage) and realised there is a little piece of advice I can humbly offer, though I am by no means the first to do so. That is, as precious as your words are, as wonderful as you believe the story is and the descriptions delicious and relevant, the ‘delete’ button is your best friend – don’t be afraid to use it.

Before I was diagnosed with cancer and had my operations (see previous post), I was fairly romping along with the story. Then I hit a wall. Hard. A few times. Even filled with painkillers, I read over what I thought was good and worthy of keeping at the time and I was a little appalled. So, on January 8th this year, the day I ‘officially’ sat back at my desk and returned to my novel (which is plotted out carefully), I did what any sensible writer would do and I deleted 30,000 words. Just like that. To paraphrase a famous commercial for insect spray ‘one click and they’re gone.’

I felt sick.

Then, I sat down and, apart from the first chapter (which I rewrote seven times from seven different points of view and may do so again), I started all over.

Then I remembered what I’d done and I felt sick again. Word counts are what writers live by.

*Brief aside* – The writer’s day: A very short synopsis.

Sit down at computer.

Check word count

Write

Check word count

Have lunch

Check word count

Write some more

Check word count

Decide to stop

Check word count.

Read over last few sentences.

Check word count.

You get the picture: live by the word count, die by the word count. So, in short, deleting is a BIG deal.

And I had just done a huge one. But, I kept going.

Every day when I return to my novel, I go back over what I wrote the day before, and I delete all extraneous material. I rewrite, edit out mistakes, plot inconsistencies, and strengthen the language. What I do more than anything is delete. I delete all the adverbs that, in a fit of stupidity or distraction I included. I also try to eliminate many of the adjectives. This is because, whereas the ‘delete’ button is your best friend, the adjective is the utterly worst, diabolical, corrupt, malicious and heinous frenemy (enemy that pretends to be your friend) a writer will ever have the misfortune to encounter.

Persuaded by teachers of creative prose in primary and high school, perhaps by our own reading experiences (especially the ‘purple prose’ that dominated for decades and decades), or even writing courses, that adjectives reveal talent as well as an impressive vocabulary, we have a tendency to liberally pepper our works with them. But they don’t do us any favours except to slow down the pace and distract. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t include them but, if we treat them like the culinary equivalent of truffles and use them sparingly, they’ll have a much greater impact.

It’s like the Anton Chekov rule of writing. It is something like this: If you describe a gun on the wall at the beginning of the story (clearly he wrote in a different century), unless it’s fired at the end, get rid of it.

In other words, don’t describe or even over describe something you don’t have to (OK, and try not to end sentences with infinitives either).

Long descriptions of the way a character looks can be so distracting and unnecessary, yet so many writers persist in providing them. They don’t have to – try this for size:

‘As she strode into the room, the red dress swirled around her ankles.’

What hair and eye colour does she have? Is she tall or short? Is she confident or shy? What colour lipstick is she wearing? Is she meeting someone? Who? Is the room at the top of the building or bottom? How did she get there? I’ll bet you can answer one or all of those questions because in that brief sentence a picture was already being formed in your head.

Or, I could have written: ‘As she strode into the room, her blonde hair flowing down her back, her blue eyes sparkling, her scarlet lips curled with confidence,  her red chiffon dress that clung to her firm breasts swirled around her slender ankles.’

I know that’s over the top, but I have done all the imaginative work for you. I need my best friend, ‘delete’, to go to work and I have a much stronger sentence, a much clearer picture that the reader can form for him or herself.

Having said that, I generally overwrite in my early drafts and then when I revise, clear out as many extraneous adjectives as I can. You just don’t need them. They don’t make your work luscious, or poetic or demonstrate a great vocabulary, they interfere. They are not a friend, they simply mask themselves as one. They are the enemy and must be deleted!

And really, I have rambled and half this post could be deleted and still get my point across! See, I told you I am not equipped to offer writing advice – but good luck anyway!

Karen

Comments: 6

6 Comments

  1. I will add “frenemy” to my bank of compound words. My favorite (which I use in the concluding paragraph of elaborations sent to bureaucrats or politicians) is dismisspin – my mission is to dismiss you with spin. e.g. Please don’t bother replying to this if it is all dismisspin and no substance. Cheers

  2. Hrmm that was odd, my comment didn’t show up. Anyway I had to say that it’s good to see that somebody else also touched on this as I had difficulty finding the same info elsewhere. Yours was the first place that shed some light on this subject for me. Thanks.

  3. In reply to Keith I would venture to suggest that Karen’s statements in this particular post are a factual indication of one of the very many “minor” problems which occur whilst she was trying to come to terms with her situation. To say that your mission is to dismiss her with spin and that the posting didn’t have any substance is in my opinion a statement which is possibly incorrect. However Karen agreed for it to go on the site without spelling corrections (favourite) so I think it would be best if Karen decides if my reply should be included and if she does so then I am in agreement with her amending my submission. I have been thinking of this posting for the past month and tonight I thought I would be the one who would give you a reply. This should not turn into a slanging match between the pair of us but after my operation when I was left with approx. 6 inches of my bowel I hit the “delete button” on lots of my activities and in the past 6 years I have lost only 4 shots off my golf handicap.
    Regards,
    Bill Howell (Townsville)

  4. (oh gosh, BH, I didn’t read Keith’s comment this way at all.)

    Karen, how brave to delete the lot, and to start over. What an adventure. Thanks for the great writing advice – I wish I’d found “delete” earlier in life (especially a verbal delete.)

    Good luck with Votive.

    Oh, no! now I’ve written too much for this comment, will just go back and delete …

  5. lol a few of the remarks bloggers post certainly are a bit spacey, from time to time i wonder whether these people really read through the content articles and threads before placing a comment or whether they only skim the content title and write the very first ideas that jumps inside their mind. in either case, it is actually helpful to search intelligent commentary every once in awhile in contrast to the same, old opinion which i usually notice on the web.

  6. Please accept my apologies for a very dumb and inappropriate posting. BillyH

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