Throwing It All Away

Today’s blog post is in the trash. I wrote it earlier in the week, but it didn’t work. Then I edited it, and it still didn’t work. Finally I pulled it apart and put it back together, but it crumbled, probably from being snipped and cut and pasted so much, poor thing. So I trashed it, and started something new.

I did it reluctantly. Throwing away work hurts. I get attached to my ideas and words, and letting them go feels like admitting that those ideas and words were wrong, or at least not quite right, and therefore that I was wrong, or at least not quite right. It isn’t just that I am fond of my documents, but also that documents are proof of work, of concrete action, and trashing that work tears at my sense of being a productive useful person.

And the wasted effort! All that labor. Throwing away work and starting over feels like such a waste of time and brain power, and when I am pressed for time that seems profligate. It seems so much smarter to keep working on a document that isn’t working out, to keep revising and editing until it hangs together. But I’ve found, in thinking of how to edit your own writing, that we can edit too much, and a document edited into submission will never hang together. It will always seem a little long in the tooth, bearing the bumps and scars of the editing process in a way that a fresh new document won’t. There is a point of no return in the creative process – technical writing, poetry, cooking – where anything further you do to make things better will just make things worse. You have to recognize that you’ve passed that moment, throw up your hands, and start again.

When you do start again, realize that time spent on the trashed piece wasn’t wasted as long as you believe that thinking itself is a productive action. It is easier to see that tossing your work is productive when you consider how often you mindlessly toss pieces that were intended to be unfinished – doodles, outlines, bulleted lists, sticky notes of ideas. You throw them out easily because their purpose was to get something down on paper, to clarify things, to catch an idea before it ran away. A list wasn’t wasted just because it didn’t make it into a final document. That was never its purpose in life. Its purpose was to give birth to the thing itself. When you find yourself hours (or days) into a “final” document that gets worse by the keystroke, though, it takes some determination to decide to start over. It shouldn’t hurt so much, because all the work you did on the battered old document is still there in your brain. The work was the idea, the thought, the organization, the research: the writing was just a way of making it visible.

Another comfort in throwing things out is that the thing that comes after, the new piece, will be faster and easier to produce because the thinking has already been done. When I need to edit a document, whether one of my own or someone else’s, I try to start with an assessment of whether it has passed that point of no return: is this a document that is basically clear and straight, but needs a little TLC to shine? Or is it opaque and muddy, without a clear argument or story line? If the first, I go ahead and edit. But if it is the second, I start by opening a new blank document. I put the first document up on my screen as source material, but I write from scratch. Especially when a document has many authors and contributors, starting with a new document for the final version allows one voice to come through, and it allows the mistakes to stay behind.

Next time you find yourself lost in a document full of track changes, red squiggles, and comments in the margins, stop for a moment and consider: maybe the old girl has been tortured enough. Maybe she has served her purpose, and can be laid to rest, happy in the knowledge that she’s given birth to a bright new thing. The labor won’t last too much longer.

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