Why You Should Purge Your Dead Drafts

Your love affair with past efforts is killing your creativity.

Shane Paul Neil
4 min readJun 3, 2023
Photo by Shane Paul Neil

This story was originally published on the Write I Must page.

I had someone reach out to me recently asking me to consult on creating a new content strategy for themselves. Beforehand they sent me a YouTube channel with a couple hundred videos. The videos were interviews with different A-list actors from various press junkets. The videos were run and gun quality at best. Some of it shot with cellphones. The client was trying to figure out how to repurpose all of this content into something engaging.

I looked at those videos for a couple of days. I tried to figure out a way for my client to create new value from a trove of so-so content. Ultimately I realized I had to do the hard thing. I had to tell the client to dump all that material and start fresh.

Sometimes we have to bury our darlings and move on.

My wife is a tough editor. Almost by default, she slashes first paragraphs. She’ll point to second and third paragraphs and tell you, “Your story doesn’t start until here.” She shortens sentences from flowery eloquence to concise punchiness. “Keep the reader in the room. That’s your only job.”

The same applies to your drafts. If they aren’t capable of keeping the reader in the room, what good are they really? Hell, they don’t even hold your attention long enough to finish them.

Embrace the delete key.

I was notorious for sitting at my computer and looking at years-old drafts of essays and stories. I’d grapple with them for hours, adding and subtracting words only to finish where I started.

Eventually, I decided it all had to go.

In a perfect world, I could have pulled a Lil’ Wayne. In 2003 he released the mixtape 10,000 Bars. In it, he raps every single unrecorded verse he had in his collection of notebooks. At points, you can hear him tear pages out of his notebook as he goes. It was a purge that allowed him the freedom to write new material. It allowed him to move forward.

In a perfect world, I could have taken every draft and pieced them together into some magnum opus. Unlike Wayne, all I could do was hit delete.

The first time I deleted my drafts, it felt like a gut punch. I loved those drafts. I loved the words within those drafts. They were lyrical. They touched my soul. They were my darlings. But, in writing, your darlings are really just dead weight. We drag them from project to project. We sift through them as a means of self-congratulation and self-flagellation. “I love what I wrote” collides with “I hate that I didn’t write anything.”

My client was in that same predicament. Their catalog of videos had become a matter of sunk cost. To invest years into accumulating this content meant that they had to find some ultimate purpose for it all.

I wasn’t sure how they would respond to my scorched earth idea. But as I broke down my reasoning, I could see the relief in their eyes.

I explained that the accumulation of those videos was a long process of building and honing their craft. They spent years learning about the entertainment industry. They spent years learning how to give a compelling interview. The value of those videos wasn’t in the videos themselves. It was in the experience and expertise gained in the process.

Your drafts aren’t the product. Your completed stories aren’t the product. You are the product. What you have created is simply a delivery method for your audience to consume you.

Purging my drafts forced me to look forward. It forced me to create new ideas and, in some cases, allowed me to repurpose past ideas in new ways. My drafts were a box that I trapped my creative self in for the sake of sunk costs.

Once my client let go of those videos, new ideas came almost immediately. An entire content strategy based on their expertise and their personality began to take shape. “I can do this on YouTube, which will allow me to make this podcast which converts to writing this blog.”

At some point, we all have to accept that much of our work will never see the light of day. Much of it was never meant to. Our reluctance to face these facts results in creative constipation. The fresh shit is stuck behind the old shit.

Sorry, that was gross. It’s also totally accurate.

Happy purging.

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Shane Paul Neil

Writer (duh) and photographer. Bylines @levelmag @complex @ebony @huffpo shanepaulneil.com