Why can it be so difficult to improve old work?

Susan DeFCreative Writing, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

If you’ve been with me a while, you know that I’m revising a collection of short fiction, with the goal of getting it ready to submit by the end of the year.

Some of the stories in this collection are new, and some are old–and right now, I’m revising an old one, set at the boarding school for the arts I attended as a teen.

In doing so, I’ve been struck by how hard it can be sometimes to revise old work. And I’ve been thinking about why that is.

Because I know it’s not just me: Clients come to me all the time looking for help with a novel that they’ve worked hard on, that they believe in, that they set aside for one reason or another and are now having a tough time revising.

So: Why can it be so difficult to improve old work?

Sometimes it’s just that “the thrill is gone”–so much time has passed that we are different people now than we were when we wrote that story.

Sometimes it’s just that those sentences have fit together in exactly that way for so long it’s hard to change them (and hard not to revert to previous phrasing even when we do).

Sometimes it’s the story itself that feels set in stone, to the point where it’s unthinkable that we would jettison any of it (even when we know the story as a whole is not working).

But sometimes, I think, it’s just that we put so much into our early work, and try to cram so much into it, that it’s difficult to narrow the focus in revision.

That’s what I think is the case for me with this short story I’ve been wrestling with.

Because this story is set in such a potent period of my own life, there is so much emotion here, so many things I wanted to say with this story–so many moods and images and moments and threads, about art, about friendship, about life, that I really just overstuffed the thing (FYI, it’s a 10K-word short story–not exactly short!).

Which is really just a variation on an issue that tends to plague memoir writers: When you’re drawing on the truth of your own life, it can be hard to narrow the focus to just what’s important to the story.

And yet, that’s exactly what you have to do, in most cases, to get that manuscript back on track, and headed toward publication.

Because as you narrow the focus, you deepen the effect. This gives the story a clearer sense of being about something–something important.

That takes some bravery, if you’ve worked on a piece forever, and this was really brought home to me recently by a coaching client who was having trouble letting go of elements of her current draft–even though she knew that draft wasn’t working.

When I dug a little deeper on this, she confessed, “I just don’t know if I could ever write that well again.”

Which I honestly found just a bit heartbreaking. Because how can we ever move forward, if that is true?

I told her the same thing I tell myself when I feel that way–when I feel that sense of preciousness about old language, and old story, even when I know it’s not working:

“Your best work is never behind you.”

And that, my friends, is always true–whether that work lies in revising an old manuscript or in letting it go and starting something new.

PS. Have an old manuscript you could use some fresh eyes on? My next spot for a full manuscript evaluation opens up on September 1st; you can fill out my client-interest form here.

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