Are You Burning Your Best Writing?
I had a horrible dream. I finally completed writing my 150,000 word book late one night. It was my greatest work. Not only filled with tremendous insights, but also many clever turns of phrase. I went to bed with the satisfaction that I had conquered the literary world.
When I woke up the next morning, I walked into my study and discovered that my maid had burned my entire manuscript. She thought all those handwritten pages were waste paper. I had no copy. I cried out in anguish.
Of course, you know this is not a true story because I don’t have a maid. And I said it was a dream, didn’t I? But an incident like this actually happened. It sends chills up my back when I think about it. I have told it before, so please excuse this retelling.
In 1835, Thomas Carlyle visited his friend John Stuart Mill. He asked his old friend to critique his newly completed first volume of the history of the French Revolution. Mill’s maid did the unthinkable; she used the pages to kindle the fire. Every word became smoke.
The brave Carlyle completed volumes 2 and 3 first, and John Stuart Mill graciously supplied the blank paper so he could volume 1 again from scratch.
As horrible as that might be, it could be worse—it could happen to you. The destruction happens to a writer every day. Your work may not go up in flames, but it suffers the modern equivalent.
How We Destroy Our Own Writing Every Day
People are still not making back-ups of their writing projects. It’s a careless action since it is so easy to do.
Save each version under a different name. For example, I like to save my book name and date and version as a file name, like goodbook_jan5_2017_01. A second save on the same day would be goodbook_jan5_2017_02, and so forth.
If you don’t make regular back-ups like this, and saving them in different places each time, it can be like throwing a handwritten manuscript into a fire.
Another Way We Destroy Our Own Writing
There is a more subtle way we lose our hard work. We edit it out and don’t think about saving it.
This issue is based on how you edit. If you write a complete, full first draft before you begin editing, then it is easier to conserve your work. Just make sure you save a copy of your first draft and edit the copy as your final.
You can cut as much as you want and you’ll still be able to go back and retrieve parts from the original if you need to do that.
If you edit your final draft without a copy, everything you delete will be permanently lost as surely as if you tossed your work into a fire. This happens far more often than you might think.
Piece-Meal Editing is a Bonfire
If you do piece-meal editing along the way, you could kill some excellent material that you could use later.
Rather than edit a completed draft as is best, too many authors edit as they write. They write a paragraph or a page and immediately start making changes.
This bad habit not only slows the writing process, but both ideas and phraseology get cut. Not everything you edit is bad, it just doesn’t fit, and for that reason you want to conserve it.
If you always save your file with a different name before you edit, you’ll be able to retain ideas and use them in a different book. If you’re an experienced author, you know that sometimes an idea that doesn’t fit in one book is a seed you can plant to grow an entirely new book. This happens more often than you think.
Maintain a “Fragments” File
The key idea is that you don’t want to throw any of your writing on the fire, either by acts of commission or omission. Your writing has value and even short portions you excise can be useful later.
The best plan is to save manuscripts or manuscript portions under different names as I described. Edit only designated files. Conserve your creativity.
Another way you can achieve that goal is to maintain a “fragments” file. When I edit, I open a new file I call “frags” for a particular book. I keep it along with the other files in the folder I make for each book.
That way, I can keep the gems. I cut and paste them into my frags file in case I want to use them later. This method requires that I save more junk than I like since it is hard to discern in advance what’s important. However, this method has been valuable to me. I primarily write nonfiction and sometimes cut entire sections that I use in a different context in a different book.
A fragment file works well for fiction writers too. They set a scene or do a character study that they later discover doesn’t fit. A lot of work goes into that kind of creative thinking, and it doesn’t deserve to be thrown into the fire.
Rather than do that, keep it in a fragment file. Create one each for characters, scenes, settings and dialogue. You’ll save time and boost your creativity by resurrecting and reworking your previous work.
A Plan is Important
It would be horrible if someone burned the only copy of your manuscript. It’s worse if you “burn it” yourself by not having a systematic way of backing up your computer files or hard copies.
You also want to conserve your work by editing wisely. You’ll lose a lot of fine work if you do indiscriminate piecemeal editing. Wait until you’ve finished your first draft, then save the master and use the copy for your final edit.
Many authors have what is called a “swipe file.” It contains ideas, clips and images from others. They provide inspiration for writing. When you create your own “frag” file, you inspire your future self.