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 story snippets laying around ... but what to do with them all?

This week, I was helping Mum sort through stacks of old paperwork and stumbled on a handwritten piece of a story, about half a page long. A paragraph into reading, my shoulders were tense and I was waiting for calamity to ensue, and then ...

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.

Once our giggles faded, 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?

We have a few options when we come across an old piece of writing.

Let it go ... and cue the Frozen references 😉

If what you've found is pieces of Draft 1.5 and you're on Draft 4 (or finished 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 doesn't incite 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 painful to read 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 circle of loved ones, or a kindred spirit of some description, who's been incredibly supportive of your writing?  This could be anyone from a young family member to a parent, past teacher, or best friend: anyone who has bolstered your spirit when you've faltered and appreciates a touch of nostalgia and sentiment.

If you know someone like this, and if the piece of writing makes you smile (this isn't something you do with writing you're ambivalent about), gift it to them.

And before you protest that it feels arrogant to give someone your own writing as a gift, let me say this: your creative work has value, and this person believes that, too, or they wouldn't have been supporting you through this journey. Please open your heart to the idea that your writing could make someone's day.

If the paper this writing is on has seen better days, spend a bit of time freshening up your gift first, beginning with deciding whether you want it to be typed or handwritten. If you're not sure what to do, keep this process simple: put your name on it in a clear byline; type it up in a simple, classic font; add a border; print it out on the nicest paper you have, and call it a day.

Freewrite about it

Read this old piece of writing 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 what comes to mind without stopping. Don't stop to think about what you're writing. It could be your thoughts on what you just read, a continuation of the story, or something entirely new. Don't edit yourself, don't analyze it, just write.

You might end up with a new story idea or a powerful piece of self-reflection. Maybe, in the end, both the old and new writing will go into the recycling bin. That's okay, too. Trying new things is a significant part of staying energized and fresh as a writer, no matter the end result.

Turn it into a memory book

This idea works well when you've found a mountain of old writing you'd like to keep, but you could also start with just a few pieces and add more as you come across them, right up to present day. Get a nice binder or notebook, in a size that gives you the right amount of room to play. Do some research into acid-free materials, and choose what best fits your budget and preservation intentions.

When you're ready, start pasting the writing into your new scrapbook! You don't even need to arrange them chronologically, if that doesn't suit your style. 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

One thing to remember is not to feel like you need to keep everything. Some things may find their way into the memory book, while others are best suited to other suggestions in this blog post.

Use it as a prompt

Maybe it's not a piece of writing you want to keep forever but there's something about it that's making you reach for your pen. 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!

Have an impromptu writing workshop

Say you have a lonely scene or two that never went anywhere - these could be perfect workshop material! If you've been wanting to get better at writing dialogue, for example, take a scene with heaps of conversation between characters and experiment with different tips and suggestions for improving the tension, individuality, and emotion. Try one specific technique or workshop the scene a few times with different exercises.

While it's usually most helpful to experiment with a story you have in progress now, because it helps you improve a current project and builds on your strengths in the present, using an old scene to which you have less attachment can take some of the pressure off, even if it's just as a warm-up exercise.

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.