Revising in Spirit

Have you ever stumbled upon a forgotten drawer while cleaning and found it filled with old letters, photos, or even mix tapes from the ’90s? That’s sort of how it feels whenever I dig through what I call my “Death Pile,” a digital treasure trove containing many previously discarded works. It’s much like a graveyard of ideas where forgotten words whisper tales of what could have been. Amidst these half-baked articles and never-published posts, though, I will regularly stumble upon something that deserves revisiting. 

Like a gardener tending to overgrown vines, I continue to prune this secret digital garden of content. It’s a personal archaeology project, sifting through the digital strata of my life’s work, unearthing the fossils of my creative evolution. Sure, plenty of these false starts and discarded drafts are cringe-worthy. But, since I know there are gems to be found buried in my archives, I needed to enact a strategy to be more objective about sifting through these forsaken words.

In my decade-plus of creating content for the internet, I’ve often found myself revising the same few dozen pieces every year or so to make it more in line with my current expectations of my writing output. But, like an old house, you can’t just slap a fresh coat of paint on it and call it new! Yet, that’s what I was doing with my writing archives for the past several years. 

Naturally, more posts became harder to reconcile with my current style and writing goals. By 2024, I ended up with nearly one thousand documents not being put to use anywhere. Many of those are old essays that were a rambling mess. But, had a few intriguing concepts I wanted to revisit later. Each click through my digital archives might unearth a relic worth reviving. The trouble was that I became overwhelmed with the sheer mass of words I had to sort through.

Realizing I needed a way to recapture some of the buried magic bottled up in my document scrapyard, I one day came up with the idea of “revising in spirit.” Rather than the fatigue-inducing, edit-as-I-go approach I took for so many years, I needed a different way to reuse past ideas in a fresh, original way. After all, what good are all these dated or even aborted works but raw material to be mined, recycled, and repurposed?

Words are like building materials. Sometimes, it’s necessary to tear the existing structure down to the foundations. Then, you can use the reclaimed materials — the existing ideas and concepts — to build something even better. So, what does it take to breathe new life into old words?

What follows is a tale of resurrection and reinvention, a testament to the enduring power of ideas. I’ll walk you through the nitty-gritty of what I mean when I say “revising in spirit.”I’ll go over the merits of past works and why you shouldn’t simply discard them out of hand. But, I’ll also expand on why it’s also necessary to practice the art of letting go — what Stephen King would refer to as “killing your darlings.”

So, step into my world of constant revision, where every sentence holds the promise of a new beginning. Let’s dive into exploring the ins and outs of revising in spirit together. It may even be more fun that finding and playing those old mix tapes. Perhaps it’s not quite as nostalgic, but your past self will thank you for these renewal efforts!

What Actually is “Revising in Spirit?”

“Revising in spirit” is less of a traditional editing strategy, and more of a creative rebirthing process. Instead of minor tweaks and structural edits, you’re seeking a holistic transformation. It’s much like rebooting a beloved series with a fresh perspective. This method channels the original enthusiasm while integrating today’s insights, keeping the essence alive.

We must not view past writings as wasted efforts, but as stepping stones towards future creations. Revising in spirit is a chance to learn from our personal literary history. Rather than impose all the new skills and insights we’ve picked up along the way, we’re writing the piece anew as if you started it right now today. Even with the core ideas intact, the spirit of the piece kept in mind, the goal is to end up with something quite fresh and original. 

The process starts with the original inspiration—revisiting the passion that fueled the work. We must understand what sparked the source material’s creation and use it as a foundation for a revitalized piece. You’re honoring your past self by fulfilling the mission you began, aiming for a more gratifying outcome.

Instead of facing a blank page, begin with the substance and sentiment already in place. Free yourself from previous drafts and let the ideas you unearthed become your clay. Then sculpt that clay to create a piece more in line with your current self. It’s likely that the passion or reason for which you originally wrote the piece has since faded to a dim memory. But, it’s also likely that what you originally intended to write will come through in the new work.

Many of my own “death pile” works were birthed from a burst of passion for a subject at the time. I often wrote essays meant to shake up the status quo with what I figured were potentially revolutionary thoughts. Whatever the reason these pieces of writing came into being, however, they often meandered, becoming tangential shadows of what they could’ve become.

Ultimately, revising in spirit means bridging the gap between then and now. We’re not simply rehashing the past. Rather, we’re taking the core of past beliefs and expanding them with present skills and insights. This approach yields authentic writing that reflects personal growth and shares that evolution with readers.

Judging the Merits of Past Efforts

No writing is ever wasted. Even that melodramatic love poem from high school or the rambling blog post about your first job were building blocks to where you are as a writer now. Sure, we might not want to revisit every awkward verse or paragraph you penned in blissful ignorance of form and function. But, each of those cringe-worthy efforts still got us a little closer to more solid ground.

