One of the hardest things I had to learn as a writer was to critically read my own work. It is difficult because seeing our thoughts manifest on a page, thoughts that are familiar and dazzling, is magical. Centuries after the invention of the alphabet and written language, humans still can be awe-struck by this human capacity to create the illusion of permanence.
Nevertheless, if we wish to share our language creations with others, we must be able to imagine how our audience will read our texts. And that is the frustrating quality of language, especially written language. It can never represent all the nuances of our experience. Neuropsychologists call this personalizing effect of experience our “qualia.” Even as I look out my study window at a brilliant white snow bank rolling down to a frozen lake, I can never adequately capture in language all the sensory inputs and neuronal responses that are shaping my moment in this time as past memories mingle with new impressions.
So should we even try?
To share our thoughts as clearly as possible with others is one of the great challenges of writing, but it is also one of the motivations to write. Writing can meaningfully connect us to other humans. We are social creatures who exploit every way we are able to be part of the collective. To do so with writing means that we must step away from our thoughts on the page and put ourselves in the place of the other, to see what is not on the page even though we, as authors, can see it in the shadows.
So what are some ways this can be done? The approach I have found most effective is time. Writing something well in advance and then tucking it away to be read several days or weeks later is of great benefit. It gives space for my fascination to subside as the writing becomes estranged from the heartbeat of its creation.
Upon returning to the writing, there are small techniques I use to further make it feel unfamiliar. I read the work aloud to a real or imagined audience to make the recognition of ‘the other’ more concrete. At a textual level, I will develop a sentence outline of the piece if I am uncertain about the structure and want to follow the logic of my thinking. If it is a poem or story, I will sometimes try to draw a representation of the structure, everything from lines to spirals. Sometimes, I read the work backwards, checking each sentence to focus on my crafting. This process takes me outside the logic line of the writing and focuses on meaning at a syntactic level. And finally, I read through the entire piece, line by line or sentence by sentence, watching for extraneous or vague words, focusing on precise nouns and verbs, and questioning my adjectives and adverbs. It is the close reading that writing needs.
It is important to realize, however, that this process is never finished. If your work is published and you reread it a month or years later, you still will find sentences you mentally revise. One of the interesting things about writing a blog is that I have a sense of an immediate audience and the capacity to continually revise. It is a new way of thinking about my revision process, and I am not sure how this might be influencing my writing.
A number of years ago, after Peter Gzowski interviewed Alice Munro on CBC radio about her newest book of short stories, she read several passages and then promptly noted how she would revise some of what she had written. It was a revelation for me that famous authors continued to revise published work even after critical acclaim. That is the interesting thing about writing. Eventually we move on and write other things, and when we look back, we may cringe, but we may also see, perhaps with fondness, who we were and recognize that we are already somewhere else in our ever-emerging lives.