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What I Learned Writing Dreamlander: Why Writers Should Never Hit Delete

The delete button is both the writer’s best friend and worst enemy. It gets the best friend nod for saving us from being stuck with every little (or lotta) bit of dreck we happen to write. (Can you imagine the mess we’d have at the end of a manuscript if we had to keep every single word we put on paper? Can you imagine the crippling pressure whenever you wrote one of those words?)

But that doesn’t mean the delete button is without its downfalls.

Today, we continue with our month-long series of text and video posts discussing some of the writing (and life) lessons I learned while writing my upcoming fantasy novel Dreamlander (available December 2). And one of the biggest of those lessons was also one of the simplest:

Never delete.

Never ever delete.

Never ever EVER delete.

Let me repeat that just to make sure everyone in the cheap seats can hear:

NEVER DOGGONE EVER DELETE!

How to Delete Without Actually Deleting

So, now that we’ve got that cleared up, let me note that I am actually aware of the total contradiction there. Delete, but don’t delete. How exactly is that supposed to work?

Well, as you’ve probably already figured out (being among the top percentile of clever blog readers, of course), there are ways and means of secretly stashing all the ugly lovelies we’re forced to delete from our manuscripts for one reason or another.

Mostly (okay, so entirely) these ways boil down to a task every bit as arduous as creating and copy/pasting into a new file. Since all self-respecting writers are supposed to be imaginative in naming things, I call my file “Deleted Data.” Killer, right?

But you know what’s really killer about it?

Its size. Dreamlander’s finished draft weighed in at 181,000 words. Wanna take a guess on the size of my delete file (or, actually, three delete files, by the time all was said and done)?

Try this on for size: 191,000 words.

In other words, the stuff I deleted from the book makes a bigger book than the book itself.

At first glance, that sounds like all kinds of painful. But let me put http://www.incredibleblogs.com/ this in perspective with a few qualifiers.

1. Some of those words are duplicates, since certain sections were actually deleted more than once.

2. Some of those words actually made it in to the book. I cut them, put them back in, and never took them out of the delete file.

3. It’s also true, however, that some of my deleted data never made it into the file at all, either through an oversight on my part or just sheer laziness.

But suffice it that I have saved a Godzilla-sized file of throwaway words. And that file has saved me a ton of work.

Why?

Three Reasons a Delete File Saves Writers Work

1. Deleting hard-won, beloved words is tough. Removing them to a separate file allows you to take them out of your manuscript without losing them entirely. It eases the pain of separation and makes killing those darlings just a little bit easier.

2. Sometimes writers change their minds. Have you ever written a chapter, condemned it as junk while in a bad mood, and deleted it, only to realize that—whoops!—you just made a major mistake? By the time Dreamlander was finished, several scenes I had abandoned early on in the process had made their way back into the book. Had I permanently deleted them, I would have been forced to start entirely from scratch.

3. Just because a scene (or part of a scene) didn’t work doesn’t mean it might not be handy for the sake of reference. Remembering I wrote a particular sentence, only to be unable to find it in my manuscript, can be frustrating. But if I can also search my deleted data, I have a much better chance of convincing myself I’m not so loony as my cats sometimes think.

Bottom line: delete files are a safety net. And in a journey as potentially perilous as writing, why not take a few easy precautions to save yourself time and stress later on?

***

Don’t forget to vote for which prize you’d like to win in the Dreamlander Launch Party Grand Prize Drawing on December 2!

Tell me your opinion: Do you keep a delete file?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Not exactly, but I definitely will the next time around. What I DO have is multiple drafts of my WIP, which of course, contain a lot of stuff I didn’t include in later versions, but I like your idea of maintaining a separate file altogether for those darlings I didn’t reeeeally want to kill. Great post. Thanks.

  2. I usually end up keeping separate drafts as well, just in case I want to revert to pre-rewrite versions. But they can get confusing, since it can be difficult to remember which draft is which. The delete folder isn’t a cure-all, but I find it to be a simpler solution.

  3. I absolutely have a “delete” file (mine is called ‘draft items’). SO handy. I wanted to hug my delete doc many times for holding onto bits, pieces, large chunks, etc… even if it was only for that one line that worked great and turned out it could work great after all in the latest incarnation.

