A few weeks ago, I sent a long-suffering friend a rough draft of a chapter of my book, with a long disclaimer attached. “I have totally lost sight of what IF ANY of this is interesting. Maybe there is too much description? Or maybe there isn’t. Maybe the studies are boring or confusing. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe things are repetitive. Maybe not!”
If you hear a single word over and over, it can start to lose its meaning: linguists call the phenomenon “semantic satiation.” If you’re exposed to the same smell again and again, your nose can stop registering it. And when you read over thousands of your own words — if you’re trying to edit a book, a dissertation, a long article — a similar process kicks in. It can become almost impossible to assess a project you’ve been immersed in for weeks or months. My own sentences bat around my head until they sound more like gibberish than logical combinations of words in my native language. I transfer the same text among various programs, hoping a different layout will help me see it with fresh eyes — the basics, like Word docs and Google docs; fancy programs like Scrivener; clumsy ones like Pages. I toggle back and forth among documents with names like “edit 9,” “edit 10” and “edit 11.” I migrate from place to place, toting my laptop from coffee shops to libraries to friends’ houses: in a new location, I can sometimes trick myself into forgetting to procrastinate, forgoing the open-laptop, check-Twitter, refresh-Gmail routine I mindlessly slip into when I sit down at my desk at home.
Let’s say an encroaching deadline precludes plan A: a long vacation, preferably somewhere tropical, somewhere miles outside of the reach of cell-phone towers. What is the creative equivalent of sniffing coffee beans at a perfume shop? I asked ten writers how they get perspective on a long manuscript when putting it in the drawer is not an option.
Kathleen Alcott, Infinite Home
The whole book gets printed out and I mark it up with a pen, transposing clauses like crazy, cutting paragraphs, reworking middling figurative language. I do this in about 50-page batches, so that in addition to reading the chapter — sometimes for the first occasion in years, if it’s an earlier bit — I also get that next layer of re-seeing when I put changes back into the digital document. For shorter magazine pieces my process is the same, but I try to plan well ahead of my deadline so that there will be at least a few weeks between a piece’s conception and its editorial surgery.
I’m embarrassed to say I’ve made boyfriends read pieces aloud to me (that’s after I’ve done so myself, which I do with everything) to see where some intended emphasis of mine isn’t coming through, or where some stress or amusement occurs in their reading that hadn’t occurred to me. Short fiction actually requires me to take the longest time away, and there is generally about a year or 18-month gap between the first image or sentence of a story that intrigues me and a working draft that is ready to be submitted. Basically, my process is to be at battle with the nativity of my own thought, to attack it in different ways to see which parts still stand. My first sentence is never my best.
Bianca Bosker, Cork Dork
The best way I’ve found to get perspective on a piece of writing is to ignore it for a little while. I’m not talking about a sabbatical here: Even if it’s only one weekend, or one day, or one evening, if I can give myself a few hours to pretend the article or chapter doesn’t exist, when I come back to it later, I can see its flaws and where it needs to go with infinitely more clarity (and get much more done than if I’d worked straight through).
Another trick I use to consider a piece with fresh eyes is cribbed from a class I took with John McPhee: I pretend I’m writing a letter to one of my close friends explaining what the story or chapter I’m working on is all about. Or better yet, I actually force myself to describe the piece to another human being and I listen to the order in which I tell the story, what facts I choose to highlight, where their eyes glaze over, and what questions they ask. For some reason, the anecdotes we put down on the page aren’t always the same as those that we spontaneously blab about over a dinner party when we’re trying to be entertaining.
Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project
For tricky parts, I sometimes read a passage aloud. I work on other parts of the book, or other projects, to give myself a little rest from it. Time gives perspective. I sometimes take a highlighter and mark key elements: scientific research, real-life examples, humor, illustrations from my own life, to make sure that there’s enough balance and enough juicy parts to keep the reader engaged.
