It happens to every author. You write something wonderful, and then you lose it. It’s an extremely frustrating experience, but one that almost every writer goes through.
This article discusses two things – why it’s so devastating to lose something, and strategies for finding writing that was lost.
Why it’s so devastating to lose a piece of writing
When you lose something, you feel like the original was the most perfect treatment that passage or scene will ever have, and the replacement could never be more than a shadow of the original.
This attitude is sort of strange. In the normal course of writing, the first draft is usually sort of stilted. It’s a place to kick around ideas, not all of which are good. Only the best ideas survive into the second draft. Those that do tend to be supported by a greater level of detail. The third draft is more sophisticated than the second, with the addition of foreshadowing and symbolism, and the prose is likely to be of higher quality.
If I find a copy of a first draft after I’ve finished a piece, I usually cringe in embarrassment and then destroy it. But if I lose a first draft before I’ve had a chance to write a second draft from it, I feel like I’ve lost some great treasure that can never be replaced. Like I said earlier, this attitude is sort of insane. For one thing, when you sit down to re-write a piece (which takes less time than searching for it, in my experience) it’s often word-for-word identical to the original. And writing it the second time goes much faster than the first.
Why would you think the lost version is the best? It’s an example of confirmation bias. The first example of something you see of anything is the one you like best, believe the most, or think most highly of.
How writing gets lost
- You saved it in a different folder than intended
- You forgot what application you were using (MS Word vs. Scrivener)
- You forgot what computer you were on
- You forgot what media you were working in. (It wasn’t saved to a hard drive, it was written in longhand. I’ve done this more than once.)
I’ve never, ever completely lost something I wrote, although on a few occasions, the piece took months to turn up.
Searching for lost writing
I’ve spent hours searching for something I wrote and then lost. Not fun. Here are some strategies that may help.
Look in Recent Documents Open the application you use to write and look at what was opened most recently. This isn’t foolproof, because you might have renamed it, moved it to another file, or opened a number of other documents since you looked at that one last, such that it’s fallen off the queue.
Search the Hard Drive Identify a distinct phrase that occurs in the document and search for it. In Windows, you can search a folder, a folder and its subfolders, or the whole hard drive. Include external storage, like thumb and book drives. (Caution – external storage may not be indexed automatically. In a pinch, I copy the folders I want to search to the C drive.)
This method isn’t foolproof either, because you might remember the phrase wrong, and hard drive searches aren’t as flexible as Google. A word unique to the piece, if there is one, works better.
Look in the Recycle bin You might not find the most recent version of the lost document, but there might be an old copy or something in another format. (I often post a .pdf for writing group, even though I compose in Word. I can almost always dig an old .pdf out of the trash.)
I’m happy to report a success story. There’s a description of the first sight of land that I lost mid-summer. I searched every hard drive of every machine and storage device I owned, and turned up nothing. I came to believe that, possibly, I’d overwritten it, possible by restoring something from Recycle on top of it. But it turned up when I was cleaning the house for the Christmas party, written in longhand on a tablet buried beneath the children’s schoolwork. So I’m happy to say that, as of yesterday, everything piece of writing I ever lost has turned up.