• Annie Tucker
  • Grammergency #21: Expand or Delete—How to Avoid Gray Areas in Your Writing
This blog was featured on 07/28/2016
Grammergency #21: Expand or Delete—How to Avoid Gray Areas in Your Writing
Written by
Annie Tucker
September 2015
Written by
Annie Tucker
September 2015

One of the things that happens when you’ve been an editor for a long time is that you find yourself not just reading book manuscripts line by line, but also reading between the lines for implications, nuances, and open-ended questions—basically, anything a writer leaves unsaid that a reader might pick up on.

I’m all in favor of foreshadowing when it’s employed effectively, but most of the time when I have a hunch that an author isn’t giving me the full story in a particular scene, it’s not so much because she’s intentionally trying to create narrative suspense as because she’s hesitant within herself about “going there” in her writing.

When I get this gut feeling and ask, “Is there something you’re not telling us in this passage?” the answer is almost always yes. Authors withhold information from readers for all sorts of reasons—because they’re writing a memoir and they don’t want to hurt the feelings of anyone they mention in the book; because they had a secret romantic connection with someone they don’t wish to reveal as a love interest; because they’ve been in dangerous situations that they’re eager to share in book form but are fearful of incurring any real-life risk for doing so. All of those reasons are valid, and if it’s your book, you get to set the parameters of your content. However, it’s my responsibility as an editor to alert authors to areas of a manuscript that feel like a “tease” because they’re present in the story without being fully transparent and fleshed out.

That’s how I came up with the phrase “expand or delete.” In short, it means that if you’re going to allude to a significant event or relationship in your book, you need to do one of the following:

1) Decide whether to go all the way with the subject by delving more deeply into what makes it so important—in other words, make it mean something to your readers.

2) Decide that you’re simply not comfortable commenting further on the matter, but then do your readers the service of deleting the reference altogether, to avoid that “tease” factor I mentioned above.

How an author should resolve the expand-or-delete question is 100 percent her choice, as it taps into personal and psychological factors that vary from writer to writer, subject to subject. As I say to many of my clients, I want to encourage them to test their limits, but I don’t ever want them to feel strong-armed into writing something they’ll deeply regret later. So if you find yourself in a literary gray area and your editor calls you out on it, I suggest you do what I do: go with your gut.

Have a grammar question? Leave it in the comments below.

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  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Excellent post, Annie! So clear and true!

  • Elizabeth Brown

    I have found that it often takes another set of alert eyes to spot that stray word that sends a reader off on a tangent.  

  • susan imhoff bird

    my editor is the queen of "expand or delete!"  and you explain why, beautifully. it often takes that witnessing set of eyes to help us writers understand when we've short-changed or confused the reader. thanks.

  • Nancy Chadwick Writing

    Excellent advice. I find sometimes I have fallen purposely into gray areas in parts of my memoir - to not spill all the beans at once. I have withheld takeaways and some reflection until a better time is warranted, after more of the pieces have been set. However, I find it is a fine line in that too much gray, not expanding, can lead to confusion and misdirection. Good points to think about, Annie.