Do you have a stash of old writing?
Perhaps it’s a partial novel manuscript in a bottom desk drawer, or a handful of short stories in a folder on your computer, or a tatty pile of school magazines that published your earliest poems.
It might not bother you at all. Those old pieces may not weigh on your mind, and they may not feel like clutter, just a part of your writerly history, which is fine!
But if you occasionally think about that half-finished project from five years ago, or those stories you never managed to sell, or that excruciatingly bad fanfiction you wrote when you were 15 (or is that just me?), then you might want to think through your options.
Having old work lying around, whether physically or virtually, is pretty much a given in any writer’s life.
Writers don’t arrive fully formed, after all. We get to where we are through a long process of jotting, experimenting, exploring—and often discarding.
You might think that today’s world of blogs, and social media, and fanfiction archives is responsible for writers beginning their craft ever younger. In fact, many classic writers produced work during their childhood or teenage years. Jane Austen, for instance, wrote three volumes of short pieces between the ages of 11 or 12, and 17.
Even if you began a little later than that—in your 20s or 30s, perhaps—you might still have amassed quite a collection of unpublished work that you now feel isn’t truly representative of you as an author.
What can you do with all your old writing? There are three main options:
In this post, we’re going to look at the case for each of these. What might you keep and use, and what might you ditch?
Maybe you wrote something so awful, in retrospect, that just the thought of anyone stumbling across it and reading it makes you cringe. Whether it was some misguided fanfiction in your early teens, a whiny blog as a student, or some embarrassingly earnest poetry, you might want to eradicate it completely from the earth.
If it was something that could be truly damaging to you (an ill-informed political rant or some very badly judged jokes that you’d definitely disown today, for instance), then it’s definitely wisest to delete that early work. Even tweets can come back to haunt you … as James Gunn can attest.
If your work is online, that means deleting it. Depending on how old it is, that might be easier said than done (you may have forgotten your password for the relevant site long ago). If you don’t have access to your old email address, you’re probably out of luck, and you may have to grit your teeth and go for option No. 2 (“Ignore”) instead.
Of course, sites like Wayback Machine preserve great swathes of the internet, going back to 1996—so if someone were truly determined to dig up your early work for posterity, they probably could.
If your old writing is offline, and you’re feeling particularly paranoid, you might want to shred it or even burn it. You could even leave instructions for your unfinished drafts to be destroyed in the event of your untimely death, like these writers and artists did. (Of course, leaving said instructions doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be heeded, so you might want to do the deed yourself.)
This is a fairly popular option for journals, which you may feel are so personal that they were written for you and you alone: not for your descendents or for public consumption. In an article on Next Avenue, Patricia Corrigan writes:
Then late last year, as I sat thinking about four younger friends confronting terminal illnesses, I decided the only way to protect my own privacy in the future was to shred the journals. So I did. My decision startled my friends. “How could you?” one wailed. I could and I did, I said, because those tales I confided were for my eyes only.
If you feel that your writing has served its full purpose already—for instance, if you wrote a journal to work through a divorce, like Patricia did—then you’re under no obligation to keep it.
Of course, you might decide you want to hang onto your work for posterity (even if it’s for your eyes only). If you might ever be interested in writing a memoir, in particular, you’ll want to keep your journals and diaries so that you can easily look up dates and facts as well as your in-the-moment thoughts and emotions at different times of your life.
Let’s face it, ignoring is always an option. Like the junk drawer (or in our house, entire junk cupboards) or all those emails you keep meaning to delete, you might decide you want to simply ignore your earlier work.
So what if there are a few old manuscripts on your hard drive or a desultory blog out there that you posted on three times back in 2010? Even though they might not be gaining you anything, they’re not doing you any harm, either. You might someday come back to them—or you might not.
And if someone does find them, frankly, they’re probably not going to care. If they do, they’re highly unlikely to think any worse of you or your writing. (They might, like me, be quite relieved to see that all writers have the occasional abandoned project …)
In some cases, of course, you might not have an option. Perhaps you wrote a schmaltzy Christmas romance novella five years ago for a mainstream publisher: You can’t force them to unpublish it and remove all trace of it from the internet. Or maybe you wrote some freelance blog posts years ago, and your formerly “know it all” tone makes you cringe now.
Even if you’d secretly rather delete your writing, choosing to ignore it might be the easiest and healthiest option. If you’ve written and published plenty more since then, it’s unlikely to be the first thing that comes up when someone googles your name. (If it is, then you might want to do a bit of research into “reputation management” SEO so you can get other pages to rank higher than the work you’d rather bury.)
