elephant in the room are you ignoring your story revision instincts

The Elephant in the Room: Are You Ignoring Your Story Revision Instincts?

We’ve all had those fluid writing moments in which everything just seems to pour onto the paper with grace. The words come from a place you can’t always call upon. In the moment, everything seems eternally beautiful and poetic, and you fear someone will walk through the door and shatter your fragile thoughts. Sometimes, we look back at those moments, in a far less magical state of mind, and marvel at our words. We tend to fall in love with them. And that love makes us blind. Because even if we create amazing passages, we can’t always see when they don’t belong in our books. We let them stay, sucking something out of our stories in an inexplicable way–when we should be following our story revision instincts.

You Can’t Ignore Elephants Forever

“Elephant” passages are the places in your story that feel odd or out of sync with the rest of the work. They make you make you stumble, skim, and avoid editing. But despite their blatant nature, you pretend you don’t see them. You’re bound to them in the beginning, feeling as though you can’t amputate them from the body of the work.

Whenever you experience this feeling, you need to ask yourself some questions:

  • What does this add to my manuscript?
  • Am I just killing time? (Don’t take up space with fluff!)
  • Is it just a means to an end? (If it’s happening because it must happen in order for the Great Ordeal to make sense in Chapter Twelve, but you’re not feeling it, figure out a new way to make it work.)

Identifying Elephants—Passages that Need to Change or Leave

If you’ve done any of the following, you may need to alter or omit some gray areas in your story:

  • You have a gut feeling it’s not working.
  • You’ve thought about changing it multiple times and each time you’ve convinced yourself it was okay.
  • You don’t feel like uprooting an entire chain of events, so you justify its presence.
  • You squirmed when your beta readers pointed it out.
  • You notice a distinct difference in tone that isn’t natural. Even if it’s lovely, it just doesn’t fit.

Listen to your story revision instincts. When you can finally kick out the elephant and replace it with something that makes you proud, your entire novel will rejoice. Time is never wasted fixing something seemingly tedious.

Create a “Misfits” Folder

We can easily lose heart after falling in love with passages that ultimately don’t work for our novels. Don’t trash those bits and pieces of the things you cherish. Create a folder on your computer and fill it with these disembodied passages. You may find they fit perfectly into a different story. Or you may  need them for inspiration while facing writer’s block at another point and time. Bottom line: don’t delete your words—just move them.

Accept that Elephants Will Always Join the Party and Get Better at Asking Them to Leave

As your writer’s journey progresses, you will learn how to avoid the mistakes you made as a rookie writer. But you will probably always end up with elephant passages. It’s part of the creative process—getting it all out of you and coming back to mold, smooth, and refine. The skill set you can hone along the way is identifying Elephant passages, loving them for what they are, and learning when to cut the cord so they don’t hold you back.

Tell me your opinion: Do you have an elephant passage awaiting revision? What makes it difficult for you to remove it?

the elephant in the room trust you story revision instincts

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About Alythia Brown

Alythia Brown is an author and young mother, who decided she wanted to pursue publication when she became pregnant as a teen. She blogs about books, publishing, literary agents, and the querying process at AlythiaBrown.com.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Alythia!

  2. I think this is the main problem with writing novels that aren’t planned. Juggling ‘elephants’ was a major reason I decided to temporarily stop working on one of my novels and am planning the next one more carefully. As said in the article though, elephants are a natural part of the creative process and I’m sure I’ll still have to deal with them in the next project (and future ones), I just hope it doesn’t turn into as much of a mess as before. I admire any writer that can recognize them and have the instinct to weed them out. Screenwriters have to deal with them just as much or perhaps more than novelists due to film having to be more condensed. Although I’m not sure if I would ever want to be a screenwriter, I think following their footprints and thinking about how to get the point properly is a good idea even for novelists.

  3. I removed an elephant scene yesterday. I got some great info out of it and some insight into another character, but it was slowing the plot down and the words weren’t coming. I cut 1100, and an hour and a half later I had almost 1600. And they feel right.

    • Good for you, Rachel! That truly is a difficult task. Thanks for sharing the aftermath feeling of booting the Elephant. 🙂

  4. Alythia–
    Whether they are called elephants, aardvarks or killer bees, what you’re talking about is something writers really do need to contend with. Your suggestion about keeping a file of such material is a good one: it frees people to remove clumsy or unworkable passages without having to “kill” them off. They still live to fight another day.
    I find that one of the most exasperating aspects of my own writing behavior is a gift for devising “work-arounds” for passages that should not be kept. I will go to considerable lengths and expend lots of creative energy to this end. The only reliable help seems to be paying a reliable editor to add her/his vote to getting rid of what doesn’t belong.

