Save or Delete: What to Do With Failed Attempts

keyboard and notebookIn the writing world, there seem to be two camps when it comes to this question. One side says to delete anything that isn’t working out. Did you start a poem and realize it’s not working? Get rid of it. Wipe that slate clean. These people do away with the work they’re not proud of, and I imagine they feel better once it’s gone. They try, they fail, they delete. Only if they feel some measure of success do they hit save. That process works very well for some writers, but I put myself in the other camp: those who save pretty much everything.

I participated in NaNoWriMo last November and managed to crank out a full 50,000 words in a month. Writing that much that quickly is great for getting ideas down, but it left me with tons of scenes I’m not proud of, dialogue that’s clipped, awkward, or unnecessary, and a plot that needs some major changes to work. I decided to set it aside for a while after NaNoWriMo, but I’m getting to the point where it’s been long enough that I’d like to get back into it with revisions. So what should I do with the huge portions of such a large effort that just don’t make the cut once revisions begin?

I don’t think I would do this as much if computers didn’t exist, but since I can easily organize everything on my laptop and store it away, I typically save everything, even my crummy first drafts. Why? Because not all failures and false starts are complete flops. Sometimes my premise is excellent and it’s my execution that’s failing. Maybe I have a great plot but flat characters, or great characters and no plot. Whatever the reason that an attempt fails, it often has some redeeming qualities that might come in handy during my next spell of writer’s block. Or, maybe I’ll take something significant out, like a scene or an entire character, only to change my mind and decide to put it back in. The more I save, the easier it is to do that. So yes, I am a bit of a digital pack rat, but this has genuinely helped me multiple times. I even save failed attempts that don’t get very far. For instance, I wrote the first page of a flash fiction piece in high school, then lost interest and abandoned it. I revisited it in college, revised it, and got it published in my school’s literary magazine. That’s an attempt from high school, back when I had no idea what the word “cliche” meant, and it was still salvageable. See what I mean? Not all attempts are complete flops.

What about you? Are you a fan of the delete key, or the floppy disk icon? Maybe a little of both? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

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