I heard this a lot in my Creative Writing classes:“Kill your Darlings.”

A bit morbid, though it does illustrate the importance of judicious decision making when revising your work. To paraphrase Saint-Ex, revision is complete not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. It’s all about making cuts, and those cuts are hardest when you write something you love as the writer, but it doesn’t work in the piece.

As with most things in life, it’s the love that creates the drama. It hurts the heart when we must choose whether to keep or sacrifice something we love. Love stirs feelings within, sometimes illogical, and you attach yourself to whatever it is, whether a person, a phrase, or an activity. It’s especially strong when the process of brining it into the world was your sustained effort over time.

So, what do you do when you’ve written something magnificent, but it doesn’t fit the current piece? Enter the “Shit File.”

The Origin of the Shit File

When I was in college, I had a poetry instructor who was one of those bohemian types: glasses, long hair pre-man-bun that he wore in a ponytail with deep streaks of white, and a wispy patchwork of a beard. In his hands, he always carried a day planner, a spiral-bound notebook – the pages catawampus – and a stack of manila folders. On the front of the top folder, he wrote the words “Shit File” in thick, black Sharpie marker. Unlike the neat folders at the base of the stack where he stored poems in various states of revision, the Shit File’s edges were frayed and its corners bent from repetitive opening and closing.

Curious about the contents, I asked, “What exactly do you keep in there?”

“When I’m revising my poems and I have to cut something I don’t want to let go, I write it on a piece of paper and put it in the Shit File. Spontaneously created phrases go in the shit file. Basically, if I like it, it’s beautiful, and I think it’s just not the time, I put it in the shit file.”

I chuckled.

Like most writers, I throw away more words than I keep, and some of what I’ve thrown away were bits I dearly loved. The thing about writing is – for me and I believe most mortals – it’s all about revision. It’s the rare specimen who can write something that’s not complete drivel in the first go.

My first drafts are brutal. And it’s the process of working through subsequent drafts that allows me to continually reshape the work and move toward a vision. It takes time to get it all out and revision to shape it into the final form.

Through this process, there are occasions I fall in love with something I’ve written — a phrase, a few sentences, a whole paragraph — and I don’t want to let it go. But, it’s not contributing to the current story. Out of the story it comes and into the Shit File for later.

My Shit File

I started my Shit File in the analog days. I’ve been alive long enough to have written using actual pen and paper and manual typewriters. Like my poetry instructor, my personal Shit File started as scraps of paper in a similar manila file folder and evolved as technology crept into my creative process.

Today, most of these fragments end up in my journal. If I get an idea, a thought, a beautiful phrase or sentence, I capture i my journal. I mark them, and most importantly, I review them.

You must manage the Shit File, or it will grow unruly, run out of control, and no longer serve its purpose. Periodic review is the opportunity to test the love for the various fragments, and, if it wasn’t meant to be, you can let it go at a later date. But most often, something crawls out of the Shit File and back on to the page.

Like its namesake, just because it goes in one way doesn’t mean its going to take the same form coming out. Often when I pull something from the shit file, it ends up radically different than the original. It requires adjustment to fit the context, and it either fintds its home or moves on. That’s okay. Because with every word I write, with every book I read, my understanding of what works and – just as important – what doesn’t, grows. In time, these snippets will be ready and they will find their place in my work.

So, if you need a spot to stash some of your words you just can’t let go of, consider the Shit File. Of course, the Shit File goes by many different names, but, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”1

  1. The great William Shakespeare of course in Romeo and Juliet↩︎