Rereading Your Older Works – How You Can Grow as an Author by Revisiting Your Earlier Pieces

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Previously, we discussed the benefits of rereading our writing in order to revise and self-edit it. But there is another way in which authors benefit from rereading their older works – even after they have been writing and/or publishing for a while. The first and main rationale for a writer to review a completed or published piece is to see how much they have improved over time.

This may seem like an exercise in self-gratification or pride but that is not the case. While a writer may, during the first few rereads, feel inclined to pat herself on the back after making such an well-worded article or story, that sensation soon passes. After a few weeks or even a month, when she returns to read that same item, she will begin to pick out flaws in her work. Put a few more months or another year of distance between her and that piece of writing, and she will not feel proud of the work. She will be utterly embarrassed by it.

At that point the opinions of her audience, beta readers, and friends won’t matter to her. Though some of them may be able to perceive the differences age and experience have brought to the writer in question, they will still be proud of her for accomplishing so much.

But the author will not see it that way; where everyone else will see a rough cut diamond, she will see a glass imitation of the gem. While others enjoy her older works she will wince while rereading a weak article, a sloppy little story from her early writings, or her debut novel. The readers, even those who are most critical, are viewing the piece from the outside. Remembering her previous status of growth, the writer will look back at her writings and think, “I was young then. I didn’t know nearly enough at the time. And I still don’t.”

Benefits to the soul aside, this is precisely the reason why authors need to reread their old works. Doing this allows the author to spot weaknesses in her technique that she may still need to address in her current stories. If she finds herself repeating the same errors now that she did then, she can renew her effort to avoid them in the present. This is true whether the writer in question focuses on fact articles and books or writes fiction for a living. Even if she does both, her pattern of writing “behavior” will be evident no matter which type of piece the author chooses to reread.

Another reason to go back through one’s previous writings is to learn what works and what does not. If a particular blog post or short story received a large number of views and/or a high volume of feedback, then it is worth the author’s critical study. It is not always possible for writers to directly ask readers what they appreciated most in a piece, which is why they should take the time to look over a work that was a hit. There might be something they did/said there which could be reused later on in a different setting.

Rereading a piece which did not “go viral” is helpful, too, but when a writer does this it is important that she not consider such action to be a search “for what she did wrong.” Often enough, nothing is the matter with a story or post that received little to no feedback. Most writers’ early works – and about eighty percent of the material they make after they “break out” – are ignored by the general population. There is nothing “wrong” with these pieces; for various reasons, they simply don’t catch the interest of general audiences. So while one can reread a prior piece to see if there are any major flaws in it, this should not be the reason to reread an older work.

The third basis for an author to return to his/her older writings is to see if there is anything that can be reused or built upon in future projects. If a writer has to cut out several paragraphs or an additional idea from a story or an article, rereading the original version may allow him to build a new fictional or factual piece based off of those “discarded” items. Dave Filoni, creator of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, once said that George Lucas taught him the benefits of “never throwing anything away.” I have found in my own writing that an idea which could not be made to fit in one story perfectly fills in the gap of another. The same can easily be done with an article one wishes to write about the latest medical discovery or a piece about musical trivia.

But perhaps the most important reason to look back on your older works is to see how far you have come. Rereading my own finished stories, I find that I am continually surprised by how happy my own tales make me. It often feels like this author is reading something written by a different person. Although she knows it was her own effort that made the tale to appear on paper, remembers that it was her idea (at least in part) to write it down, even though she recalls every single twist and turn of the story, she finds it as much fun as pieces written by authors she admires.

While that might seem hubristic at first blush, it is the truth. There is something confidence building, something enjoyable, that authors feel after rereading one of their own works. It is almost as if a small voice says to us on these occasions: Look at this. You wrote that! Isn’t it good? Doesn’t it make you happy?

Yes, we answer back. Yes, it does.

Well, that little voice says, if you enjoy it so much as a writer and a reader, someone else will, too. It may take a while, but they will. You’re on the right track. You’re doing all right. This is what you were searching for in fiction, and that means others are looking for it as well. Since you’ve found it, they will find it at some point themselves. But for now, go and enjoy it.

This is an important realization for authors to have, future writers. It does not take away from the struggles we all face while doing our best to “break in” to this business, of course. But if we have found what we were looking for when we began this journey, then we have indeed made progress. If we have made something that can erase the impatience or worry we feel, if only for a little while, then we have written something valuable. And that, to borrow from Mr. Tolkien, “is an encouraging thought.”

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