Advice, Editing, Fiction, Revision, Tips, Writing

A packrat in writer’s clothes

A few days ago, Christ Craig’s blog post was about purging. Her post was terrific, and she asked us to share how we save our writing. Then the discussion took a turn when, in one of her replies to a comment, she quoted Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:

“It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away. A painting covers its tracks. Painters work from the ground up. The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them.”

I’ve never read the book, but I think I should, and have it on order now. I hope that what Dillard meant was that by editing and revising we paint over the preliminary sketch of the first draft. But maybe she was echoing the advice of others (or vice versa) that admonishes writers to complete the first draft and then throw it out, delete it, and start over fresh. That advice horrified me the first time I read it, and still does.

I’ve now given some thought to why I don’t think I will ever take that advice. I am a packrat. I have a hard time throwing anything out. I’m learning to let go more each year, but still, I know from experience how often I’ve regretted tossing something … usually within a week.

I have to think that even in those first drafts, there has to be some gold. Why would I waste that? And don’t try to tell me that if it was gold it will come back to me in the rewrite. Have you never thought of the perfect line and then lost it before you’re able to write it down?

So, at least for now, I will continue to edit and revise from each first draft, but I’ll keep all my interim versions and all my bits and pieces cut from them. After all, they hardly take up any space, and you just never know …

26 thoughts on “A packrat in writer’s clothes”

  1. AAAAAAAAAAH! Never throw anything away! Don’t do it, just don’t! Make a folder specifically for unusable material on your computer and put it there. I have never had a piece of writing where I couldn’t, 2 or 3 years down the line, take it apart and reuse a paragraph here or there for a different work. If I get stuck on a story, have an idea but too many projects, or I cut a scene from a current WIP, it all goes in this folder.

    Yeah. I use it regularly. My best short story ever came by stealing the first scene of a failed novel.


  2. I have had those moments when I thought of a perfect string of words, then promptly forgot it.

    I wish we could ask Annie herself whether she envisioned walking the first draft to the trash and staring over, or chucking them after the novel is finished.

    And, thanks for mentioning my post, Linda. I like carrying on with this discussion.


  3. It would have to be absolute garbage for me to toss it. I can think of a couple things I’ve written which fit the bill, but nothing in the last, say, three years or so. I’ve kept a lot just in case.

    Just in case. Y’know.


  4. I prefer to keep at least one copy of everything I’ve written, as well as snippets of thoughts…I go through seasons where I write a lot of music, and I have a whole journal full of half-baked lyrics. Like uninvoked, I’ve gotten good ideas from things I thought were unusable, things that started out as scribbled nonsense. I’m in the keep it camp.


      1. I agree, I would imagine it’s more likely set aside than obliterated. 😉

        I once filed my first draft and started re-writing on a blank screen without referring back, but it’s definitely saved and on the back-up drive!


          1. I did. That was the first draft of the novel I’m now getting ready to query.

            Although I considered it again around draft four, and just couldn’t.


          2. Like I said to Kayla, I’m in awe. I truly can’t imagine writing a whole novel twice like that. Looking back at mine, there are probably not many sentences unchanged from the first draft, but still …


          3. Maybe just a glutton for punishment?!

            Truly, I look at it as helping me learn the craft. I have one first draft of a novel, never to see daylight, a second novel that will someday be revised and two romance novels (won’t see revision, ever) “in the drawer”.


        1. I did this exact same thing, too, Cathryn! The ‘second draft’ I just completed is a rewrite, written from a blank screen while my first draft was filed away. And, like the experience you mention below, my second ‘fresh’ try was both different and better because I hadn’t found my story yet, either. Took a lot of work, but in my opinion, it was worth it for this particular project.


  5. This is nice. I was looking at the movie Ratatouille last night, and then, today, I am looking at my beloved friend on your site.

    I agreed with you. It’s doesn’t mean that everything I write is good. But I beleave more in rewriting and keeping the first idea or emotion of what we have in mind at the beginning. Editing, rewriting came after the first draft or essai of writing in my point of view. Whit a second look, the story take better place.

    Of course, sometimes, nothing work… But, we keep trying and then something will come up at the end.

    Even my friend Ratatouille, le chef, keeps everything. Nothing make a better soup than some improvisations around the remains of the day.

    Happy New Year, Linda.



    1. Mireille, what a fun thought … word soup! I’m anxious to take another look through my bits a pieces file to see what “ingredients” I have. 🙂


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