Bad Advice Wednesday: Beware Your Own Old Words

categories: Cocktail Hour


You know how it is. You have returned to something you wrote long ago, a novel let’s say. You are eager to revise and make it great. But then something suddenly stops you like a wall. Something you didn’t expect.


What is this impediment? This great blocker?


The odd thing is that it turns out to be your own old words. The sentences and scenes you once, in some past writerly life, committed to paper. You have a new vision for the book: you now see, for instance,  just how you are going to revise that scene when the brothers carry their father down to the beach in that rigged-up dining room chair. But shit. Look at this. Someone has already written that scene and it turns out that that someone is you. 


And here’s the real problem. You read it and it turns out that the scene you wrote long ago turns out to be pretty good.Which adds to your trouble. You had planned on flipping the brothers’ ages, making the older one the younger one and the younger one older. That would change a bunch of subtle things about the scene. But now you read this not-half-bad scene, a scene that by the way has the virtue of being already finished, and you start to ask yourself if maybe it’s okay to not mess with the birth order of the boys.

It happens all the time to writers. It is happening to me this week as I return to The Thing Itself (the book I discussed recently in the post, “Write a Novel in Just Thirty Years.”)  I came to the revision full of fire and passion. I would burn down the old house and build me a new one. But now…. Now I am that guy who wonders if it isn’t okay to just cheat a little. To throw in a few of the old scenes, old sentences, old jokes.

And the truth is that it is okay. With common sense as the guiding principle (as it always should be, coupled with artistic instinct), there is no reason that I shouldn’t save a few of those scenes. It’s not like I was a crappy writer when I imagined them, at various stages five, ten and fifteen years ago. But, as Neil likes to sing, there comes a time. Comes a time when something new is required. Comes a time when you should not even peek at the old stuff. Comes a time to not take the lazy route and make it new.

It’s a hard thing to do. Making stuff up is work intensive (and extensive). Your laziness gene will swim over to your rationalization gene and chat him up. And together they will convince you to just cut and paste that huge block of print, even when you know it would be better if you created it fresh.

So today’s bad advice is twofold.

First, trust yourself. Read the old thing and decide if it fits, really fits. It can be tweaked of course. Genders and ages and clothes can be changed and it might still be able to work. And if it works, that’s fine.

But if it doesn’t work some part of you will know it. And if it doesn’t work hide it, burn it, tear it up, delete it. Or, less dramatically, just don’t look at it. Instead look at that scary animal, the blank page. Then fill it, but fill it knowing you are not going it entirely alone. Somewhere, in some part of you, is that old scene, and that old scene, if left behind as what it was, can help the new one become what it will be.










  1. Peter Peteet writes:

    Believe I heard someone say you said to keep bits of old work in an old “beam yard”where they could be considered for re-use.Could have been someone putting words in your mouth,or my deaf ears making stuff up- that as a “hoarder and tinkerer “I wanted to hear.Tall trees got to lay down;the wonder is they don’t all rot or burn-or perhaps it’s what rises from the ashes and mulch.It’s not just on the net that things never go away…

  2. An Alewife writes:

    Didn’t you once tell me that one had to “lose the suitcase”?

    There were beers, and fire, and beach sand and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.

    • Nina writes:

      He told me this so often — and I repeated to him so often — that we named our child after the woman who lost that suitcase.

  3. Jen Dotsey writes:

    Great advice, David. I’m always looking for insight into revision… more, please!!