Of course, ignoring your writing doesn’t need to be a now-and-forever decision. You might decide, for instance, that you’re too busy to work through your folder of unpublished short stories right now, but you want to revisit it in six months’ time. Pop a note in your diary—and move on with your other writing, guilt-free, in the interim.
Some writers don’t want to waste anything. Maybe they’ve got a bunch of handwritten exercises from a writing class they took a couple years ago, or a stack of old blog posts that no one ever sees because they’re buried so deep in their archives, or some messy bits and pieces of writing that they had fun playing around with months ago.
There’s nothing stopping you from taking a piece you wrote a year ago—or 10 or 20 years ago!—and updating it. You could then publish it yourself (e.g., on a blog or as an e-book/print-on-demand book) or submit it to magazines, agents, or publishers as appropriate.
If that piece isn’t a good fit for your current brand, you can simply use a pseudonym: For instance, Stephen King’s early novels (written, and unpublished, before Carrie was published) were later published under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman.”
Updating old work, as discussed below, is a particularly good option.
Unless they relied heavily on contemporary detail, they can be dusted off and revised for a fresh market. Note that this may well apply even if they were published in the past—check your contract to see what rights you signed away, and for how long.
You could potentially do this with a whole collection of short stories: Terry Pratchett created Dragons at Crumbling Castle based on stories he wrote as a teenager.
On my site Aliventures, I regularly dig back through the archives and pull out an old piece that still gets good search engine traffic. I then update it (checking and often changing links, in particular) and republish it.
This has two huge benefits for my blog: It means that the people coming in via search engines get an up-to-date post, and it means that my regular readers get to see great content that they’d otherwise have missed.
Updating your short stories or blog posts won’t require a huge time investment: If you spend a couple of hours reworking a story that still doesn’t sell, it’s no great loss. (Plus, as with any writing or editing you do, you’ll hone your skills in the process.)
You might want to think hard about taking this route with something long, like a novel or nonfiction book. Is it still a project that you feel invested in—enough to commit weeks or months to it? Or would you prefer to move on to something new?
Some types of writing, too, might not easily suit updating. If you wrote lots of teenage poetry, it might be best consigned to history—though you could potentially embrace the “so bad it’s good” angle, like Sara Bynoe did in the edited anthology Teen Angst: A Celebration of Really Bad Poetry.
Essays you wrote as a student, too, are probably best left alone. I wrote around 25-30 short essays every year during my undergraduate degree, and 15 years on, they don’t interest even me! It would probably be possible to sell them to one of those dodgy “essay sample” websites (that we all know are a front for blatant plagiarism), but that would feel a bit too much like selling my writerly soul. Also, yuck: plagiarism.
If you kept a journal, that, too, is unlikely to find an audience. It might well be worth keeping for posterity and for your own enjoyment as you look back in future years—but outside your immediate family, it probably won’t be of interest to many people. The exception here, of course, is if you hold a particularly interesting or pivotal job or have been through some truly unusual experiences.
If you have a collection, large or small, of old writing, what do you plan to do with it?
Maybe you’re happy to simply ignore it for now. If anyone hunts it out—well, it may not be your greatest work, but you also know it’s not something that will do your reputation any harm, either.
Or maybe you’ve realized (perhaps with a shudder) that you simply won’t be able to sleep soundly until you’ve eradicated it. (Excuse me while I attempt to remember the email address and password I used for fanfiction.net when I was 15 …)
You might, of course, decide that your early writing was better than what you remembered. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find you have some pieces you don’t even recall writing. If that’s the case, spending some time updating your work could really pay off—you can then publish it, or submit it to agents, or editors, or even competitions.
If you’ve been writing for many years and feel overwhelmed by the size of the task ahead of you, pick one piece (or at least one area of writing) to focus on initially. You never know where that half-forgotten work might take you.
Ali Luke has been freelancing and blogging since 2008. These days ,she juggles freelancing, blogging, novel-writing and two young children. As well as blogging for a number of large sites (ProBlogger, The Write Life, Make a Living Writing and more), she writes about the art, craft and business of writing on her long-running blog Aliventures.com. If you'd like to spend more time writing, download her free ebook Time to Write: How to Fit More Writing Into Your Life, Right Now -- it's a short read, with ten practical tried-and-tested tips.