    I also really like going back to it, too, to remember how some of my ideas started – which might have been very different than how everything ended up.

    I also save multiple drafts… however, I have yet to figure out how to name them in a way that is helpful.

  4. It *is* fun to go back and read through scenes you might even have forgotten you wrote. Plus, they come in handy for “Deleted Scenes” featurettes!

  5. Yes, I do keep a deleted file, however the title is different: I use the name, Older Versions. Only because I have re-started my current book so many times, it was easier to just categorize the different versions and keep the cut scenes there. I learned long ago never to truly delete anything because it will be exactly what I want sometime down the road. Deleted Scene’s featurettes. I love that. My deleted scenes will probably be several full run features!

  6. I use delete files and have been so glad that I do! Also, about naming multiple drafts, I usually use the date. Something like 032412MyBookTitle. That way they’re all sorted in chronological order and I can easily find the version I’m looking for. :) Thanks for the great posts!

  7. @Cecilia: I had fun putting together a deleted scenes featurette for Dreamlander. I had plenty of material to choose from.

    @Perry: I like the idea of naming old versions with the date first instead of last. I may use that in the future.

  8. Yes, yes, and yes. And I like “Delete file” better than what I usually call mine: Dump. Next time I want to procrastinate about writing–now, for example–I’ll try to come up with an even better name for it. Gone But Not Discarded.doc? Disappear But Do Not Go Away Altogether.doc?

  9. Haha! I have to admit I like the sturdy Saxon “dump.”

  10. I do keep a delete file, and I named it… Deleted Stuff. Not very creative, is it?

  11. ‘Bout as much as mine is. ;)

  12. Excellent points that I have not considered.

  13. Loves your post! My file name is “working on”, don´t ask me why -_-“

    It helps me to work through POV´s instead of head-hopping.

    Thanks for the post!

    xoxo

    M.

  14. Love this idea! I open up new drafts each time I revise, saving the old work, but I’ve never tried the delete file. Thanks for the tip!

  15. @Steve: It’s such a ridiculously simple idea, but it saves so many headaches down the line.

    @Meryl: Knowing we have a delete file gives us the freedom to work our way through junk scenes on our way to the keepers.

    @Julie: I save new drafts on big rewrites. But for minor revisions, I find the delete file much handier.

  16. I always back up to my email every time I write. That way nothing is ever lost and I can search within yahoo mail for key words to find whatever I need.

  17. I try to do that as well. But I haven’t thought to do it in a long while. Thanks for the reminder!

  18. Yes, I have several. One for previous outlines, one for ideas (rejected), and one for the text.

    I have deleted in the past and been sorry, so I’ve learned over the years (of learning fiction writing) to save everything.

    Like you pointed out, I can always change my mind, and all that writing I did is easier to edit that to create from scratch.

    Good Reminder, K.M. It’s easy for me in the “heat of the moment” of banging out a story to yield to the temptation to go the quick and easy route rather than go to the work hunting down my “deleted material” files.

  19. Microsoft Word has the handy feature of allowing you to pin frequently used files to your main menu. The deleted data folder for my WIP is always pinned there, so it’s easy to get to.

  20. I had to laugh at this one. Mine is called “Stuff I Cut.” And it only runs about half the length of my completed MS, which is now making me think maybe I haven’t cut enough! :)

  21. Probably just means you’re better at not writing stuff that *needs* to be cut. ;)

  22. This is one of your most valuable reminders. I backup current working manuscript in multiple locations and do the same for older versions. After years of working in IT for Microsoft, a major oil company and insurance companies, I can assure you.
    One of our most difficult situations was trying to convince a user that if you delete before a scheduled system backup, you are on your own.

    Thanks for sharing, Katie!

  23. I don’t keep a delete file, but being a software developer as well as an author, I use a version control system (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Version_control_system).

    This allows me to track all changes from day one and I can “check out” any version of the book at any stage of writing.

    Once a nerd, always a nerd…

  24. I’m so glad to hear that other authors set up delete files. Here I thought I was a word hoarder- unable to let go when I should really let it go. I set up a file for each manuscript titled- Crap in [title] I don’t need. Old dated files and partial scenes I edit out are safely tucked away just in case… It works for me. So far, the material has stayed where I put it. But like Rich, I back up everything all the time.
    K.M.,I love your post. Keep them coming!

