Old Drafts – Keep Them Or Delete Them?

by limebirdster

I accidentally deleted 80 pages of my book the other day. I hit a keyboard shortcut that I didn’t mean to and it all just vanished. Luckily, all I had to do was hit undo and all of my words blinked back into existence exactly as they had been a moment before. It was a temporary crisis! It reminded me a bit of that scene in Love Actually, when a mug gets picked up and half a novel of typed pages fly into a lake and the author hasn’t made copies.

Before the wonderful invention of the PC, everyone was writing like the author by the lake, piling up pages and pages out of a typewriter and having to type out every copy individually. I’m sure that it was most inconvenient when you made a mistake and had to either start all over again or pour tip ex on the problem and then wait for it to dry and hope you hadn’t applied it so thick that it all scraped off as it fed through.

These days it’s far easier, you can delete, rewrite and replace to your heart’s content and no one will ever know how many drafts it actually took for you to arrive at your final piece. Which is mainly the point of this here post. I can’t remember if it was the subject of a lecture, or if was just brought up in passing during a workshop, but I remember a conversation during university about deleting old drafts, as if the finished project was written perfectly the first time with no errors whatsoever and sent straight off to the printers.

It’s a lovely thought, that we could write something so well on the first attempt that no further editing was necessary. Unlikely though! I have a habit of copying my entire novel into a new document every time I start a new edit, so there’s a folder on my computer with a load of old drafts in it that I keep around for no real reason other than to prove to myself that I wrote them and look how much better the book is now, six drafts later! Even though I’ll probably never read my old drafts again, I can’t bring myself to delete them, so they all just sit in an ever growing folder in my documents gathering metaphorical dust instead.

Before I did that I just edited the same document over and over again, so that I genuinely didn’t have any old drafts, I just had this one piece that had changed constantly from the moment it was created. I didn’t do it on purpose, it just hadn’t occurred to me that I was deleting the old work every time, and so my dissertation ended up being one of those pieces of work that could have been written perfectly(ish) the first time and required no edits at all before it was handed in!

I’m not even sure why I keep the old drafts now, I think it’s just so that when anyone asks I can hold them up as proof that I have been working on it for the past few years and just spent all of the time at my computer procrastinating!

What school of thought do you belong to? Delete everything but the final project and erase all of those old mistakes forever, or keep the old novels like badges of honour to show how much has changed?

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54 Responses to “Old Drafts – Keep Them Or Delete Them?”

  1. Hmm, I think I’m a bit of both kind of person. When I’m writing for work, I definitely am a delete as I go kind of person as I don’t really need to work. However, for fiction, I like to keep the drafts, I’m such a hoarder. I think it’s important to keep your old works so you can go back over and see how far you’ve come. It feels better.

    Great post!

    • Thanks Beth! I think I’d do the same if I wrote for work. When I think about the assignments I wrote for uni I don’t really care about the essays, but I wish I’d kept the drafts of my stories!

  2. Keep old drafts – on days when you think your book will never be finished, you can remind yourself that it’s always a process.

  3. I’m with Beth on this: for work, I generally don’t keep old drafts (unless there’s some technical data there that could come in handy to have later). For fiction, I keep a running “unused” document with all of my would-have-been-deleted edits, to return to later, if necessary. I also keep more or less random complete drafts (noted by date) in my archive folder. That’s just for my own personal vanity, though (“Wow, look at how much better v.5 is, over v.1!”)

    Nothing wrong with keeping old drafts, I say! Besides, if you get famous for your writing, you’ve always got some nice anecdotes about drafts! 😀

  4. Oh I don’t think I could part with deleting anything. I do like to start edits on a fresh copy and keep the original as it was. There are some homework assignments for classes that I have 6 and 7 versions of on my computer just sitting there, for no reason whatsoever. I doubt I’ll ever need them or read them, but it just seems wrong to get rid of them.

  5. I like to keep it around for reference and to copy and paste from. Computer storage is pretty cheap, so it’s easy to hold on to as much as you want. The problem is organizing it all so you can find what you want, when you want it.

  6. I keep everything because you never know when it will be useful again. It does create a bit of a file management issue, so finding something you wrote five years ago is tough, but it is nice to have them in storage for later.

  7. I keep my old fiction drafts, mostly because I’m afraid of parting with them. Do I ever go back and look at them, refer to them or use the old stuff in any way? No. It’s fear. Plain and simple. That, and insurance. Then I can go about my writing with supreme confidence. Kind of. ; )

  8. I like to keep old copies but beware! I have to keep track because I’ve gone back to the wrong copy before and really confused myself. LOL

    • Haha! I number my drafts as they start accumulating and I still get confused as to which copy is which!

      • Talk about deleting – I had a great article all written for Beth…and deleted it! Of course now I can’t remember all of what I had…so aggravating!

