Friday, April 22, 2016

Tips on How to Read Your Own Work Objectively

Mary Beth is working on a memoir and has taken my online classes and my week-long writing retreat in Tucson.  She's got a solid draft of her manuscript and is now going through the chapters, revising and tightening the focus.  She emailed me recently with a great question--something we all run into.

"How can a writer learn to read her own writing from a reader's eyes/brain/comprehension?" she asked.  "When I reread my work--it's me --how I write.  I'd like to be able to reread it and go 'You're doing the same thing.  Change this or that.'  Maybe I'm looking for a magical way to reread my work."


She wondered if there are any tips to learn to see your own writing as a reader might--that wonderful objective viewpoint that we all need before we finish our books.

Techniques to Get Distance
Mostly, it's about getting distance.  You know your own story--much too well. 
You need to somehow move into the viewpoint of a person who doesn't know it at all. 

Why?  Because this "knowing" will prejudice you.  You may think the writing is amazing or terrible, you may worry over stuff that's already working well, you may miss the overwriting (where you tell and show the same thing) or repetitions.  And if the inner critic gets involved, that protective part of the ego, you may even abandon the manuscript you've worked so hard to create.

Published writers are subject to the same tendencies as newbies, but they know certain methods to get objective.  Here are my favorites.

1.  Read aloud.  You've heard this, right?  Pro writers always read their work aloud.  Hearing your writing allows you to catch repetitions and pacing errors pretty fast.  It can be just you and the page in a quiet room, or you can read to a nonjudgmental friend or writers group.  If there's one tip you take home from this article, this would be the most important.

2.  Print it out and spread it out.  I learned this tip from novelist Alex Chee, but many writers do it.  Print a chapter at a time and spread out the pages on the floor or a table.  Squint.  Look for the balance of white space to dense text.  White space is all about faster pace.  Look for too-uniform paragraph lengths.  Break these up. 

3.  Work from the end.  When I am too close to a chapter (or a whole book), I'll read it backwards.  I start with the last page, then read the page before that, etc.  It sounds weird, but it works.  It kicks me out of "writer's brain" into "reader's brain."  I catch a LOT of mistakes and clunky stuff this way.

4.  Use text-to-speech software.  There are some cool ways to get your work read to you.  Programs like Natural Reader take your written pages and make them into a recording.  Listening to your own work is a fantastic way to catch stuff. 

5.  Let the writing rest.  It's often hard to see writing flaws and strengths when it's fresh.  Sometimes I can, but often I need to let a chapter rest.  It's important not to let it rest too long, though.

6.  Revise in batches.  Working on a book means lots of pages to revise when it's time.  I section my manuscript into three acts, then each act into thirds.  I work with the small group of chapters (say, 3-5) within a section.  More bite size, less to manage at once.