    • Siegmar Sondermann says

      Hi Barry,

      I agree with you.
      The first one to notice elephants should be a reliable beta reader.
      Next chance can be the passing of time. If I let my story be at rest for at least a few weeks, I eventually am weaned off from it enough to be able to recognize and remove those formerly beloved misfits.

      • Siegmar–
        If you are able to spot elephants after just a few weeks, you are way ahead of the game. One of the classical Greek writers–maybe Plutarch–said that the only way to write anything was to write it, then put it away for two years before looking at it again. This comes closer to what it takes for me, but in the age of “write it fast, then write another,” such an approach isn’t going to work for most people.

        • Siegmar Sondermann says


          in this day and age 2 years feel like eternity, but I must agree with you.
          The longer I don´t look at my story, the more I cut the cord from my work and also the more I mature as a writer meanwhile.
          But one is so impatient:-)

    • Beautifully said, Barry! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts on the article. I really appreciate your feedback! And I’m glad to hear your characters will live to fight another day.

  5. These take a little work for me to find.

    • You’re absolutely right, Traci. I USED to think I could just edit on my own and things would turn out just fine. But, as Barry and Siegmar have added, the importance of beta readers cannot be stressed enough. They turn cold eyes on our babies and help you find the elephants you were otherwise perfectly happy to ignore.

      In all honesty, I’ve struggled in the past with finding a reader I felt I could trust. It was emotionally easier for me to submit my work to faceless editors (and receive form rejection letters) than it was to send it to friends. I’ve found beta readers do not necessarily need to be fellow writers–just someone who reads voraciously and therefore has a strong natural instinct for when things do and don’t work. I wish you the best!

  6. Thanks for the encouragement Alythia! I read the link, and although I think some of the steps wouldn’t apply to every story or could be changed around a little depending on the plot, it’s still a decent checklist and I might read the book sometime.

  7. Of course, there’s another way of handling elephants. Herd them all out and bundle them together into a new story. Is that the wicked way Booker award winning novelists win prizes? 🙂

  8. @John: EXACTLY. Lol!

  9. But isn’t what you’re talking about the essence of the writer’s voice and style? That’s the stuff my instincts tell me to leave in because that’s a part of my story, my writing, and my style — and makes my stories stand out to editors.

    • Linda, I’m not the one who wrote this article obviously, so don’t just take my word for it, but I think there is a difference between the point of the article and and what you are saying. It’s great to have inspiration and let words flow perfectly, but the scene itself may feel out of place and disrupt the flow of the story. Sometimes the scene itself will come to you but have nothing to do with the advancement of the plot/characters which is why it’s suggested to keep the scene in case there is another story you can use it for. If like you said, your instincts tell to keep it and you feel it has purpose, then go ahead.

      • Hi Linda, thanks for contributing! PS is spot on in regards to the intention behind this article:

        “It’s great to have inspiration and let words flow perfectly, but the scene itself may feel out of place and disrupt the flow of the story.”

        The work in its entirety, complete with your unique voice and style, is what should turn an editor’s head. But if you have one blaring area that strikes the reader as ‘off’ from the novel’s usual tempo, it WILL certainly stand out (in a negative way).

        However, what you’re describing may not be what I’m describing. For example, if you’ve tactfully built your tension and your protagonist has earned his hero’s badge, then a scene in which he does something out of the ordinary can be part of his journey to becoming a better person–not necessarily an “Elephant.”

        Bottom line: If you feel a passage successfully adds a sparkling layer of depth to your novel and your instincts say to keep it–keep it. If you know you’re skimming over an area that needs work because it would, indeed, surmount to a TON of work–it’s time to reassess the story.

        Thanks for reading!

  10. Hi Alythia,

    Excellent post!

    I really loved the tip about creating a “Misfits” folder. As you say, there can be golden nuggets of writing that might not be useful for our current story, but could definitely be used in another.

    Thank you.

  11. Jessica Salmonson says

    lol, yep this one was way too cheery and purple posey.

    The morning came with it a breeze breathed a veil of mist, the light glowed through. Like droplets blue butterflies a flutter, they flew through the forest, their iridescent wings a sparkle. Yawning, a hot mug of snasgy right now would be nice. Stretching he woke the others.

    Doesn’t exactly fit a horror fantasy expectantly after a major character got stabbed! *do’h” I really stunk at reactions in this old draft, wowie.

    Darlings and misfit folders are like a time machine, eh difference in from then to now is easy to see.

    I wonder if when we make these misfits then we’ve lost focus on the character goal?


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