The Benefits of Revisiting Your Old Writing

For most writers, there are few things more embarrassing than our old work.

Revisiting some of the novels I’ve abandoned and short stories I wrote when I was younger is like taking a trip down memory lane—that is, if memory lane is lined with tense switches, one-dimensional characters, plot holes and an abundance of deus ex machina (among other writing sins). But even though it can be a painful process, full of cringing and heavy sighs, it’s worth the pain. You’d be surprised by how much you can glean from rereading your old writing.

The obvious benefit is the “my, how I’ve grown!” moment, as I like to call it. You know the type. Maybe you’re in a rut and need to remind yourself that your writing has come a long way and keeps getting better; maybe you’re bored and want to reflect on your ~journey~ of scribehood; maybe you just want to make sure you really have improved, since it’s such a gradual thing that it can be hard to tell until you look back at your early days of putting pen to paper. So you pull out that journal, that Word document, or those loose pages floating around your home, and you read. No matter how embarrassing that piece of writing may be, it will give you the chance to step back and see how you’ve changed, improved and strengthened over the months or years. And that pick-me-up, to my way of thinking, is worth the grimace you’ll almost certainly perform upon reading the [insert type of writing here].

But another reason to revisit your old work is that you’d be surprised by how well some stories can age. I know, your kneejerk reaction to any old piece of yours may be to burn it with fire or bury it in the backyard, but there might be a gem somewhere in the rough. Several times now, I’ve revisited old work of mine only to be startled to find that it’s not as bad as I thought. Yes, sometimes the writing itself is painful, but the plot and characters are occasionally salvageable—and sometimes, even really good. After all, you don’t have to be an amazing writer to think up an amazing story. And in times like these, you can take on one of the greatest writing challenges: to rewrite an old, poor story with good bones and make it sparkle. Turn it into something snazzy, something memorable, and something that you won’t despise in five or ten years. Who doesn’t love a challenge like that? It’s also helpful when you’re lacking creativity and can’t seem to find the spark of an idea. Just get out your old stories and see what you can use—maybe even mash elements from various old work of yours into one spectacular tale.

And sometimes with old writing, you’d be surprised by how good (or, at least, not-terrible) the actual writing is. While some of my work from a few years ago is cringe-y to me now, there are also stories with writing I kind of like. There are certain sentences that sound polished, paragraphs that flow easily and aren’t hideously overwrought or loaded with adjectives.

Because of this, I’d strongly suggest keeping everything you write, even the stuff you hate. Don’t delete those poorly-composed documents or throw away those notebooks filled with trash. Even if all you get out of your old writing is some nostalgia and a chance to see how far you’ve come, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Will it be a painless process? I can’t promise that.

But hey, you never know what you might find in an ancient piece of long-forgotten writing. It just may surprise you.