  25. @G.E. Sherman: You are not the only writer here who does software development as a day job. I don’t use a version control system (nor do I keep a delete file as such), but I do keep a copy of the product at the end of each day in a separate file, ordered by date in the style of Perry above. I can’t count the number of times I have gone back to a previous version to lift a sentence (or paragraph, or page) that a I subsequently deleted and wanted back later.

  26. I often make my notes and write first-version texts and ideas in my Moleskine notebook, which doesn’t have a delete button >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  27. I have several “Alternate and deleted scenes” files that have saved me many times. I don’t think I’ve ever put a scene back into the story, but they come in handy for that perfect description of an emotion or object I still need later, or a snarky comeback from a character that I want to use for a re-written conversation. I just used one yesterday, as a matter of fact!

  28. I have no fewer than /three/ folders for material I’ve removed from the current working draft (Scrivener makes this dead simple because it’s composed of many small files instead of one large one):

    * Sandbox – this is where I play with ideas, names, places, phrases, whatever before they make it into the working Story draft
    * Deleted scenes – these are things that I once had in the Working draft but which I removed. They’re not gone, just not active. I can always pull material out of there later.
    * Trash – this is where I send stuff so banal or drecky that I will never, ever look for material there. But you’ll note that Trash is like a Recycle Bin – it’s the final staging area for deletion but I don’t actually empty it until the project is published and I’m done with this piece. Emptying the Trash is literally the last thing I do before closing the file and moving onto the next thing.

  29. @Rich: A writer can’t backup too often. I backup to an external hard drive every week and try to remember to email myself updated versions of my WIPs every day.

    @G.E.: VERY cool!

    @Nancy: The great thing about the online writing community is the discovery that for all our quirky weirdness, we’re very much *not* alone in any of it.

    @Andrew: So do you keep an updated file for every day you work on it or just every big revision?

    @Cold: I write all my outline notes longhand. The non-delete part is great. The lack of a Find feature is sometimes less great.

    @Abby: Sometimes I’ll even use my delete file to write little tidbits of dialogue or description that don’t work yet, but may work later on. It’s sort of retroactive deletion.

    @Phy: “Sandbox” – I love that!

  30. I have an entire delete FOLDER – I call it the Graveyard. I don’t think I keep as much as you do – I only keep scenes/chapters, not individual sentences.

  31. “The Graveyard.” So far, I think you get props for best name.

  32. @K.M.: I actually do keep an updated file for every day. It is a habit I inculcated from when I started computer programming. Sometimes it does get a little funny. I know on more than one occasion I only changed one or two words before falling asleep in front of my computer, and it still got saved as a separate file.

    Thank you for having this blog, BTW. I think it’s wonderful.

  33. Glad you’re enjoying the blog! I actually love the idea of saving a new file every day. But I can see myself going crazy searching hundreds of files, trying to find one phrase. >.<

  34. I periodically save into a new version, but overall, I avoid deleted material. I find rewriting is almost always better than restoring. Rewriting always discovers new dimensions and nuances. As well, old material needs to be revised to fit with the changes I made around that material. By pasting it in, I’m more likely to introduce a few errors that I won’t spy until late in the process.

  35. I usually have various versions of projects, though I’ve managed to lose several older files… and been saved by printed older drafts!

    I’m starting to keep delete files (usually call it “Cut Scenes” and kept in the overarching folder with the main file so it’s easy to find, since I tend to work on more than one project at once.) So far, I’ve found it helpful, although more as just reassurance that I haven’t lost something permanently.

    Also, having the “track changes” feature on when editing in Word really helps me. I can shut it off so I don’t see it unless I want to, but it tracks EVERYTHING. I just have to remember that my crit partners will see the changes if I send them the file, and have to go make a dupe file and clean it up. :)

  36. This post perfectly encapsulates why I never delete anything, just set a copy aside. It takes the sting out of cutting whole chapters.

    @Phy I love Scrivener for this, particularly the double-pane view that lets you compare your drafts side-by-side. I keep an old drafts folder in my projects as well, filled to the brim with cut chapters and scenes. The program also has a version control system like G.E. described, called snapshots. I don’t use it often enough.

