You should always have a sense of clarity at the end and know why it began and why it ended. You need that in your life to move cleanly into your next phase.
If you’ve dreamed of being published for a long time and you’ve been writing for a long time, you’re going to have lots of old projects. Maybe school notebooks with dialogue squeezed between formulas and graphs, or folders meticulously arranged on your computer. Even though you’ve moved on to bigger and better projects, these old writings have a special place in your heart. Maybe one day I’ll come back to you, you think every time you happen upon old scribbles. Yet the motivation to do so never comes.
And that is perfectly fine.
Maybe it’s nostalgia for the first manuscript you ever finished back when you were in high school. Maybe it’s a sense of duty/determination to finish what you started and tackle the last chapters of the project that consumed hours and hours of your life in college. Maybe you think you had one nugget of a good idea buried in a story you’re not that excited about, but you are so hyped about that one idea that you keep hanging on.
There are many reasons we hold onto our old writing. All of the examples from above are from personal experience, in fact! I have a number of projects still in need of editing and rewriting that I put aside to clear my head—because, let’s face it, too much time with one project starts making it hard to see the forest for the trees—and ended up never going back to.
I may still, one day. My advice certainly isn’t to get rid of old writing! However, don’t feel like every idea you doodled ten years ago has to be fleshed out into a full novel. For years, I had been keeping track of all the vague concepts and characters I’d planned out long ago, trying to figure out a time table for getting them all published. This could be reworked as a short story, and those could be combined into one book, and so on. Figuring out new ways to Frankenstein my old ideas into products didn’t increase my excitement about them; if anything, it tired me out more.
What I finally ended up doing was going through all of my old scribbles and folders and setting aside projects that I actually think have merit. All of the stories I pulled, without fail, had developed characters and a full arc outlined; nothing was super in-depth, but I’d put together a solid skeleton for the novel to build on. Most importantly, every idea was one that, as I looked through my notes and remembered coming up with the ideas, I was able to get excited about.
I plan to comb through the rest of my old writing in the near future and compile the things I liked—the characters I sketched out or the concepts that are good hooks but need development—into a folder of ideas that I can pull from for any given project. That way if I need a character for project A or a subplot for project B, I will have them.
For everything else, though of course I will keep them, I do plan to say goodbye in some sense. The stories and characters I wrote as a child may be nostalgic, but as an adult, they aren’t as fresh or complex as what I hope to write now. Some manuscripts needed to be written so I could take that experience and move on to my next level of writing.
Don’t think back on old writing with shame, but also don’t look back with obligation. Your writing is what it is today because of your work in the past. Some writing should be revisited; other writing should be appreciated for getting you to where you need to be, and then put away. It’s okay if you don’t turn every little idea into a full-blown novel. Trying to spread yourself too thin will only take away time from the projects you are excited about and want to pursue. Writing is a passion for many and a profession for few; use what precious time you have for it on the projects that matter.