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Where do wasted words go?

June 5, 2011

Were you ever forced to study that great mediaeval poet, Chaucer? Well, I was.

Can’t say I was a massive fan.

For a start, middle English is really different to modern English. You think Shakespeare’s hard? He’s a homie from your language ‘hood, compared to Chaucer.

However, I quite like The House of Fame. While much of it sounds like an LSD-fuelled Beatles song (it’s a dream sequence), it has an interesting concept: that every word that’s ever spoken ends up in one mythical place, where it whooshes around with every other word that’s ever been spoken. It’s a rather noisy place, you’d imagine.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, I like to think that every word I’ve ever typed and deleted ends up in a similar place. Because there are a lot of such words. I would hazard a guess that the ratio of words I write and keep, to words I write and delete, is about 1:3.

Sounds ruthless, I know.

But as a writer, the most important relationship you can have  is with the delete button.

The fact is, your first draft of anything is just that – a draft. It’s a tough draft to write, but it’s not your finished work. Whatever you wrote the first time, you can say more clearly, concisely and compellingly the second time.

You get your thoughts down on the first draft, and then you refine them in the second or third draft. Hey, go for four of five drafts if you’re feeling like Flaubert.

The key is not to get attached to your first attempt. I haven’t read your first draft, but I’m telling you honestly, it’s crap.

Instead, use the opportunity to review and think: could I say this with fewer words? Could I improve the rhythm and cadence? Could I junk the whole paragraph that really doesn’t say much? (Yes, you can).

And don’t worry about all those precious but wasted words – they are on their way to the House of Fame, where they’ll hang out with Chaucer and drop a few E’s.



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  1. The number one rule I’ve learnt about writing is to, like you said, edit ruthlessly. Cut it all down until it’s lean-and-mean.

    That little ratio fact you mention is pretty interesting and probably necessary for strong writing.

  2. That’s a relief – I have always felt a bit guilty about where deleted stuff might end up, so now I can go nuts and not feel bad about paring things back? I sure need to do that – gave myself a talking to in my journal a coupla days ago about too many clauses, let alone words.

  3. Darren Baguley permalink

    Unless I’m way under and scrambling to fill the space – which happens only rarely as I usually write way more than I need to – I aim to get 10 percent out with every revision. As I usually do three or four revisions usually of decreasing severity so that probably ends up as taking about a third of my first draft comes out.

    I tend to save each draft so there’ll be the first draft and each subsequent draft is entitled Edit 1, Edit 2 etc. This means all my deleted words are hanging around on my hard drive – although I do like the idea of them hanging out in the House of Fame with Chaucer who was by all accounts a bit of a wild mand who probably would have dropped a few Es if they were around in the 14th Century.

    This approach has actually come in handy on several occasions when editors have had extra space to fill and have asked me for an extra few hundred words – I’ve just gone back to one of my early drafts. On a couple of occasions I’ve also got to the end of a story, realised that I could tell it better a different way and again I just go back to that first draft, change the angle on it and go through the whole draft and edit process again.

    • Sounds like a good approach Darren – I could perhaps be more protective of my early drafts. Like, in case I’m a famous novelist one day, or something like that.

  4. I’ve always wonder where the words you type that don’t come up on screen (because you haven’t clicked on the right textbox) go.

  5. If only I had seen your blog….. yesterday! Thanks for the wise words!

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