Losing your words
I’ve been working on a longer form piece of writing for about one month now, and two days ago, the unthinkable happened: I lost about a week-and-a-half’s work of progress on it. All in, this netted out to be about 3,000–4,000 words and a week’s worth of minor edits on some of the earlier sections I had completed.
I had a minor meltdown over it.
Now, I don’t want to talk about how this happened. (Trust me, I’ve been around and around the tech recovery rabbit-hole many times by now.) But I do want to comment on the feeling of making and losing progress and how this sometimes be a blessing in disguise.
When it happens, losing your work can feel like the most heartbreaking experience in the world. I almost forgot what it was like: Having something that took hours to complete and then suddenly having nothing at all. The shock and disbelief of it all caught me by surprise. The last time this happened was likely in college. (Which was oddly appropriate, as I was on my college campus when it happened.) It hit me so hard that I was in a haze about it for about 12 hours after it happened and could think of nothing else.
Deep down, I know that things can be better the second time around. That harboring a memory of an excellent piece of work can be just as good as having the original text. And in fact, a rewrite is an opportunity in disguise to do it better the second time. But wow is all of that hard to remember at the time when it happens.
Once you lose all of your work, you have an important decision to make about what comes next. Do you forfeit all progress? Do you give up on the project overall? Do you start again where you left off? Or do you start fresh? It’s tricky to work through. But I’ve found that even the act of considering these alternatives can be a healthy way to enhance creativity in your approach.
An exercise you can do when writing is the blank slate assignment: Scrap it all, start fresh, and then compare both drafts. That process can bring about new and fresh ideas. You may think up a new approach or storytelling strategy through the process of inventing an entirely different structure. Often this is how my best pieces come together: From lots and lots of false starts and stops.
In this sense, one of the best things you might hope for as a writer is a forced edit — a moment when you put yourself back into the inventive and fresh creator seat and abandon the pre-existing structure. While it will be painful me for to recreate my work from the past 10 days, I know it is an opportunity to improve it. And I know it will be better than it was before.
In my actual job, I don’t have a hard reset forced on me this same way. My job at USV is far less linear. My work one day is less dependent on direct progress from the day before. It would be hard for anything i work on today to simply “disappear overnight.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s all worth keeping. Chances are, there are programs we have been running the same way for 3 years now that could be much better than they are today. There are probably entire areas of our network strategy that are less leveraged than others and could be cut out entirely. And I absolutely believe there’s more we could be doing that we aren’t even considering today.
At the very least, this loss was a helpful reminder for me to consider alternative options not just in my writing, but in all areas of my work. If you feel like you could benefit from a perspective reset too, try imagining a world without a core aspect of your job or team existing at all. Maybe it will help you invent a new structure that’s even better the second time around.