Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reading from the End--An Effective Way to Troubleshoot Your Writing

A student in my current online class had written a wonderful chapter for her book.  It was working almost perfectly:  the tension was high, the characters were strong, I could see the setting and it enhanced the emotion of the moment very effectively.  But there was something not quite there.

The writing needed some help, and at first I
was at a loss to see what kind.

Then I remembered a technique my painting teacher used to use when a painting wasn't working but it wasn't obvious why.  She'd stand with her back to the painting and look at it in a mirror--reversed.  Often, the elements that were out of balance showed up clearly in this reverse image.  Another time, she turned the painting upside down on the easel, and again, it showed the proportional flaws immediately.

A lightbulb went off.  I had used the "reverse approach" with my own writing, years ago, when I was in final revision for my novel Qualities of Light.  I read each chapter in reverse order, beginning with the final one.  I also read the chapters in reverse order, from the last paragraph to the first.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but it worked.  I could suddenly see the structure and pacing without any distraction from the story itself.

When I tried it with this student's work, the few places that needed fixing were incredibly obvious to me.  Just a few spots where the writer needed to tighten up the prose.  The rest worked wonderfully.

A very simple exercise.  It helps with so many problems.  I think it works because it makes us not read the story.  We don't get engaged.  We're just able to view the writing mechanically, without the romance of the words.

I use it to check transitions between the ending of one chapter and the beginning of another.  Or between paragraphs.  I use it to catch bumps in the pacing.  It shows me where a section isn't really needed or where something is missing.  Try it this week, if you want, to troubleshoot a stuck section in your story.  Let me know how you like it!

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Pick a section of your writing that feels a bit off, not quite as smooth as you'd like it.

2.  Begin with the last paragraph.  Read it.  Then move to the one above it.

3.  Note any spots that need fixing.