Emily Holleman, The Drowning King
Once I’ve exhausted my go-to strategies (reading aloud, printing pages, going for a run), I try changing locations. The sights, sounds and smells of the physical place where I work — be it coffee shop, library, or kitchen table— have a subtle influence on my novels, even ones set in vastly different environs, so shaking that up can help me see my words in a new light. I do almost all of my writing inside, so if I’m feeling particularly stuck I try to take my work outside. One of my favorite spots is a somewhat forgotten slice of Prospect Park, a trio of small fields, each containing an enormous, empty concrete basin. (Fountains once? Mysteries.) It’s less trafficked than most of the park, and the shift in perspective (indoor to outdoor, artificial light to natural light) allows me to reenter whatever world I’ve created with fresh eyes.
Jen Doll, Save the Date
I print it out. I also, toward the later part of things, read the whole damn thing out loud, which really helps you hear cadence and word reps and weird syntax and such. (But that’s definitely at the end of the process.) Sometimes reading things on my phone, even in that really tiny view, helps! Or looking at pages as thumbnails just big enough to see.
Josephine Livingstone, staff writer, The New Republic
When I get disoriented I read whatever is the part of the project I read the least recently. That way it feels like I’m reading somebody else’s work and I feel like: Hey! This person’s good! Or crappy. Whichever. It’s a simple technique but it works for me. The other thing is having two projects at once to work on, and putting one down in favor of the other whenever I get bored.
Mandy Len Catron, How to Fall in Love with Anyone
Proofing the manuscript for my book was one of the most tedious things I’ve ever done. It was excruciating. I read every word aloud and touched it, physically, with my pen as I went along, so that I had to both see and hear each word. The goal was to notice the words themselves instead of the story. I also began on the last page of each essay and went backward — another way to separate myself from the story. I caught a lot of things, so obviously it worked — though maybe there are still mistakes that I missed. It pains me to even think about it!
When I was editing the first draft of my book and trying to look at it as a cohesive whole rather than a collection of disparate pieces, I ended up printing the whole thing out and retyping it from scratch. This is a totally bonkers and time-consuming strategy that I think I got from a writing professor in college, but it works! I wound up getting a much better sense of flow and where different sections sat best, and on a line-by-line level it made me confront which sentences were unnecessary or which words and phrases I overused. (“In some small way,” lol ugh kill me.)
I think it works because it makes the whole big project feel far less impenetrable and more malleable — staring down the barrel of an ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT is scary, and finding an entry point from which to start fine-tuning can feel overwhelming, but I feel like I have a lot more freedom to change what’s on a screen if it’s blank to begin with and I’m deciding what to transfer over from a printed-out page. Love to maintain the illusion of control!!!
Kyle Chayka, freelance writer
I have definitely changed the font before, or I put it into a Word doc to reread it! Other than that time is the biggest help of course. I also find myself writing long things on my bigger desktop screen so I focus on them better.
Alex Mar, Witches of America
When I’ve been working on a project for a long period of time — whether it’s a longform story or a book (at work on my second one right now) — I sometimes find myself relying on weird, slightly random mental tricks to gain a fresh perspective on the language. I might print a chapter out in purple ink (makes it easier to pretend someone else wrote the thing) or — and this is a big one — I’ll make revisions backwards. What I mean by that is, I’ll read the chapter or piece graf by graf, moving backwards chronologically, which helps me to be less precious about the logical flow of the story as a whole and to focus on the sense, structure, and effectiveness of each graf on its own.
Since I write nonfiction, another challenge is how to hold onto the feeling of a subject’s presence at moments when I need the freedom that a little distance brings (i.e. I’m not reporting, I’m writing in private). At those moments, I put on some good headphones and listen to the sound of their voice — not for the meaning of what they’re saying, but to recapture their rhythms of speech, their humor, whatever. Even the ambient sound of the room in which we recorded our last conversation can take me back to that space, make that encounter more immediate for me.
These super-simple perspective shifts sort of remind me of the kinds of games you might play to get the attention of, say, a 6-year-old. But they work for me.