Way back in 7th grade, I was frequently admonished by my kindly pre-algebra teacher to show your work! He also taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned and it had nothing to do with math. I would turn in my homework and, in an effort to prevent embarrassment in light of the numerous mistakes I made along the way, I frequently erased and reworked. Finally, exasperated, my teacher returned one of my more egregious assignments with the words DO NOT ERASE! written in large red letters across the top of the page. He explained that if he could see what I was erasing, he could help me prevent those mistakes in the first place, and eventually, I would learn from them as well.
Today, I am rather obsessive about erasing anything, particularly when it comes to my writing. Each time I’m tempted to highlight and delete that godawful paragraph I just churned out, those three red words burn like a neon sign in my memory: DO NOT ERASE! This has proven to be an invaluable lesson in many areas of my life from exercise, to writing code, to fiction-writing. Yet in the mountains of writing advice the Internet has to offer, I haven’t really seen writers offer this advice: DO NOT ERASE.
Let me be clear, I don’t mean don’t fix typos, or clean up drafts. My second drafts are often very different from my first drafts. What I mean is: keep those first drafts around. And on the third draft, when you pull out that scene that you really like, but doesn’t quite fit, don’t simply delete the scene: cut it out gently and preserve it elsewhere. If you start a new story and spend two hours writing something that, after which, you think of as utter rubbish, don’t make the mistake of deleting what you wrote and starting over. Instead, save what you wrote, open a new file, and then start over.
I’ve written elsewhere about how I have a Deleted Scenes folder as part of my custom SFWA Short Fiction Template for Scrivener (2788). It is in this folder that all of these deleted snippets go. Indeed, I have a set of automated processes that grab any new writing I do each day and preserve it (in Evernote) so that I have a record of what I wrote on a given day, regardless of whether it was for a nonfiction article, short story, novella, or all three. I can go back to any particular day and see what I wrote. What I wrote may never end up in the final story, but I have it for reference. I may be a bit more obsessive about this than most, but saving everything like this has helped me at least two significant ways:
- I can more easily learn from my mistakes. After I’ve submitted a story, sometimes even after it has been published, I can go back through the entire history of the writing of it to better learn what worked and what didn’t work. I can see the sentences I pulled out. I can see how the final draft is so much tighter than the first draft.
- I can see my improvement over time. I’m not talking about just a single work, but the entire history. I can look at something I wrote on January 1, 2010 and see how it compares to something I wrote on February 13, 2013. I can identify the things I am doing now that I wasn’t doing then–or vice versa. This can be painful. I’ve frequently looked back with horror on the very first story I wrote when I decided I wanted to try to sell stories. I think: my God! that is embarrassingly awful! And it is, but it also shows just how far I’ve come.
This last point should not be underestimated. I’ve always described myself as a brute-force writer. I practiced and practiced and practiced, and eventually, I got good enough to start selling stories. Without keeping everything I wrote, I don’t think I would have come as far as I’ve managed to come. For one thing, I’d have no way to see the mistakes I made in the past. More importantly, I’d have no yardstick with which to measure my improvement, other than my own gut feeling. And we all know we are biased when it comes to our own writing.
So I cringe sometimes, when I read about writers who delete entire scenes (or stories!)–simply erase them from existence–because they are losing an important tool for learning and improving. It’s just as easy to save the writing to a folder somewhere else as it is to dumping it in the trash. And in the long run, it could prove much more valuable.
My 7th grade math teacher with his DO NOT ERASE! admonitions may have thought he was teaching me how to avoid making silly mistakes in logic or calculation. What he ended up teaching me was how to become a better writer by preserving those mistakes, learning from them, and figuring out how to do better next time. An unintended consequence? Perhaps, but he still stands in my mind as one of the best teachers I ever had because he taught me not to erase.