When you should discard your writing

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Today’s column encourages you to save most of your writing but describes the circumstances under which you might want to discard it — or, at least, put it on hold.

Let me start with a confession. You are not reading the newsletter I originally intended to send out today.

This is not because the original column is unwritten. It’s finished. It’s now sitting quietly, if morosely, in a neglected area of my hard drive. Nor was the topic a bad one. In fact, I think it was quite interesting. It focused on some writing ideas I’d picked up from a conference (unrelated to writing) I attended last week.

Furthermore, I’d invested about an hour of my time in writing and polishing the piece. The lede was an engaging anecdote. (“Lede” is journalism-speak — complete with old-fashioned spelling — for the beginning of a piece of writing.) The rest of the column was divided into three points, all of which applied directly to writers. So why didn’t I send it?

I decided it wasn’t good enough.

In my almost four years of writing this newsletter, this is the first time I’ve ever completely abandoned a fully written column. But — and this is an important but — I frequently hear from readers who tell me their hard drives (or, worse, their garbage cans) are full to exploding with writing they’ve discarded because they felt it wasn’t good enough. So, I’ve decided to focus today’s new column on the whole notion of when you should give up on something you’ve written. The short answer is “rarely.” But here are the three issues that settled the point for me this time:

1) I didn’t make the decision immediately after writing. I drafted the first column last Thursday morning and did what I call the major carpentry (heavy editing) on Friday. I wasn’t 100% happy but I let the column sit the rest of the day Friday and all day Saturday to give my brain a break before starting the faceting (fine-tuning editing). This waiting time is essential. Material you think is terrible or banal may, in fact, be just fine. Conversely, work you perceive as brilliant may be over-wrought or over-written. The problem is, you just don’t have the distance to be able to tell.

On Sunday morning I looked again at my column with fresher eyes and decided it wasn’t working so I set it aside. Please note that I did not throw it out. My timeframe (producing a weekly newsletter) is too compressed to give me adequate distance for that kind of decision. I’ll look at it again in a few weeks and decide whether it can be salvaged or stripped and reused elsewhere.

2) Part of my problem was the lede. It was good but it wasn’t organic. That is, it was “tacked on” — the same way that public speakers sometimes begin their speeches with jokes unrelated to the topic of their speech. I tried all my usual tricks — I did mind-maps, went for a walk, temporarily deleted the lede and started further down in the story, but, for the life of me, I could not come up with a proper beginning that was interesting enough to introduce the piece.

3) Two of the three points were too similar. When you write a short column as I do, you want each word to carry its weight. This becomes particularly important when the total number of points you’re making is small. I’ve written pieces that were lists of 50 or more items and in cases like that you have a bit more leeway for overlap. But when your list is as small as three, each point had better be clear and distinct. Otherwise, you’ll look like a kid who’s raided the cookie jar and rearranged the remaining goodies so the theft is invisible to mom. (As if!)

Fortunately, the idea for this replacement column popped into my head quickly and I was able to write it early Sunday morning. Although the worst thing that could have happened with my original work wasn’t so awful — some of you would have thought I was having an “off” day and some might even have unsubscribed, I decided those risks were unacceptable to me.

But remember my stats. This is my 195th column and the very first one I’ve set aside.

My key message? Don’t abandon your own writing too quickly. Make sure it’s truly unfixable and don’t throw it out until you’ve had weeks, if not months, to reconsider.

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