Tips for Writers: The Outtake File

Warning: Never delete that page you hate! Or a character who’s all wrong! Or trash a manuscript in disgust!


Certainly, we writers all have those moments. And yes, I delete lines here and there, even paragraphs but almost never entire pages of a manuscript I’m working on. Instead, I cut the passages I’m unhappy with or that aren’t right for a particular scene and paste them into an outtake file. These files then become a reservoir to which I return again and again for an image or character or bit of dialogue that originally seemed wrong but works just fine after other revisions.


Occasionally I’ve discovered that a piece I’ve cut from one manuscript fits perfectly into a different manuscript. These are often the “darlings” Stephen King talks about when he advises writers to “kill” our darlings. By this, King means to edit out those images and passages we fall in love with but which slow a story’s pace or fall within a section that should be cut. (See my post “Farewell My Darlings.”) So I save every one of my deleted darlings, partly because I’m an obsessive rewriter who often finds a place for passages I like. I also save every draft of the novel I’m working on.


Two years ago, I took a look at a manuscript that twenty years before I had put aside as unworkable. As I read through it, I understood that we writers actually do develop and hone our craft the more we write. From this vantage, I immediately saw what was wrong with the discarded manuscript and set to work. I cut one major character and replaced her with a different character then rearranged the novel’s structure, adding and cutting along the way. These edits took only a couple of months. The revised manuscript became A Stone for Bread to be published this coming October by Livingston Press of West Alabama University.


(Note: Another thing I save is my research from every novel I have ever worked on, even after a novel is published. We writers never know when we might need some never-utilized fact or story tucked away in our files.)