I look back at some of my old writing and I am embarrassed. There are so many different ways to write poorly and I seem to have tried them all. I’m still trying them. The hell of it is, when in the midst of those particular works, when I was putting those words together, I was happy with them.
Embarrassment drives improvement especially when someone else picks up the work and reads it. Oh gah! No no no! Grab it and hide it but don’t destroy it. That embarrassment is like a battery that keeps me going, keeps me coming back day after day to get better. I have to keep writing to keep improving.
No one ever writes so well that they can’t improve. I’m convinced of that. I have read early works of Hemingway and couldn’t imagine the man ever saving those short stories. Unfortunately, they were published after his death. They are available on Amazon here if you are curious. I’d be curious if you agree with me.
Hemingway is considered one of the best writers of our time. I like to think he saved his poorly written shorts because he wanted to look back and see what sort of crap he had produced in the past. Did he read his older works and see his improvement? Did he see things that made him cringe and then change?
For those of us still learning to write well all of the time, that is the value in keeping the old stuff around. When I read it, I see things I do that I shouldn’t. I find myself agreeing with the editors who rejected those works. If I’m still making those mistakes I change my style after seeing them with a clear eyes.
The years in between the writing and reading bestow something upon my understanding. I’m not sure what except I have read a lot of excellent writing during that time and a lot of bad writing. I would like to emulate Michael J. Sullivan, China Mieville, and Paolo Bacigalupi only without Mieville’s mental images that make me close the book until it fades. Every time I read their works and then mine, I know when I’m falling short.
By constant reading and writing, I learn to recognize more crap when I see it. Just like I have learned to recognize phishing scams by using e-mail and bad deals by looking through lots of Black Friday ads, I have learned to see bad plots and bad prose and the mistakes I make.
Because of that, I recommend you not only save your old writing but go back and read it on occasion. Until a lot of people tell you your writing is perfect and don’t ever dare to edit anything because everything you write is God’s gift to mankind, keep reading and keep improving by writing every day. And when you are successful, your old stuff can help you maintain your humility.