  9. I think there is something to be said for keeping old drafts. In theory, every new draft/edit is better than the previous one, but that might not always be the case, sometimes we could move so far away from our original idea that we completely lose focus, and it could actually be helpful to look back over our originals to remind ourselves of what it was we had originally set out to do!

    • That’s a good point, I get sidetracked very easily, it’s nice to have a point of reference simewhere to reign you back in!

  10. Since the space documents occupy is negligible, I keep them. The first novel is broken into 48 files comprising 54 chapters (the discrepancy due to things I added into the mix.) I like working with a chopped file because I can edit one at a time, or zero in on something in need of correction if it relates to another change. Once done, I’ll assemble it all.

    I’m on the sixth hard edit, so folders exist for the original draft and each edit, the novel evolving with time (I save each by adding a letter to the edit number, such as element 1a through 1g, 2a-2g and so on.

    Writing extensively, we improve, and sometimes it’s nice to take a peek back and see how far we’ve come.

    • Wow, you sound very organised! I impress myself when I just remember to start a new folder!

      • I taught organisation in my last employment. As a writer, I like the idea of constructing a library for the work I produce, an accounting of its progression. Someone will toss it one day, but it won’t be me. 🙂 So within the writing folder, all manner of folders exist by novel title, within it by edit. Another for all the shorts I write and blog.

  11. I keep old novels and bits of novels in case there’s something I want to draw from them in the future, which sometimes happens. With current novels, I just edit right over my work, I don’t need the stuff I’m rewriting, nor do I need to see how many times I’ve changed it. HOWEVER (there’s almost always a “however’!), if I’m cutting entire scenes or paragraphs that are good but just don’t fit anymore, I save them in a separate file. Many times they make it into subsequent works.

    • That sounds like a good compromise, you don’t lose anything but also don’t have word documents coming out of your ears like I do!

  12. Since I got my first computer, I usually simply edit the original until the end, although I do have a few early drafts, particularly if it’s a version I sent to my best friend, who reads everything I write. Also, if I delete large chunks, I transfer them to my Notes document. However, there is another reason for keeping early drafts. In the past, when scholars set out to write studies of an author’s works, they could possibly find every little alteration preserved in the manuscripts, warts and all, which would allow them to observe the development of the author’s thinking – fascinating! Today, if you don’t keep drafts, your thought processes are obliterated for all time – what a loss for future scholarship! Of course, that’s assuming some scholar will want to study your works someday! But you never know!

    • I agree that seeing the progression in someone’s writing is really interesting, though I don’t think anyone’s ever going to be studying my old drafts! I read a friend of mine’s book before it was published and it was then really interesting to see what had changed in the published book, it was like being in on a secret knowing that some things hadn’t been there before an editor got their hands on it!

  13. I can imagine your heart flew to your throat when they disappeared. I keep the various incantations. I sometimes think I might like to bring something back but also because it’s been quite a journey from there to here and some kind of record seems permanent, rather than it having once existed in a different form and now lost in the ether.

  14. I’m like halfway between these — I have different documents with different drafts, but I’ll go through a novel like three times per draft; it’s usually based more on how long it’s been between making new documents than what I actually do in them.

    • That sounds very similar to what I do, the first time I started a new document for a draft was when I hadn’t worked on it in almost a year!

  15. Keep them! I still have my first full draft of my novel with all the edits and markings there for everyone to see. Just yesterday, I received the physical proof of the published book. It’s an incredible comparison and evokes a huge sense of accomplishment.

  16. Keeping drafts?! On the computer?! Whaa!!! I have to confess that I do print out my drafts and, after people have made their comments, keep those and just have the one (electronic) file for my work.

    Having worked in Admin, I know too well about saving work etc so hardly ever have to encounter this problem!!

    • I like that idea Juliette, if I had enough filing space I think I’d have kept printed out drafts that had been scribbled all over but I always end up using them for scrap paper or for printing other things on the back of!

  17. Last count I have 1.3 million copies of early drafts. Maybe I am exaggerating. It might be more like 1.2 million.

  18. I like keeping old drafts just so I can go back and laugh at how sucky I was the first time round. Plus, being on the computer means it’s not actually taking up any physical space, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.
    I always worry about deleting old documents. I still have pieces of homework from when I was twelve stored on here somewhere. I never know when I might need it! 🙂

  19. I make backups every month of the work as they are, including the draft date in the file name. Sometimes I do go back and recycle something that got cut earlier. Storage space is cheap, whether it’s physical or the cloud, and if something ever happens to your hard drive…. Well, you haven’t lost all your work.

    Not that it would ever happen to 99.999% of us, but if someone did claim you stole their work or stole yours, the older versions would be useful evidence to support your ownership and creation of the work.

  20. What tends to happen? Well, I am very careful about backing up the final result, but not as careful with the draft copies. So I have a set of 3.25 discs with old drafts and no computer that will run them. And the occasional computer death cleans up the rest of the flotsam.

