For years now I’ve listened to a podcast called Writing Excuses. It’s a show that focuses mainly on writing technique, and it’s hosted by a plethora of veteran authors, one of whom is the very talented Brandon Sanderson. A few seasons back, Brandon made a comment about deleting the early chapters of a manuscript and rewriting them completely (in fact, Brandon talks about this often and even includes many of the deleted scenes on his website).
As a writer who barely scrapes together enough time to write a first draft at all, the idea of deleting entire chapters was (okay…is) pretty terrifying. All that work, all that setup, all those precious words just…gone.
I have beginnings on the brain this month largely because I’m a middle school teacher, and September is a month of beginnings. New classes, new students, new Spongebob Squarepants socks. As I think about it now, there have definitely been school years that could’ve used a better introductory chapter. Life, of course, doesn’t allow us to delete and redraft, but as a writing technique this is something I’m warming up to.
Maybe you’re like me — balking at the thought of trashing entire sections of a manuscript. With that in mind, I’d like to make a case for new beginnings by highlighting a few authors who aren’t shy about laying their work on the chopping block.
The 10% Rule
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King recalls early advice from an editor that suggested his second draft should be 10% shorter than the first. The idea that much of editing is deleting transformed King’s writing and helped propel him to the success he has today. Writer and editor Erin Whalen digs into the details of this strategy on her blog, and it’s definitely worth a look.
Another wildly successful author who’s recently branched out to middle grade is James Patterson. In countless interviews and articles about his craft, Patterson’s notoriously short chapters are often highlighted and pondered. So much of what gives Patterson’s books the punch and the pace they have is his willingness to sometimes say as little as possible. The underlying mantra here is not too dissimilar from my own mindset when I have to stop by a fellow teacher’s classroom on my way out at the end of the day — get in, get to the point, and get out!
Murder Your Darlings
This is perhaps one of the most well-known ideas where writing and editing is concerned, but just to be clear, no one is advocating for actual murder here. The phrase, which has taken various forms and been attributed to several different authors (William Faulkner among the most famous of them), centers on the idea that sometimes deleting the things most precious to us is the best way to advance a story. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule (Margery Bayne at the writing cooperative does a great job unpacking this idea more fully), but the takeaway for me, both as a writer and as a human, is to edit objectively. Getting swept up in the emotion of something is a surefire way to keep stuff around that probably needs to go, whether it’s chapters in a manuscript, junk in the attic, or toxic people in my life (but just to reiterate, actual murder is bad).
Whether you’re writing a new book or just starting a new season in life, a willingness to remove the unnecessary and even start over entirely is profoundly helpful. I’ve already got a few chapters in my new manuscript that need to go, and thanks to techniques like the writing graveyard, I don’t necessarily have to toss anything permanently (though I suspect some of it should definitely be tossed permanently).
Best of luck as you embark on new beginnings this fall, and feel free to drop other editing strategies in the comments. Happy writing!