Fall into new writing by revisiting old drafts

Fall into new writing by revisiting old drafts_green text over lightened image of a pile of colorful fall leaves on the ground
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Fall is the season of the writer. It’s perfect for coffee mugs, writing gloves, and cuddling with cats. The trees outside are dropping their old leaves, and many writers are following suit by packing up old words and generating new content during National Novel Writing Month.

But what about those of us who don’t feel like creating something new? Or those of us whose other work makes November a tough time to meet word counts? During fall, revisiting old work is like sliding into that perfect pair of sweats. Instead of churning out new material, I take a spring approach and refresh the old. 

I’ve spent that last few days scrolling through my various archives. No writing is off limits. I’ve reviewed published work, complete and partial abandoned drafts, notes in journals, and even spent some time remembering past writing spaces. The effect has been the relocation of myself as a writer, which is great because I’m about to embark on a physical relocation. Knowing my writer self means I’m not so much uprooting as migrating. Focusing on older work keeps me grounded, but that’s not all; it also gives me the opportunity to use what I’ve learned to prune an old draft so it can extend its own roots.

You know that box, drawer, or file of discarded writing you couldn’t part with, but also couldn’t finish? Now is the time to crack it open! Breathing new life into old writing is a powerful practice that shows you your own growth. Fertilize your old ideas using these three steps:

Free your mind. When dusting off an old draft, you might get bogged down by memories of what wasn’t working. Try not to limit yourself by sticking to where you originally thought the writing was meant to go. Reimagine it. Turn your writing so it receives—and can be seen—in the best light. Or turn over an entirely new leaf and change names, locations, perspectives, and/or character genders.

Locate the gems. There is sure to be a breakthrough line or two (or 20) in your discard file. Look for groups of words with good rhythm or that viscerally evoke one or more senses. Do this by printing out your draft and marking it up with a brightly-colored pen. Write yourself notes in the margin. Get excited about what you already have in front of you, then reflect on how you can use that type of writing to grow your work. Use the aloe plant as an example—you can cut off an aloe arm and replant it. From that simple act, a new aloe is born.

Combine drafts. What if you took this unfinished story and added some of the best lines, images, or scenes from that other unfinished story? Look for overlaps in theme and mood and see what happens when you stitch like fragments together, strengthen transitions, smooth out the pace and flow, add or take away elements that don’t work anymore… Sweep those “fallen” leaves into a pile and see if the sum is more than the individual parts.

Writing exercise

Imagine this work as the opposite of what you originally drafted. Consider how the differences serve the work. Is third person a better fit than first? Should the protagonist be older rather than younger? Should that darling have survived? Are your metaphors working toward your theme(s)? Experiment. Prune. Move the leaves around and find the growth underneath. Till the soil. See what flourishes.

Your new draft can work for you if you ask it what it needs and give it room to grow. 

Do you ever revisit old drafts and try to breathe new life into them? Will you use the three steps outlined here to give it a try? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: How to re-route your writing practice when you feel lost 

Writing in pieces: In defense of fragments over finished products 

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