Have you ever looked at something you’ve written or are currently in the process of writing, looked at the nearest trash can, and seriously considered just dumping your entire laptop into it and walking away like nothing happened?
It’s technically not a sin to delete something you have written.
But there are plenty of reasons you shouldn’t.
Here’s the thing about your original work: It’s yours. You can do whatever you want with it (until you give the rights to someone else … we don’t need to get into that right now).
Of course you can throw it away if you want to.
But you don’t have to.
Guilt is a common response to quitting, but it doesn’t have to be. One thing I have noticed as I’ve interacted with aspiring writers through this blog and other mediums is that a lot of people struggle to write or stop writing altogether because they feel guilty for falling short of their own expectations.
Let’s say you wrote about 50,000 words of a novel at the beginning of the year and know you have about 30,000 left to write — give or take — before the story can officially be considered finished (the first draft of it, anyway). But you’re starting to lose interest. Not because you don’t like the story or don’t want to finish it, but because you just don’t want to look at it anymore.
The beautiful thing about being a writer — one of many, really — is that you have complete control over whether you write or don’t, whether you finish a project or don’t, whether you learn and grow from your positive and negative experiences or don’t.
So if you decide you don’t want to write those last 30,000-ish words, guess what? You don’t have to. Which would be fine if, for whatever your reasons might be, you didn’t feel instantly guilty for even considering “throwing something away” without finishing what you started first.
But you don’t have to feel guilty for deciding something no longer needs to be your priority. And you shouldn’t. I know that on this blog, for example, I’m a little tough on the subject of giving up and “not feeling like it” and I’m always encouraging writers to keep going when they want to stop. But the truth is that no one can tell you what to do or how to feel, and if you really don’t want to work on something anymore, in most cases you’ll end up better off moving on to something else.
Quitting is not the same as giving up. You quit a job typically when you have either found something better/different or you can’t stand your manager anymore (be honest) — it’s an active choice that puts you in a better position after the fact. You give up on a job — a passive action — when your manager gives you all the tools you need to complete your work successfully yet continue to slack off and have a bad attitude. See the difference?
I personally struggle with the idea of stopping a project due to a lack of motivation, but that’s my problem, not yours. You are allowed to say “no more.” You are allowed to make the active choice to quit writing something.
What can really help ease your guilt if you do decide to quit, though, is telling yourself you are just putting your project aside for the time being. Chances are you won’t pick it up again and it will sit in Unfinished Project purgatory for the rest of all eternity, but that does not mean your life won’t move forward.
I highly encourage you not to walk away from something unless you have a good reason for doing so. But don’t let guilt wear you down or prevent you from working on something new.
All writers must grow. I once started writing a book about a subject matter that meant a lot to me personally. It was a story I felt I needed to tell in order to help me deal with some things that had happened in my life, and as I wrote, I found myself slowly beginning to heal.
I wrote about 70,000 words of that story and absolutely fell in love with it. All the pieces were in place, I had written most of the emotionally and creatively challenging scenes. I was prepared to close everything out and finally put it behind me for good.
I never finished writing the book.
Now you might be thinking, “What? Why not?? You were so close!”
And that’s exactly the point. I set a very specific goal without even realizing it: To get past my grief as I wrote a book about it. And at some point during the three years I worked on that book — literally just paragraphs at a time at some points — I got over it. I healed. And there I was, still trying to work on this story that didn’t mean as much to me emotionally as it had before.
So I stopped. Not because I didn’t want to finish, but because I had just moved on. In some ways, I felt as though that project was holding me back and preventing me from working on other things.
I didn’t throw it out, though. I didn’t forget about it (and still haven’t). I still love those characters and would love to return to them somehow, some way, someday. So I simply took the unfinished draft, put it in a folder on my computer, and left it there. And it’s still there. I just checked.
It’s my faith that I might one day go back and finish that makes me OK with having put it to bed. It’s very likely I won’t ever open it again. But there’s always that chance. And that excites me in a fairly odd way.
You might need it again later. And no, I don’t mean you should always expect to pick up a project months after putting it down and effortlessly — and purposefully — finish it.
But what does often happen is that “unused” ideas get recycled. And you can totally “get away with” this, because they’re your ideas and they haven’t been published yet and for all you know they might work a thousand times better in a different story than the one you tried and failed to fit them into before.
Example: There is a character from that book I never finished that I absolutely love. I want to tell more of her story. I want the world to meet her and know her and love her as much as I do. But that does not necessarily require me finishing the book she originated in. She is my character. I created her. So if I wanted to start a new story and put her in it, I would have the absolute freedom to do that.
There’s this common misconception in writing that if you recycle an idea, it means you’re not growing. But there is a big difference between taking small pieces of previous unfinished works and giving them new life in current projects and rewriting the same story 40 times until you “get it right.”
Some things are worth salvaging. Some aren’t. As a writer you have to pick and choose what sticks around and what fades away. It’s OK to hold onto some things and let go of others. It’s OK to set most of an old and tired story aside but keep one small piece with you just in case.
Even if you aren’t sure whether or not something you have written will ever make it out into the world, don’t just toss it out and pretend it never existed. Put it aside. Keep it in your heart for as long as you need to. Give yourself room to grow without suffocating. And don’t be afraid to sparingly recycle. It’s good for the creative environment … maybe.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.