DELETE NOTHING, AT LEAST NOT PERMANENTLY

It’s okay to cut bits of text from your work in progress as you’re revising, but let’s say you’ve written the beginning of a short story, and about a thousand words in it feels like it’s just not working for whatever reason. It’s okay to walk away from that, but it’s not okay to throw it in the trash.

Keep everything you write. Why? Because you never know.

What if, twenty years later, you experience some flash of inspiration that rescues that first attempt at a story and propels it to something new and great? But you’ve tossed the first stab at the text, so now you’re scrambling around trying to recreate it, and… why?

What if, instead, that was on your computer in a folder, or even printed out or handwritten and in a filing cabinet—whatever works? Now you have this thing you started and suddenly know how to finish and there it is: no words “wasted.”

“I feel like it’s all about, don’t be afraid to write lots of garbage, but also don’t throw any of it away,” wrote Susan Choi on “Powering Through a First Draft,” “Have a very large storage system for all that garbage, because it’s only garbage in context. It may turn out to be a treasure in some other context you haven’t discovered yet.”

At least now, in the Computer Age, can there be such a thing as wasted words, or even wasted time? When it’s possible to archive essentially everything—and in any case everything we write—even though there might not be any short-term financial return on investment, what about the impossible to predict long term? What about the experience we gain, as writers, from every single word we write? The act of writing literally anything has real value that goes beyond any future royalty payment or flat fee or per-word or honorarium.

Of course, if you have what you feel is a great idea and the writing is coming to you quickly, and everything is humming on all cylinders and you’re sure this is your next worldwide best seller, by all means, keep going—and save often in case of power failures or God knows what else can happen. Make sure you’re backing files up, keeping notebooks in a safe, dry place, and so on. Of course I’m not saying stop doing what’s working and instead write something terrible that might someday be made less terrible, but if you have written something terrible, yeah, people: save it because it might someday be made less terrible.

“Sometimes, you have to write the boring pages and then delete them, to do what the story requires,” Marcy Dermansky wrote in: “On Revising Without Losing Your Mind” “This, however, is not suffering. This is revision, and revision is also fun. While making a book better, new ideas keep coming in.”

Revising doesn’t necessarily come immediately after writing either—not for everything. Even a scene cut from a work in progress should be saved. What if that, heavily revised, becomes the start of new project, or a related short story, or… who knows what? I don’t know what it might turn in to, and neither do you. It might end up being nothing, but keep it anyway, just in case.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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