Your Unfinished Writing: Please Don’t Trash It

unfinished writing painting

When I was back in college, I worked at the writing center for the university. Some nights, it would be ungodly slow, and there would be long lulls between helping students with their work. On one of those nights, to entertain myself, I drew a little picture of a character and mentally came up with a funny story for it.

Over the next year or so, I wrote about 70 pages.

Then, the pages got put on a shelf.

They sat.

For 15 years.

The story sat not because I lost interest, but because all of the potential paths felt “OK”. None felt perfect. And I hate settling for what “sort of” works just to say a draft is done.

Then, on a mommy-daughter day, I told my daughter about it. In doing that, suddenly the right path was there. It made sense. All the puzzle pieces had the connectors I needed.

So I opened the document on my computer. Two weeks later, the story was done.

Avoiding ‘delete’ on my unfinished writing was the best decision ever

I tell this story not to focus on the specific manuscript, but to focus on the fact that I didn’t press delete on the draft. I could have just assumed that, if 15 years already had gone by, I simply wasn’t going to get out of the weeds and find a fix.

But I didn’t.


It wasn’t that I was confident in my ability to write. Rather, it was that I understood that the subconscious mind doesn’t make connections on demand. It makes connections when the time and environment are right, as new bits of information arrive to add one more link to the chain. I trusted that that process was happening, even though I couldn’t foresee when it would be done.

Today’s society is one of impossible deadlines in overwhelming quantity. It is one where immediacy and formula have the value of the phoenix and patience gets dismissed as old-fashioned. So writers can get the impression that there’s somehow an expiration date on drafts.

There isn’t.

The glory of leaving drafts alone

When you leave a draft for a while, you’ll come back to it with different experiences, information, and even feelings. All of that allows you to approach the manuscript with a more objective lens of possibility. Often, I’ve found that hurdles I thought were hurdles weren’t. A little older and wiser, my brain wasn’t stuck anymore.

Now, I’m not saying you should leave all your unfinished writing for 15 years. Sometimes, you just need to sleep on it or go walk around the block with a coffee. Sometimes, a draft really does suck and all you can do is wipe your eyes and give it a funeral. I’m simply saying that your best writing is on its schedule, not yours.

Trust that at least some unfinished writing is worth waiting to complete

Although it’s OK to be realistic and retire pieces that just don’t interest you anymore, or that you can recognize really do have serious problems you don’t care to tackle, don’t be too quick to toss idle drafts away. Even those often have snippets that are worth crafting into something new. Now, I consider the draft I finished to be some of my best and most enjoyable work, because I wasn’t trying to control it. I let it direct me instead.

This has been my philosophy for years. It’s why I call my business Takingdictation: I believe in waiting, listening, and then writing what my mind whispers to my ear. To me, it always has felt like a very passive process. If you balance that kind of trust with a little world practicality (e.g., working with an editor), your level of productivity will be outstanding.