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Reworking Old Stories – Is It Worth It?

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So myself and Craig were discussing an old piece of his (the one he referred to in his post on feedback last week), and an interesting question came up. Is rewriting old work always worth it?

It may not seem that important a question at first glance, and the answer may well be something simple like, “do what you will enjoy most”. But, with time being our most restrictive resource (they aren’t putting any more hours in the day. yet), the question of how best to spend that time weighs on my mind.

In our discussion, the titular phrase actually took the form of two other questions, so I’ll examine these in turn.

I should probably mention (as I did to craig) that I don’t have the answers here. I’m just not experienced enough to make these calls yet, and I’m aware that part of the answer will always be, “it depends”.

Still, discussion is fun and a great way to learn! So let’s get to it!

Will you learn as much from working on an old piece as you would from writing a new one?

I mentioned in my last post a couple of weeks ago that I learn a great deal by writing a new story. Every story is different and so presents its own unique challenges. I would say that even in a short story, I get one big lesson from it.

That might represent a big mistake I won’t make again; it could mean saving time on the next story I write, our it could just mean my next piece of work is of greater quality (one hopes).


Image courtesy of Sharon Drummond.

Contrast this with rewriting an older piece. Say you have a piece of work that’s two or three years old. You examine it (as Craig did recently) and realise that it’s just not up to the standard of your current writing. it’s not even as good as you thought it was.

Given infinite time you may well wish to rewrite it if you still like the idea. But given limited time, would you learn as much as you would writing a new story? Would you grow as much as a writer?

I really want to encourage comments on this post, because I think this is an interesting topic, and like I said, I don’t know the answer. But my initial reaction is no, you would not learn as much from rewriting an old piece.

Sure, editing and even rewriting are skills worth developing as a writer – they are essential – but I think for the most part you have already learnt the major lessons from this story. Think about it, you know what’s wrong with the story – that’s how you recognise it’s bad. In many cases, that’s enough to say that you’ve learnt that lesson, and it’s a mistake you probably wouldn’t make in your writing today. Better to start something new and make shiny new mistakes!

Can an old, reworked story ever be as good as one a wiser, more experienced you could write?

Take that same story. With all the reshuffling, rewriting, new chapters, deleted chapters; with all the wrenching, hammering, hemming and hawing; with all that hard graft will an old work ever be as good as something you’ve written from fresh? After you’ve knocked all the dents out, will the surface look as polished as that of your smooth, new story?

And I guess it depends (surprise surprise). It depends how good you are at reworking, and it depends upon the story itself. After all, the very concept of the story might be fundamentally broken. It might be ‘unfixable’. Is there even such a thing?

Of course the ‘reworking’ might be so radical that you are effectively writing something new anyway, in which case, the question becomes moot.


Rework? Start afresh? Rework? Start afresh?

I’d love to know people’s experiences and feelings. Again, my gut is telling me (for what it’s worth – my gut’s not renowned for it’s thinking) that a new piece would turn out better than something that’s been bashed into shape.

There, you see? Even as I wrote that it felt wrong (stupid gut)! I just don’t know!

But should you decide that this old story would not reach the quality a new story would, then it comes down to what your goals are. There are other reasons for reworking a story. You might be in love with the idea; it might be quicker to fix something old than write something new; it is a different kind of challenge (a change is as good as a rest?); you might find it fun; you might simply hate the idea of something feeling ‘unfinished’.

These are all valid reasons. I just wonder, as developing writers, would our time be better spent elsewhere?

Please pour your minds into the comment trough below!
Oh! There was also a brief discussion on Google+ about this, so you can head over there to read other people’s opinions and leave your own if you’re a plustule, like me.

Categories: Editing Tags: , ,
  • Craig

    You are correct in that it all depends on context.  One major aspect is how invested you are in the story you’re telling.  I’m not getting defensive with my own piece here, but here is the thing; you mention that time is a finite resource.  If you consider the amount of time that you have poured into a project, if you decide to abandon it and move onto something else, then all of that time has been wasted.  Yes, there are lessones that have been learnt, as you say, about the process, but it the time usage/lesson learnt ratio really worth it?  Now I’m not saying you should cling desperately to every project you write, because some truely wont be salvagable.  But if you’re passionate about a project then I think the lessons that you have learnt in the process of your ‘writing career’ can be applied to it.

    You could look at it this way; surely lessons learnt can be *more useful* to older work than to newer projects.  Because the material alreadt exists, then you don’t have to go through the process of generating the new material.  Ok, so maybe it isn’t as ‘useful’ in terms of straight up writing, but in terms of editing, it can teach you far far more about editing, and how to do it well.  I mentioned about my project that I was finally learning how to just let things go, and not be so precious about elements that I may have loved, but don’t really work anymore.  For someone like me, that is a HUGE deal, and a lesson that I can apply both to older works and new projects.

    If we are to compromise (there must always be some middle ground, yes?) then I guess you could save the world (compromise, see?).  This is only really applicable to Sci fi and fantasy I guess, but if you have put a great deal of effort into creating the world the characters exist in, then you could use that world to tell an entirely different story.  This could be beneficial in fact.  If you have an idea of how this world exists so ingrained into your mind (and notes), then when you start a new project set in this same world, it can be very useful to help make this world feel ‘lived in’.

  • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

    Yeah, you’ve got to make that call I guess – would any more work on an existing story really be time wasted? I guess it boils down to what’s the quickest route to publication?

    On the one hand, you could endlessly rewrite a story that has no hope of seeing the light of day.

    On the other hand, endlessly churning out stories won’t help if your problem is your editing process. What if what those stories need is a rewrite and that would make them good enough? You may just be one of those writers where rewriting is an important part of getting your story right.