Surprise! Your Wonderful Idea Was Poorly Received.
Puffin photo by Derek Herndon
To abandon or revisit writing topics that flopped.
Therapists regularly encourage their patients to recall a past experience for the sake of analysis. Crime investigators open old cases to take a fresh look at the evidence. Athletes watch videos of their past triumphs and failures to study the movements that impacted the results.
Across professions, the tactic of examining the past as a way toward a better future is essential.
"When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves." -Anthony J. D’Angelo
But what about in your writing?
Should you dust off past stories, articles, and otherwise rejected or neglected writings to show them the light of day once again?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Sometimes, a piece of writing goes over poorly because your heart wasn’t in it.
In which case, you have to ask yourself why you weren’t passionate about it. If you genuinely didn’t care about the content, then don’t waste your time rehashing it. There’s no point publishing works that you’re not interested in because your lack of enthusiasm will be apparent to the reader.
What if you did care for the idea but failed to convey your interest?
This can happen when you feel rushed to write/publish or when you’re trying to write with a voice that isn’t your own. In either case, start from scratch. Take the main idea (and maybe any lines/phrases that stand out to you) and begin with a fresh document. Then see where it takes you. Re-examining the ideas upon a blank page might allow the passion that wasn’t apparent in the first article to surface for the reader.
What if you no longer agree with what you previously wrote?
While I like to think that I stand pretty firm in my convictions, I definitely flip flop a bit when it comes to a handful of topics, including the creative process. For example, one week a creative technique will work immensely well, allowing me to be super productive with ideas flying out of my fingertips. Then the next, the technique won’t work at all, so I find a different approach to rave about. I guess you can say my creative process hates stagnation—I have to keep it on its toes.
In cases like that, you don’t have to agree with what you previously wrote. It’s perfectly fine to disagree with something you once wrote (it won’t rule out your chances at the U.S. Presidency, at least). You can look at an old piece of writing and update it to match your current beliefs, or refute what you said and explain why it no longer works. The best debaters I know argue with themselves more than anyone else.
“We don't go back to wallow, we go back to undo the lies that are back there that are holding its [sic] captive from living a wondrous and full life.” -Darlene Ouimet
You cared about the topic, you showed your passion, but it flopped anyway.
Maybe it didn’t resonate with your audience. Maybe it never landed in the lap of the right reader. Maybe it just wasn’t all that it could be. In any of these instances, you can still revisit your topic. As long as the idea—your motivation to write in the first place still interests you—there’s more work to be done.
“Woah, woah, woah! That’s plenty of meat on that bone. Take that home, throw it in a pot, add a potato, and, Baby, you’ve got a stew going!” -Carl Weathers (as himself, Arrested Development)
You can add a potato or pour out the excess broth from the piece. You can edit it and re-submit. You can re-write completely.
Whatever you try, just make sure you’re still enjoying the work. Once your topic tastes stale, it’s time to throw that bag of chips out. Otherwise, you run the risk of boring the reader with flat flavor of your disinterest.
“We all make mistakes, but one of our biggest mistakes is continually revisiting the past.” -Bryant McGill
If you didn’t (or don’t) like the previously published idea, was the piece a total waste?
I’d like to say that no piece of writing is a total waste. But as someone who has written stuff that feels like a total waste, it seems silly (and impossible) to make that claim. When your computer crashes and your document disappears into the ether—never to resurface, that feels like a waste. Then again, that lost bit of writing could be considered practice—a lesson both in writing and the value of backing up your work. So maybe it’s not so silly to say that no piece of writing is a waste.