• Can We Learn Anything By Rereading Our Published or Abandoned Writing?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 8 comments

    TL;DR version: Why is rereading our own work so difficult? Or are you one of those lucky few who enjoy it? Can we learn about ourselves as writers by rereading our old writing? Try this exercise: reread something of yours you haven’t even thought of in years. Record your feelings as you read it. Then print out a new copy and attack it with a red pen. Explore your edits. Do they tell you anything about how you’ve changed as a writer? Report your experiences to us in the comments below!


    I have this teeny-tiny problem when it comes to rereading my old writing: I absolutely hate doing it. It hurts my brain and makes my stomach sour.

    Earlier this week I wrote the following in an email to a WriteByNighter: “Part of why I have trouble rereading anything after I publish it [is that] I always want to go back and rewrite certain passages, and I can’t do that anymore because it’s too late. It’s difficult for a writer not to want to tinker and tinker and tinker some more.”

    It’s as if I’m never satisfied with the final product. In fact, it’s as if I never even have a final product, but rather a product as it looks like when my deadline arrives.

    Weeks or months later, when I get my copy, I open to the page I’m on, take a moment to bask in the coolness of seeing my byline… and then stash that emmer-effer in a drawer before I have time to give in to the impulse to start reading.

    Because I know that if I do, the coolness of the byline will quickly and forever be overshadowed by irritation at this line or that idea, this word choice or that syntax, this horrifyingly unfunny pun or that horrifyingly funny attempt at gravitas.

    Probably not all writers are like this. Maybe some of you can read your own work after publication, or your old, abandoned fiction or what have you, and be satisfied, even proud. Maybe your jokes make you giggle and your ideas make you feel sharp and your expression of them makes you feel articulate.


    Your turn: What is your experience when rereading your old writing? Or do you not do that? Let us know in the comments below.


    Questions I Have

    Where am I going with this? As usual, I don’t really know. I think what I’m curious about is, does this experience when rereading my work when it’s too late to edit it tell me anything about my writing, and/or my views of myself as a writer?

    And is there even any purpose to rereading our published work — can we learn anything from doing so — or is it best to just drop it and flush it away?

    Your turn: Well, what are your thoughts on these questions?


    Try This Exercise, if You Dare

    Dust off (or e-dust off) something you wrote so long ago that you barely remember it, and also get a pen and paper. Push away any distractions.

    Sit down and reread that writing.

    Jot down any feelings that come up as you read: pride, shame, anger, embarrassment, constipation, glee, libidinousness.

    Now print out this same document, or make a copy if it’s already printed, and go through it with a red pen.

    Your turn: What feelings came up as you did this? What does your document look like now? Do these edits tell you anything about how you’ve changed as a writer? Let us know in the comments below.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and writes about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Barbara Mealer

    I haven’t been writing so long that I don’t remember what I have written, but what I do is to work on other projects then go back to the one with new eyes so I see it as a reader, not a writer. My first book out, I want to go back and change portions of it but know it’s too late to revise. What I do know is that my next book will be so much better for what I learned from the first one. I can see where I have grown as a writer. In looking at my… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Yeah, it’s like even the finished work is still work in progress, right? Not that you can change it anymore… but there’s always more tweaking that could be done. Is anything ever finished? I guess so long as it’s finished to our satisfaction. I feel like most of us are going to say that we don’t like reading our old work. To me, that’s so weird. Is it like that for all creative people? Painters. Do they hate to look at their paintings years later? Does a musician’s music hurt his/her ears after it’s recorded and out the door? But… Read more »


    I don’t have to do this exercise to tell you what I think about my old writing. I wince at the errors. I grimace at the naivete. I smile because I see that I tried to write and I managed to get my nutty thoughts on paper. I laugh because I can see how much I have grown as a writer. Do not make me turn this car around, David. Sometimes I think the best gift we can give ourselves is to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. I think it would be more startling and sad to read… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Hey E! If you already know all of these things, then great. But I think for some of us, this could serve as a reminder that we’re always growing as writers, which is something we need to remember now and then. It’s not about not giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. You’re not supposed to punish yourself for your old work. (Even if you may want to.) You know you’ve improved, which is great. But at the very least, maybe through this exercise you can learn something about *how* you’ve improved, and how you might still improve. Then again,… Read more »


    I tried this exercise by reading through a draft which I intend to finish but have not worked on for awhile. In some places, an easy fix for improving the story jumped out at me. But for the most part, I was aware of how I need to maintain focus on the original concept of the story. If I can’t figure out a deft way to handle the backstory, then it needs to be removed or relocated to a spot where it won’t break the tension of what my characters are doing now. I see that an allusion to the… Read more »

    Eleanor Gamarsh

    First of all, I haven’t published a book of anything, yet. That’s still on my horizon. For the second subject to discuss, rereading/editing any old writing…I have no problem. I know I have learned a great deal since starting to take writing seriously in 2010. I had a collection already which I’d worked diligently on when I was a member of a writing group in 1993 until 2000. While reading any of that collection I am reconnected to some pleasant and disturbing events that caused me to write those stories.and poems. Often I have to quell my emotional response to… Read more »

    David Duhr

    The awareness that you’ve improved as a writer and continue to learn and grow is so helpful, but it’s something that eludes so many of us. We often find it hard to compliment ourselves. We spend so much time obsessing about our flaws that we don’t have space left to recognize how much we’ve achieved. That’s why I think an exercise like this, done every now and then, can be beneficial. Thanks for reporting back!

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