    • Ffs.. anyway, I usually edit in the same document, but I think when it comes for the complete overhaul of my novel, I’ll make a separate document, in case I want to go back to something I change.

      • That’s exactly what I do, though I’m starting to think I’ve managed to completely overhaul my novel almost 10 times now so I’ve still got draft documents coming out of my ears!

  21. I’ve kept mine, like you I’ve started a new document for each one but I’m not quite sure why 🙂

    • I like starting new documents too, I think it feels like I’ve completed something – which I havn’t at all, but it’s a nice feeling all the same!

  22. I tend to keep drafts. Sometimes, even if it’s just a paragraph, I end up going back to the way I wrote it the first (or 2nd, or 3rd, or whatever) time. Mind, I don’t keep them FOREVER. Once something is “done” the only thing that really matters is how it ended up. That’s the way I did all my school papers too.

    The one major argument FOR keeping all the drafts (and forgive me for knowing this). Stephanie Meyer gave out partial copies of a follow-up Twilight book to some well-trusted people. ONE of them leaked it onto the internet. She says she could tell who the leaker was based on the draft. In the event I’m ever that well known, I’d seriously like to know who did something like that… and that person had better have a secret bunker to hide in!

    • I think that’s interesting enough that we can forgive you for knowing it! I like the idea of using an old draft for some detective work, I don’t think I’d ever be able to keep track myself though!

  23. Oh, and now that I’m working in Scrivener for my long pieces (as opposed to, say, 100 word pieces), I’m not starting a new document… although before I would just save the document with a new name. E.g. paper2, paper3, paper4, paper_Final.

  24. I keep working in the same document, but save as a different name, so I end up with different docs (without the copying and pasting). I do it so it’s easier for me to make changes. What if the way I wrote the sentence last time was better? Should I really get rid of this paragraph? It’s so much easier knowing that I can go back to other drafts and change certain parts back to the old ways if I want. Do I ever do it? Nope. It’s just a safety net, and I’m okay with it. As long as I don’t run out of hard drive space…

  25. I keep my old drafts for two reasons.

    Old drafts are a valuable resource. A newer revision of a story is not always a better revision. S it’s nice to know that I can dig into my computer files and reconsider old, previously-axed passages.

    I also keep old story drafts for legal purposes. I take comfort in having my entire creative process available on my computer – showing the date I completed each draft. It’ll probably never happen, but if someone ever accuses me of stealing his story idea, I can reply with confidence, “Oh, you think I stole your story idea, huh? Well, I’ve been working on MY story idea for YEARS and I got the proof RIGHT HERE, you shameless hack!”

  26. Sometimes, it seems I have lost something in the revision of a poem, and then, having the original notes and intermediate stages can help you see the decisions you made to get where you are. And importantly to see wether it is really where you meant to end up.

    The transition from pen and paper to printed word can be long or short but it is still a journey that it can be good to retrace.

    Jim

    • I treat poems completely differently to novels for some reason! I write every draft out on paper and only type it up into a word document when I’m sure it’s finished. I have no idea why but I can’t type a poem, it has to be handwritten!
      I think it has something to do with the fact that individual words are so much more important in poems, you can change the whole meaning with a word in a way that wouldn’t happen with prose. Kind of like what you said about losing something in the revision Jim, but then I don’t mind throwing away my notebook once I’ve finished a poem so that all the bad lines are lost forever!

  27. I like to keep original drafts on hand because sometimes the path I take ends up a dead end. Rather than trying to restore what I had changed and take another path, I can just pull out the draft created just prior you stepping onto that path. Once I’m SURE I know where I’m going (and like it) I can delete the oldest drafts.

  28. Drafts aren’t much of a problem for me as all I do is write articles and maybe the occasional short story. I couldn’t write a novel if you paid me for it, and of course that’s a topic for another day. I will admit that I tried. Waste not want not, these days it acts as a doorstop on hot summer nights.
    The only reason I keep drafts is if an article is half finished. I may have come to a full stop or things are looking flat, so I leave it for a while then come back with a fresh outlook and polish things off (sometimes). Then of course it has mutated into a fully fledged article and is no longer a draft Great article, Limebirdster and ditto great blog. 🙂

  29. I’m in the keeping drafts group. I have various folders with backup on multiple flash drives as well. Better to be save than sorry and if anyone every accuses me of stealing their work then I have 452 previous drafts to show my *journey*.

    I think Agatha Christie once famously handed in a completed manuscript all neatly typed without so much as a comma out of place. That might be a myth or I could have completely made it up. 🙂

  30. I like to keep older drafts. It helps when making revisions to perform a “compare document” and see where and in most cases why I made a change.

  31. Lord, I keep everything. I mean EVERYTHING! draft after draft after draft all saved on my PC and backed up for reasons I don’t really understand. I guess I’m a hoarder.
    It is nice to look back on them though. Every now and then, just to remind myself that I have improved.

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