How to Honour (or Toss) Old Bits and Bobs of Writing

If you've been writing for any length of time, chances are you have some old writing laying around (unless you're incredibly ruthless about purging nostalgic clutter and/or terribly crafty about finding ways to re-purpose it, in which case can I please borrow some of your magic?).

I've been helping my mum sort through stacks of old files and paperwork this week, and I stumbled on a handwritten story snippet, about half a page long. By the time I was a paragraph in, my shoulders were tense and I was waiting for the no good horrible thing to happen (hint: it involved a ransom note), and then - AHA! I burst out laughing, the tension defused. Mum had pulled off one of the best reversals of tone, and false alarms, I've ever read.

When we were done giggling about it, we started to wonder, what to do with it now? It's years old and has no connection to any of her current stories, but it's a nifty piece of writing, and worth keeping.

Still. What to do?

I've been thinking about it, and I think we have a few options when we come across an old piece of writing.

Let it go (aaaand cue the Frozen references ...)

We're starting with the least labour-intensive option, because why not streamline things when you can? If what you've found is pieces of draft 1.5 and you're on draft 4 (or done the book altogether), you can probably let it go. Same goes if it's a snippet of an idea that no longer has any context or incites even a glimmer of recognition in you. Use it as scrap paper if it's in good shape or ship it straight to the nearest recycling bin.

If it's something that makes you wince, and not because you stepped outside of your comfort zone but because it's just horrible and you never want to see it again, skip straight to the recycling bin!

Gift it to someone who will cherish it

Is there someone in your family or close circle of friends who's been incredibly supportive of your writing? (Bonus points if they're a reader.) This might be one of your kids or a parent or an old teacher: anyone who has bolstered you when you've faltered and tends to be a little nostalgic. If you know someone like this, and if the piece of writing makes you smile (this isn't something you do with one you're just "meh" about), prettify it and give it to them as a gift.

And before you protest that it feels self-serving or arrogant to give someone your own writing as a gift, cut it out, right now. Your creative work has value, and they believe so too or they wouldn't have been supporting you. Please, please open your heart to the idea that your writing could make someone's day.

How to prettify it? First, decide whether you want it to be typed or handwritten (or hand printed, if you're like me). If it's already been typed, you can always retype it. If you're not sure what to do, keep it simple: put your name on it; choose a simple, classic font; add a border; print it out on the nicest stationery you have, and call it a day.

Freewrite about it

If you're a frequent reader of how-to books and articles on writing, you've probably seen the suggestion once or twice to freewrite/do morning pages/write without stopping, but I'll summarize the idea here briefly, just in case: set yourself a limit (pages/words written or time written), and write within those parameters without stopping to think about what you're writing. Just write. Don't edit yourself, don't analyze it, just let it be.

While the idea behind morning pages is to write without a preconceived notion of what you're going to write about, other freewriting exercises sometimes suggest working from a prompt of some sort. Why not try it with your old piece of writing? Read it a few times, without judgment. Let it sink in. Then pull out a fresh piece of paper, set yourself a time or page limit, and write without stopping.

The result? You might end up with a new story idea, or just loosen up some cramped writing muscles. Or maybe it'll all go into the recycling bin. That's okay, too. Trying new things is a big part of staying energized and fresh as a writer, no matter the end result.

Turn it into a memory book

This one works best when you've found a whole schwack of old writing, but if you like the idea you could start it with just a few pieces and add more as you come across them, right up to current ones. Get a nice binder that won't fall apart a year from now, with room for 8x12 pages or 12x12, depending how much room you want to play. Plastic sheet protectors also come in handy. Then get some acid-free paper and start pasting in your writing!

You don't have to arrange it chronologically, either. You could:

  • cut out your favourite lines and arrange them into a poem
  • put the first story you ever wrote next to the first page of the first novel you finished
  • show the evolution of a story through the final paragraphs from each successive draft
  • add doodles or additional notes

The key is not to feel like you need to keep everything.

Use it as a prompt

This and the last option are my favourites. Maybe it's not a piece of writing you want to keep forever but there's something about it that's making you twitchy. Is it a scintillating line of dialogue, a character who bursts off the page, a setting so vivid you want to book your next vacation there? Use it as a customized prompt for your current work-in-progress.

Ask yourself what your main character would do if they were stuck in that setting for a week, far from home without a car or anyone they know; how your current character and the old one would interact if they were seated next to each other on a plane; who would say the line of dialogue in your story and why? The possibilities are endless, and they're just waiting for you to bring them to life. Don't forget to jot down your answers!

As long as you keep writing and creating, you'll forever have more bits and pieces to decide what to do with down the road, so enjoy the process, creative soul! You just might spark a new bit of magic with what you find.

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