  37. I never heard of a “Delete File” until I read your post. I love the idea and I think I will be creating a file for myself. –Thanks for the idea

  38. @Sarah, I also run Scrivener in the double-pane view, keeping the outline on the left and my WIP on the right.

  39. @London: In this, you would be in accord with Robert Olen Butler, whose intuitive writing style I respect (but don’t necessarily try to emulate). He is adamantly opposed to reworking in so much as a deleted sentence.

    @Liberty: I’ll occasionally use the track changes feature if I’m on a deadline and need to be extra aware of the changes in order to avoid typos.

    @Sarah and Phy: I’ve been resisting Scrivener for a while now (mostly, because I have a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality, and I absolutely *love* yWriter). But this idea of a double-pane view is increasingly attractive.

    @PT: Just make sure you name it something imaginative. ;)

  40. I’ve always saved my deletions and have, more than once, found them to be great jump-starters for a new project. I also find that something that seemed to slow the pace early on in a book might work quiet well later in the manuscript.

  41. Recycling is always satisfying – even if the digital type doesn’t have the added bonus of saving the eco-system.

  42. It’s never occurred to me to delete anything. Is that ego? Maybe. It also seems like a writers-instinct sort of thing to do. We can be such cackling little hoarders of letters. Like gremlins, sort of, slinking off with armfuls of E’s and Q’s.

    Or maybe that’s just me.

  43. In general, I’m a throwaway nut. If I don’t need it and haven’t used it for a month, it’s gone. But my writing is different. In addition to all the digital files hoarded on my hard drive, I still can’t bring myself to part with my growing pile of notebooks. One of these days, they’re going to take over my house…

  44. I do that, because sometimes I can’t bear to part with something I wrote. I’m just in general bad about saving things “for later” or “in case.” Old birthday cards, clothes (maybe it could become a costume!), finished homework assignments O_o…

  45. Better safe than sorry! In real life, I’m always throwing away things that would have come in handy later on.

  46. I generally tend to save a story I was writing at one point, but lose interest in its own separate save file, for if I want to refine or brainstorm the idea more.

    Not sure if this is the write post to ask, but what are your thought on the Snowflake method? I’ve been sort of combining some of your ideas with the snowflake method.

  47. My methods actually have a lot in common with the Snowflake Method: start small and slowly build upwards. So, essentially, I’m a big fan of it, although I differ from it in certain areas.

  48. I have a folder called: ‘Warning, brain damage’ for my deleted scenes. One of the schenes has beautiful descripton of a northern wasteland which didn’t fit anymore. My friend read it and was shocked I’d removed it and demanded I use it somewhere :P
    I’ve also returned some scenes, some have given me ideas and some serve to show me how far I’ve come.

  49. Awesome file title! I love it.

  50. I’m sure I’ll find some use for my character profiles, someday perhaps. Its just finding a good setting. Sometimes if I don’t find enough information on a setting, I also tend to put a character profile to the side as well.

  51. Settings and characters – it all has to come together to create a whole story. But the beauty of the digital age is that setting research opportunities are always just a mouse click away.

  52. As a vestige of my years in the newspaper business, I create a “delete” file named OVERSET for each extended project. The OVERSET file is often as long as the finished work.

  53. I like to think of those heavy delete files as the shadow of the iceberg under the water of our stories. They’re what makes it all float.

  54. I like to keep a copy of every edit I make. This is usually done by adding a date to each version.

  55. The date method is my favorite as well. It’s the simplest and most intuitive way of keeping track.

  56. Did you read the conversation on Slate between George Saunders and his longtime editor, Andy Ward?

    There’s a nice middle section that deals with the “extras” that don’t make it all the way through the writing/editing process.

    http://www.slate.com/authors.george_saunders.html

  57. Yes, I did see that. Always interesting to see how other authors handle the dreaded but always necessary deletes.

  58. L. O. Fencer /simply Lora says:

    I never EVER delete them!

    Once, I’ve been foolish enough to delete a whole story (and other times just set some chapters on fire) just because I had a dislike for it at a moment of bad mood… well, surely I became even more furious when I realized what I have done…

    However, I simply call these extras “Notes” now. :)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve accidentally deleted files more times than I care to think about. It’s always an agonizing realization!