Your Old Drafts Matter More Than You Realise

If you’re anything like me, you have cringed over things you wrote long ago. Flipping through old drafts, stories, poems, even diary entries almost inevitably unearths some laughable sections — stuff that was so crudely written, so silly, that you can’t help but wonder how far you have come since then. And sure, a lot of it was immature, poorly planned stuff, and it’s perfectly understandable that you’d think: “Thank goodness I’ve moved on from this.”

At the same time, here’s why I don’t like dissing old writing outright.

When you were your past self, writing that draft — be that five months, a year or five years ago — there was a certain thought process that you were following. Maybe it was an idea that was triggered by a movie you watched, a character who popped into your head after a chance encounter with someone, a conversation that’s ideal for immortalising as a story — there was something about that story that mattered to you. Or perhaps you were going through some sort of deep emotional experience back then, and writing was the only outlet you had for it. Whatever it was, be it inspiration or emotion, it was genuine. And genuine writing always has value in it somewhere. 

Plus, here’s something I’ve seen for myself over the last year or so — a lot of that old writing might be much better than you think. For instance, I recently unearthed the diary in which I used to write poetry back in 2015. I was going through my lowest phase ever back then and I’d spill all my anger and pain into my poems. They were your typical angst-ridden verses, filled with suicidal thoughts and bleak lonely nights and cigarette butts and whiskey bottles and broken hearts. Today, they don’t mean much to me as poetry. I don’t think I’m a poet anyway — fiction is my medium. But some of the phrases I used caught my eye. Some of the sentences I wrote. Some of the ideas. They were unpolished, often pretentious. But they showed promise. More recently, there were story drafts I started writing in June or July of last year that I shelved at the time as bad. But about a month ago, I went back to look through them and realised that they had a lot of potential. As in, they were actually workable into new stuff. And I am, in fact, currently working two of those old drafts into stories. The advantage of coming back to old drafts after a substantially long period is that you come back more mature, your ability to detect (for want of a better word) good writing much sharper. And that lets you judge the old writing objectively on its own merits, rather than while you were in the throes of it, which lets you sort the wheat from the chaff much more effectively.

So, from a writer who used to have night-long cringe fests over the banality of her writing, here’s what to do with those old drafts that seem beyond redemption. 

Come back to each shelved draft after two months

Or any sufficient length of time that allows you to look at it from a fresh perspective, rather than being immersed in it. If you’re a writer-in-progress (as I am), you’ll likely find that even two months can give you a good amount of perspective, but you can define this as you see fit. Once you’ve decided on a time frame, though, be strict about sticking to it. Don’t just randomly open the draft a week after you shelved it — you’ll likely feel the same sense of disdain and be tempted to delete it, or you’ll try too hard to fix it and feel frustrated all over again that it isn’t happening at once.

Identify elements of the draft that work

Once you come back, give your draft a good, long, close read and keep an eagle eye out for the things that currently work well. Maybe the plot needs some rethinking, but you wrote some lines that you can reuse. Or maybe the tone isn’t quite there yet, but there’s a character whose story you simply must tell. Once you’ve identified these, open a fresh page and write them out. You now have workable material you can examine 

See if you can merge two drafts

I’ve more than once struck gold when I realised that elements of two separate drafts worked perfectly when I stitched them together. And when I say elements, it could be something as subtle as an opening sentence. Maybe that, combined with some of the plot elements from another draft, could trigger an idea for a whole new story. 

Create a bits and pieces repository 

All those prettily written sentences and paragraphs that you’ve tried your damnedest to fit into a story and couldn’t? Have a separate document or notebook where you store them all. I call it the ‘bits and pieces repository’, one I flip through on occasion and dip into for those bits of filler content that are so important for a literary fiction story — turns of phrase, metaphors, bits of internal monologue, an impassioned exchange, a description of an empty street, that sort of thing. If you don’t already have something like this, change that — and your old drafts are great places to start from.

Which brings me to the most important part… 

Don’t delete your old drafts

Seriously. I can’t emphasise this enough. Don’t delete your old drafts. Just last week I wanted to kick myself because something I read triggered memories of a draft I was working on a year ago, only to realise that I’d deleted it. Yes, from my Recycle Bin too. I know it may feel like some things you write are too awful to exist, but you just don’t know whether that very draft mightn’t lead to something good later. Instead, have a separate folder (digital or physical) for all your shelved drafts and give it a creative name, nothing negative. Mine is ‘To Do Someday When I Am Ready’. Whenever you’re fed up with a draft, move it there. Come back to this folder once every two or three months (the time frame you decided in the first step, basically), and give them a fresh, emotion-free reading. You’ll surprise yourself with how often they can end up working their way into finished stories.

What’s your story with old drafts? Do you preserve them with tender loving care, or do you follow a let-go-of-the-past policy? Do you think there’s wisdom to be gained from your younger self’s writing, or do you believe in looking ahead all the way? Over to you.

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