Still, it’s often much too easy to fall in love again with our long-forgotten words. We must be brutally discerning when revisiting old texts. Retain only the strongest elements, stripping away the rest. It’s especially uncomfortable for those of us attached to their prose — myself included — but it’s a necessary step to keep growing as a writer.

When judging the merits of your past writing efforts, imagine panning for gold in a river that runs through our own backyard. Most of what we sift through will be plain old sand and rocks. But, every now and then, you’ll find a few small chunks of pure gold. These are the ideas worth revisiting. Still, this process of panning through your old works requires great patience, something many of us creatives lack. So, how do we recognize real gold when we see it?

It’s useful to think about your past works with the mindset that you were doing your best with the tools you had at the time. But now, our toolboxes are much better stocked with a more refined knowledge base and skillset able to do much more with those foundational ideas. Also, going through our old writings can be a real eye-opener. We’ll start to see patterns of thoughts we didn’t recognize in our past works before. 

Past works also can reveal the genesis of many of our writing quirks and habits. For example, each of us have our penchants for specific things, like over-the-top dramatic conclusions. We each have our strengths, like an ability to write strong, witty characters. Of course, we also have weaknesses, like how my own novel plots tend to meander and go nowhere. 

Recognizing these tendencies is interesting, but it’s also crucial. We must know where our natural strengths lie and which areas might still need some polish. So, don’t think of revisiting your past writings as a chore. You’re mining your own personal history for gems of insight and bursts of inspiration. However, whatever you do, however, don’t force your old work fit into your present;

Rather than tie ourselves to bringing the older work up to our current standards, it’s much better to use it as a sort of reference. Instead, learn from it, grow beyond it, and allow it to inspire something that evolves your portfolio. However, it took me a long time to learn this lesson and actually apply it to my writing work. 

The Art of Letting Go

It took me well into my mid-thirties to finally learn the Art of Letting Go when it came to my death pile works. It becomes critical to be decisive with what we choose to do with these shelved pieces. Keeping some in our archive as references to past interests that we may one day revisit, we must have a clear goal for each document we hold onto. 

It’s crucial for a productive writer to recognize when a piece is no longer serving its purpose or aligning with our current creative goals. This decision is far easier spoken of than done, however. After all, we must consciously choose to let go of the time and effort invested in such old pieces we’re about to discard. 

I’ve had to delete many dozens of old essays and articles just recently, because they simply had nothing worth saving. What brought me to this conclusion? When I first started writing online, I used my blogs as sort of quick reactions to current events. Many of these have been lost to time already, but of those I still had, I retained only a small percentage. 

Others were written mostly to convey knowledge in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), digital marketing, and other fields in which I was trying to seek employment. Since I’m now entirely out of the freelance marketing field, and no longer have any need to seek a job, I had to move on from them. There wasn’t anything all that profound to save for later mention or reference. They were simply reminding me of past failures, ones that I’ve already learned from quite painfully. Still, they were hard to let go. 

The vast majority of works I’ve deleted over the past couple of years involved emotional outbursts that simply serve no concrete purpose in the here and now. They were necessary outlets at the time, but it makes no sense to retain them, as my emotional intelligence has developed by leaps in bounds in the past couple decades. If there is a core idea or theme that I can revisit, I make sure to note it in my journal, and let it go. 

But, it’s especially act an of tough love knowing when to let go pieces that involved plenty of energy and time spent on research. I’ve had to ditch many articles I wrote about Magic the Gathering and Pokemon, not because they were bad, but because they were so grounded in the time they were written. Many of these articles would require massive rewrites to even be up to date with the current state of those games. 

I wasted countless hours over the past half-decade trying to revive them, only for them to sit entirely ignored in the recesses of my websites. Rather than give into the sunk cost fallacy of trying to save every single one of these massive articles, I chopped out what was evergreen, then discarded the rest. Like my old Q&A pieces about search engines and whatnot, some was still useful to keep for historical purposes. Otherwise, keeping the rest around was simply tempting me to work on them, taking me away from more current, much more important projects.

I can’t tell you just how hard it is to let go of a piece that you’ve invested so much into. I’ve spent at least a few sleepless nights and a whole lot of coffee bringing those words to life. But, much of what I wrote even five years ago doesn’t align with who I am now or where I’m heading. Still, parting ways shouldn’t be regarded as failure. Instead, we must see it as making room for our current selves to move past these clunkers.

Does It Stay Or Does It Go?

So, how do you decide what stays and what goes? Ask yourself a few key questions. Does this piece excite me? Can I see a clear way to elevate it with my current skills? Am I just holding on to this because I’m attached to the past effort I put into it?

Let’s tackle these questions one at a time. Does this piece excite me? Most of the time, the answer to that first question is: not really. It’s quite interesting how human beings can be so entirely engrossed in a singular topic or subject one moment, then just a couple years later, we wonder why we rambled on about that for so long. So, a lot of pieces won’t pass this first test. But, I rarely discard a piece out of hand just for being meh about a given work.

