When I was fifteen, I wrote a novel. I thought it was pretty good, and daydreamt about literary stardom.
Fast forward ten years. I recently found my old notebooks and read that novel over again. And … let’s just say it wasn’t as good as I remembered, and leave it at that.
It’s amazing what a difference perspective makes.
Usually, you’re not going to be revisiting work from a decade ago. You’re going to be busy trying to get that new website copy done, or that sales page written, or that ebook finished.
Problem is, when you’re writing, you’re working at a zoomed-in level. You’re so deeply into the words that you can’t get a grasp on the whole piece. You’re emotionally attached to your work, and even if it doesn’t seem perfect, you simply can’t see any way to change or improve it.
Here’s how to zoom back out and get the big picture.
1. Let it rest
Ever since I started writing as a teen, I’ve heard this piece of advice. Put your first draft aside for a few days (or at least 24 hours). Leave it alone.
Yes, it’s hard; you’re itching to get your piece finished. You’ll need to plan ahead: give yourself a few days in the middle of a project to take a break. Your unconscious mind will carry on mulling over that project while you’re away from it.
When you pick it up again, you’ll come to it afresh. You’ll have new insights. You’ll see different possibilities. Mistakes will jump off the page at you.
How long should you put your work aside for? I’d say, the longer the piece, the longer you let it rest. For a blog post, leaving it for a day is probably enough. For a novel, give it at least a couple of weeks — preferably a month.
2. Read as a reader
When you pick up your piece again after a break, try to get into the mindset of a reader. Imagine it’s the first time you’ve read this.
It helps to make a clear physical break between your writing mode and reading mode. Depending on your project and how you like to work, that might mean:
- Printing out the whole thing and reading it in a coffee shop
- Turning it from a word document into a PDF so that you can’t keep changing the text as you read
- Creating a “real book” version of your manuscript on Lulu
- Reading through the whole thing in one session
While you’re reading, watch out for:
- Anything vague. Have you assumed knowledge which your real readers might not have?
- Anything extraneous. It might be interesting to you, but if you can cut it out without losing any meaning from the piece, it should go. In fiction, I ask myself “Is this part of the story?”
- Anything redundant. When you’re working on a project over a long period of time, you’ll often end up with two similar sections, or very similar phrase or word choices close together. Next to impossible to spot when you’re writing, glaringly obvious to readers.
3. Ask for feedback
However great your imagination, you can never truly put yourself in the position of a first-time reader. You know your writing and your topic too well.
There’s an easy solution, however:
Find some actual readers
Ideally, pick people in your target audience. You could try:
- A writing circle — either a group that meets in real life, or an online one
- Regular commenters on your blog
- Participants in a forum or membership site which you belong to (I’m sending out my ebook draft to some fellow Third Tribers this coming weekend)
Unless she happens to be a writer too, or typical of your readership, your mom is not the best person to ask for feedback. Ditto for your spouse. They’re likely to be kind rather than constructively critical.
When you ask for feedback, be clear about what you want
If this is a first draft, you’re not primarily concerned with typos or the occasional clunky sentence. You want to know if whole sections should be cut, or whether your angle works, or if your call to action is clear.
I always give my guinea-pig readers a free copy of the finished piece, if appropriate. It’s also nice to offer to reciprocate if they ever want feedback on a writing project.
Once you’re past the revisions stage and into the final version, you’ll need to proofread. Although you can get away with the occasional typo, spelling mistake or grammatical slip in most blog posts, you’ll want to avoid any embarrassing mistakes in your shiny new ebook or your slick sales page.
I find that I’m great at finding typos in other people’s work … and awful at spotting them in my own.
Usually, I find a long suffering friend to proof-read for me, but if I’m proofreading my own material, this is what helps:
Proofread on paper
For some reason, it’s easier to spot mistakes on paper than on the screen. Perhaps it’s because we’re more prone to skimming on the screen, or because our eyes glide over any mistakes which the spellchecker hasn’t picked up.
Regardless of why, it works. Print out your piece, and go through it slowly with a red pen in hand.
When we read, we rarely take in every word. Ur brain fills in what it expects to see — even if that’s not quite what’s there. (Ever mis-read a headline? Or a billboard?)
Reading your work backwards deals with this. You’re forced to look at every single word. It’s a slow and tortuous process, but if you have a piece of work which absolutely must be error-free, it’s the best way to do it.
How about you? Do you find it hard to get perspective on your writing? What methods work for you? And have you ever written something which you thought was perfect … until you looked at it again a few months later?
Let us know about it in the comments.