Letting Go

In two different contexts recently, I had reason to discuss the challenge of deleting material from our own writing. In both cases, I noticed that students appeared to identify strongly with what I was saying: there was a great deal of nodding and grimacing. For lots of writers, writing is so hard that throwing away ‘perfectly good writing’—i.e., writing that is both finished and marginally coherent—is difficult to do. This attachment to our own writing often means that there are elements in a draft that are left in just because we can’t bear to part with them or can’t bear to see a document shrink instead of grow. But it can be very hard to take a draft to the next level when we haven’t expunged the parts that aren’t working. Editing, especially at the early stages, requires a great willingness to jettison material. However, if you found it hard to put the words on paper in the first place, deleting them can be genuinely painful.

One response to this pain—one that, admittedly, gets me some sceptical, easy-for-you-to-say looks from my students—is to think more broadly about the purposes of writing. We don’t write just to satisfy a certain word count or page limit: at a deeper level, we write to sort out what we need to say. That beautiful paragraph you agonized over may have been written for you, not for your reader: you needed to formulate those ideas in proper sentences to understand them properly but the reader may be satisfied with nothing more than a brief mention of what you sorted out. Accepting this broader purpose of writing can lessen our attachment to particular sentences and paragraphs.

If we do come to the realization that a certain passage is no longer serving a purpose in our text, we still need to decide what to do with it. The delete key is too extreme a response for most of us. It’s like a game of Love It or Hate It: faced with a stark binary choice, many of us choose to ‘love’ our first drafts. My solution is to create a place to put all the things that I am not sure of, a place where I can save bits of text that have outlived their usefulness. Saving them means that I might have the chance to use them in some other context. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve ever gone back to these old writing fragments, but knowing that they are there gives me to the courage to be a more ruthless editor. Having a good system for managing subsequent drafts is also a good way of increasing your editorial resolve (the ProfHacker blog has a great post on version control that may help you with this). In the end, your writing will thank you for developing the habit of letting go.

This ability to let go can also help with writing efficiency. If we are somewhat steely during our early structural edits—if you don’t know how to start that process, try a reverse outline—we can avoid unnecessary fine editing of material that we might have to remove later. Indeed, the sunk cost of premature fine editing is one of the things that causes us to hang on to text that we no longer need. Having devoted time to improving a particular passage, rather than to thinking about how it serves the broader text, we can find ourselves unwilling to remove that passage.

In sum, remaining alert to the potential benefits of removing passages from our texts can help us to avoid wasted editorial efforts and can leave us with a document that is ultimately stronger and more cohesive. Finally, this brief post from the GradHacker blog talks in a similar vein about the need to delete the stuff that isn’t working for us.

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5 responses to “Letting Go

  1. Hi,
    Article right in time! 🙂

  2. I’ve very recently arrived the point where I can let go of some of my writing. In making major corrections to my examined thesis in preparation for final submission, I have struggled. I tried to dip in to the text and ‘fix’ what was wrong – and this method just wasn’t working. Once I started a section afresh (keeping the old text for later reference when editing, to be sure I hadn’t forgotten an aspect of the argument), I found that my newly-drafted writing was *better* than what I had before. I could never have written it this way if I was still trying to use the old text as a foundation. It wrenched my guts to do that, and it’s only now having read your post that I realise why – my attachment to the old text was reinforced by the ‘sunk cost’ of previous editing and refining, and I was reluctant to let that go. Thanks for explaining this so succinctly – and for the suggested remedy 🙂

  3. Heather Fitzgerald

    I am now a slave to the “versions” method of editing, because sometimes it is the only way I have the courage to make the kinds of drastic cuts that make writing more effective. Knowing that I have, and this is not an exaggeration, sometimes as many as eight previous drafts of a piece of writing provides me with the security I need to be ruthless and exacting. Like you, I never look at this older drafts, but it is comforting to know that they exist nonetheless.

  4. An excellent and timely post, thank you!
    Your explanation of how we first write for ourselves, then for others, has been the best writing advice I’ve come across in 7 years of postgrad study, followed by the concept of keeping writing and editing separate (though it remains a struggle).
    Taken to the most extreme, I’ve deleted (i.e., moved to a ‘just in case’ file) what I thought were major chapter sections in my PhD, only to find (to my amazement!) that the overall thesis survived with what remained. Although this amazement was partly that sense of freedom from ‘letting go’, it was plagued with doubt of ‘what was I thinking?!’, and the amount of time I’d obviously wasted.
    Now reading this post has helped me realise those sections contained much of that ‘writing for me’ material – so not wasted time at all. But clearly, essential to developing my own understanding of what it is I’m actually trying to write.
    It’s unfortunate that PhD programs (here in Australia, or at my uni at least) don’t require one of a candidates’ supervisors to understand the writing process, or at the very least, provide access to mentors who share this critical type of knowledge. Thank goodness for the online social media community – and you, for this incredibly helpful blog! 🙂

    • Thanks, Deb. I just want to reiterate that this view of academic writing–that it is first for us and then for others–is entirely taken from Joseph Williams. I’ve yet to find anyone better on the deep processes of composition and revision. I discuss this in more detail in the post on understanding the needs of your reader.

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