Unfortunately, I often get caught up in the second question: Can I see a clear way to elevate it with my current skills?  Yes, I absolutely could elevate it with what I’ve learned since then. But, then I have to consider the sunk cost already invested. Simply investing more time into a piece that requires an entire overhaul isn’t going to be worth your time in almost all cases. 

The third question usually becomes a much easier one to answer. Am I just holding on to it because I’m attached to the past effort I put into it? The answer in most cases will be yes. 

You’re better off starting fresh with the same premise. But, revising in spirit means being honest with your goals for the piece. 

As I’m focusing on much more universal themes and subjects these days, I’m only pulling myself away from projects that are much more in line with my ever-evolving self. That’s not to say it’s not worth writing Magic the Gathering card reviews or competitive analysis of underrated Pokemon. It’s just not where my energy needs to be focused.

Freeing yourself from your previous words can be liberating. It opens up mental space and creative energy for new projects that better reflect your current artistic vision and capabilities. After all, ”revising in spirit” is a process that only rewards salvaging the best our archives have to offer. We must be sure to carry forward only those ideas that still have a pulse. Letting go of the rest isn’t losing part of our selves. It’s a strategic decluttering of our creative portfolios, making room for more potent and profound works. 

So, let’s take a deep breath, and let go of the old drafts that no longer serve us. Not every piece you’ve ever written is destined for a rewrite. Sometimes, they’ve already served their purpose as practice, a necessary evil for any artist. Like any fleeting relationship, it’s okay to say goodbye. Much of what we write will end up as ephemeral flings — fun while they lasted, but not meant to be enjoyed forever.

How to Implement ‘Revising in Spirit’

Taking “revising in spirit” from concept to practice demands a critical reevaluation of our past work to discover missed opportunities. After all, good ideas deserve great execution to leap from the our dusty digital drawers into the bright lights of publication. Here are some practical steps we should consider to facilitate this process of ideation to iteration.

Critique with Care: Critically read your old drafts, not to judge, but to uncover hidden brilliance. Question the purpose and significance of each piece, retaining only what still excites you today.

Literary Archaeology: Extract words that still echo with relevance into a new document. These bullet points, though perhaps disjointed, can form the basis for brand new narratives.

Creative Reimagining: Repurpose these fragments as catalysts for fresh ideas. An outdated tech post might inspire a sci-fi story, while musings on family could become the seeds that might grow into a podcast series.

Shifting Mediums: Stale ideas can be revitalized by changing mediums, perspectives, or genres. The key is to preserve the idea’s essence, allowing it to take on a new form.

Revision Diary: Maintain a diary to track what works and what doesn’t in our “revision in spirit” process. This way, we can capture fleeting insights that could spark future breakthroughs in both our revision and writing processes.

Strategic Distance: Once extracted for further embellishment, step back to let ideas mature. Distance often brings clarity, revealing what’s needed to polish a piece into a new, shiny object.

Community Feedback: Share your revised work with peers, friends, and family for fresh insights. After all, writing best evolves through interaction and feedback.

Creative Revival: Don’t merely refurbish old work. Harness its core to fuel your creative passion, allowing every idea to grow with you. Reclaim these ideas with fervor and conviction — after all, no one else will do it for you.

What Works Will You Revise Today?

“Revising in spirit” has worked wonders for me, offering a sense of continuity and evolution in my body of written work. Learning to let go of the bulk of past works while keeping only the best ideas has since led me to create far superior, more effective pieces. Still, I’ve found myself paying homage to ideas that come from as far back as my childhood. This journey of revisiting has been a revelation, a way to honor my past self and its untapped potential.

Think of this strategy as a form of creative recycling. Why start from scratch when you have a treasure trove of ideas waiting to rise from the ashes and burn bright with a newfound flame? It’s eco-friendly for your brain, saving you the mental energy of mining for new ideas. Why dig a deeper well only to hit bedrock when you have aquifers that are still half-full but may be a bit too sulfurous? They make water filtration systems for a reason, you know.

Revising in spirit doesn’t just mean being a more diligent editor. You’re recognizing that wisdom can be gained from the most unexpected places. That old poem you wrote may be the catalyst for an entire novel. Those lyrics that never quite rhymed or made any sense give you interesting phrases to turn over in your mind. Giving your old works a second chance means you must challenge them to be more. Mix up the old with a dash of the new, and see what amazing concoctions you can create. 

Now that we’ve unraveled the secrets of revising in spirit together, I want to hear from you! Have you ever taken an old piece as inspiration for a brand new work? What was the experience like? Did you find it liberating, challenging, or maybe a bit of both? Feel free to share your stories of content revival, so we can celebrate the art of reinvention together.

Let’s give the best of our past writings a new lease on life, even if their original form fades to a dim memory. So, dive back into those old files, and let’s see what incredible new pieces we can create!  In the words of T.S. Eliot, from his poem ‘Little Gidding’: 

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

What treasures lie within your forgotten files, waiting for their moment to shine?

~ Amelia Desertsong

First published on Medium, April 25, 2024

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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