I’m a bit of a hoarder.
You won’t find me keeping every piece of kitchenware I’ve ever owned or a tower of stacked televisions in my home. Most material things, I don’t want to hang onto.
But words and paragraphs? Until recently, I hung onto those like a lifeline.
I’d archive every scrap I’d ever written, first on USB drives and then in the cloud. Years of teenage poetry and short fiction (well over a decade old, at this point), just sitting there. Waiting for some unknowing relative to wander into the file and die from the hysterically bad writing you’d find within.
So that got me thinking: As a writer, should you archive everything? And if you plan to throw it out, how long you should wait before you start sharpening your ax?
The Archive Checklist
In the past, I’ve made the mistake of deleting things that I should’ve kept. So before I started chipping away at my files last time, I made a quick checklist:
- Does it have sentimental value?
- Does it have legs?
- Will I need it later?
Keep in mind, we’re not talking about resumes, previous accolades, letters of recommendation or anything that might actually help you get a job. We’re talking about fiction, poetry, and other types of writing that have no meaning unless you’re actively trying to publish or you become famous and someone discovers your Dropbox folder or hidden USB archive after your death.
That being said, let’s cover each one in kind.
This one is pretty obvious. If you care about it, it should stay.
Maybe it’s a letter to your long-forgotten love, or maybe you were just in a different headspace when you wrote that story and you like looking back on it. Both are fine. Sentimentality trumps practicality in this argument for one reason:
In terms of required storage, writing is small. We’re talking kilobytes per document. Megabytes, at most, even for novel-length work. So if you don’t want to trash it, you don’t have to. Deleting ten photos will likely net you more space on a full hard drive than deleting a hundred short stories.
Does It Have Legs?
Probably the most important question for any amateur writer with a mind to work smarter, not harder: Is there an idea buried inside those old files that you could yank from the archive and use for a newer, better project?
Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but truly great ideas only come along once in a while. When you’re laying waste to that old folder of forgotten lore, open up the documents you don’t recognize. Maybe there’s a scrape in there worth hanging onto.
In my case, it was the novel I’m finishing now. I first jotted down the idea in early 2008. It’s changed dramatically since that four paragraph concept and I’ve been able to bring it to fruition.
Waste not, as the saying goes.
Will You Need It Later?
Some things have an expiration date.
That essay I wrote for my college scholarship? Yeah, I’m never going to use it again. Besides, my views have changed dramatically since I wrote it. That particular collection of zeros and ones can head to the trash bin. Those five pages I cut out of my novel and put in a separate document? If I’m still working on that novel, that document is going to stick around. If it doesn’t, I’m 100% going to need it later.
That’s just how the universe works.
Hold On a Minute
Doesn’t fit into any of those categories? That’s great! It’s probably trash. But before you delete anything, set everything off to the side and let it sit for a day or two. Then come back, give it a once over, and make up your mind.
Because there’s no point in rushing to the finish line. Maybe you change your mind. Maybe you have second thoughts. It’s worth being sure before you do something you can’t undo. Take a minute and think.
And then send those old files to the grave.