Have you ever realized that you will have to jettison some or even most of the writing you have done on a project?
For some writers the prospect of having to ditch even small amounts of writing can be agonizing. This is particularly true for writers who struggle to get any damn words on the page in the first place. If you struggled to get them there, why would you leave perfectly good text on the cutting-room floor?
You might do this because the contours of the project have changed and the work you’ve done just no longer fits. Or maybe the way you phrased things doesn’t sound good to your ears now. You might do this because the way you have framed the project doesn’t work at this point.
I am working with a client on a book project at the moment, and I know her material well because four years ago it was the dissertation I helped her finish. Today’s she’s a junior faculty member who is coming to the sobering realization that she can’t use much of what was, at the time, a dissertation strong enough to get her multiple job offers. But the truth is that each new genre makes its own demands. Then, too, while her book will treat many of the same artifacts as the dissertation did, her conceptual framing is different, and the way the argument flows through the document has to change as well.
At a recent meeting she expressed feeling discouraged by how much of the original text she will have to “waste.” I said, “I want to challenge your sense of ‘waste.’ In fact, you’re not wasting anything. Your dissertation is pure compost gold. You could not be doing this work if you had not done that intellectual work first.” She said, “OK I’m not going to see this as wasting my dissertation; I’m going to see it as retiring it.”
I encouraged her to turn the dissertation chapter she was working from into a document called “notes” or “spare parts” and literally treat it like a salvage yard for her new chapter. Often we can get trapped or limited by the parameters or thought flow of an existing draft, so starting a new document can be freeing.
For every major project I work on, I keep a file called “outtakes.” And I cut and paste stuff back and forth between my draft and the outtakes file constantly. For those of you working in Scrivener, this is even easier. When I am done with a project, my outtakes file is typically three times longer than the final draft.
This is not waste. It’s compost. And in it I often find the seeds of my next project.
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