Friday, March 26, 2021

Finding the Shape of the Forest-- Learning How to Read Your Own Work

I'll never forget the writer who approached me many years ago, asking me to read her work. "I can't read it myself," she said. "It makes me too upset."

I asked her, out of curiosity, how she went about reading it.

"On the computer, of course," she told me. "I edit every sentence as I go." She shook her head. "I haven't made it past chapter seven."

Over the years since, I've spoken to other writers who literally hate to read their work. They want someone else to do the deed and tell them what to fix. Totally understandable. A client emailed me this week about how she "can't see anything anymore; it all looks like mush." We do get blind to our book's strengths and weaknesses. We've been studying the leaves so long we forget how the forest should look.

But learning how to read your own writing is a skill like any other. There are good practices and not-so-good. The goal of reading one's work is to shift to the reader's view, the person who is able to notice the shape of the forest and the pathway through it.

And I have to say, the microscopic way my student went about it--the one who couldn't get past chapter seven--is a sure path to failure.

Here are some tools and tips I've learned over the years about how to read my own writing and keep that forest view in mind. They may seem obvious, but perhaps you're stuck because you haven't given them a try. They are tried and true, having gotten me through many manuscripts.

  • I try to wait on reading my work until I have a complete first draft. A bad one, but a complete one as best I know. If I try to get chapter one perfect, working it again and again, I usually wind up like my student who was stuck at chapter seven. I have learned that the first chapters are usually the hardest and I don't know enough about the book until I've drafted the rest. Especially the ending, since the beginning and ending of a book loop together (something a storyboard can show you).
  • I let the manuscript rest before I do my first reading. Two weeks is good, three is better. Sounds like heresy but it's necessary to gain distance. Otherwise, the leaves are all you see.
  • I've learned the writer will absorb the story differently with her eyes than her ears. Your notice different things visually compared to aurally. When I read my work, I read it out loud. I have a door to close, but my family is used to me muttering over a manuscript or my ipad. I make sure I hear my voice, even a low voice. If I lose the aural connection, I lose the forest view.
  • I don't stop and correct as I read. I try to keep reading like any reader would--preferably finishing my reading in two or three sittings, spaced close together. That way, I don't lose the forest or the story threads.
  • I have a notepad or Notes up on my ipad to mark corrections as I go. A quick page reference, a question, then back to the reading.
  • I try not to have opinions about how great or terrible the writing is. This is hard, a learned skill I've had to practice for years. Truthfully, it's impossible to judge it yet. If I let that inner critic have a voice at this stage, I'm lost.
  • When I've finished, I'll expect mixed emotions. Some of the writing will be better than I remember, some much worse. I'll come away with a sense of the shape of the forest, as well as how many dead or fallen trees need to be cleaned up, to push the metaphor a bit more. If you expect this, it's easier on the ego and the creative spirit.
  • Take time before you go in and begin correcting, but not too much time. I try for a few days. I make a list of revisions from my Notes and organize them according to big and time-consuming and difficult down to tiny fixes I can take care of in fifteen minutes. Robert Boswell, author and teacher, has a great technique for organizing the tasks in a way that prevents overwhelm, which I talked about in my February 12 blog post. An article by him on this is here. Worth a look.

Of all these steps, if I were to choose just one that has benefitted me the most, it's reading aloud.

I have caught so many of my own mistakes via aurally reading than I can say. It translates the story in the brain from the visual mode you've used so far to an aural mode. Hearing words is very different than seeing them. Listening to your own voice read aloud lets you feel the pacing, something that's nearly impossible to tell visually, as I said above.

The road to writing a book demands the same kind of--or more--belief in yourself and your purpose than a triathlete training for a race or an entrepreneur starting a business. Learning how to read your work for the best benefit is a goal along the way.

Books aren't easy to write, revise, and publish. They'll take everything you've got. But they give back in many ways--the joy of achieving a dream, the light in a reader's face as she tells you how she stayed up all night, reading your story.

No comments:

Post a Comment