Don't just be yourself

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

If Robert Burns' suggestion came true, there's a danger that we'd all jump off a cliff and there wouldn't be anyone left in the world.

But what if it were our writing that we could view through another's eyes? Some of us might be horrified and some pleasantly surprised, but either way we'd have a revolutionary editing tool.

A famous writer (who might have been Bernard Cornwell or Stephen King, but I can't remember and might possibly have imagined reading this somewhere) tells of a discovery he made while faced with the despair of reading over his own work. He took a favourite book by an author he admired, and typed out a few pages on his own typewriter. Transformed into something that physically looked just like his own writing, he realised that he judged it more harshly than he did when it looked like a 'proper' book.

This tactic can work the other way round too – when approaching the home straight of editing, I want to gain emotional distance from my work, and be as tough – or, indeed, as lenient – as I would be if it were written by someone else. I've tried the following ploys to gain that distance, and it's surprising how well a simple practical change can show up the clunky bits.
  1. Reading it aloud Рall right, all right, I know it's a crappy clich̩ of interweb writing advice, but it really is useful for finding out whether dialogue sounds like something a real live person would say. Reading aloud is easier said than done Рit can be a bit of an eye-opener as to how little privacy is ever available Рbut if I get the opportunity, I don't just read aloud but record it too. The microphone becomes an 'audience' that means I have to persevere through the cringeworthy bits rather than keep breaking off to groan, weep etc.
  1. Listening to the recording after a few days and pretending it's a proper audiobook. Humiliating and illuminating in the same go.
  1. Changing the font, preferably to something you’d find in a published book, but you could use Comic Sans or Papyrus if you want to make the whole experience even more disheartening.
  1. Changing the background colour of the page – I'm told this is good for reducing glare while writing too.
  1. Changing the page setup to A5 and printing two pages to one sheet so it's closer to the size and layout of a published book.
  1. Converting the file to PDF. This is such a simple change and yet I find it has a great distancing effect.
  1. Printing it off on Lulu – I’d want to be sure the book was pretty much ready to go before shelling out for this, but seeing a story in book form can expose whether it could really compete with whatever's next to it in Waterstones. (I tend to get shelved next to Ayn Rand... thanks a bunch, alphabet.)
Do you try to see your work as others might see it? What are your practical tips?

(UPDATE: Sorry this post disappeared for a few days - a combination of Blogger problems and me not having web access to fix it. Thank you very much to those who had left comments - unfortunately I haven't been able to retrieve them.)


Helen Black said...

I'd love to know the answer to this too.

After all these books, I still can't see my work as others see it and have never been able to develop that distance.

I feel too in the middle of things for any objectivity.

For me it really is a case of just sending a draft to my editor or agent and crossing my fingers.
HB x

Caroline Green said...

Great tips Caro. I always print two pages per sheet of A4 and in single spacing, which really helps.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Excellent tips, Caro - thanks. Will try the A5 one - makes such sense.
I find that, on the micro level, single space printing really helps me to see the work afresh. And I also find that (don't groan) re-typing it all up again makes me think about every word and is really helpful.

Gillian McDade said...

Thanks for the writerly tips, Caro. Talking about using a different font, I once (in a moment of madness) changed a whole book into Wingdings! Hilarious.

Debs Riccio said...

I've found that by writing in 'read' layout (2 pages per screen like a proper book)makes me feel more like I'm writing a.... well, proper book...and I've done the printing off 2 pages landscape (with footer page numbers and everything) as well, which does make it feel more... well, like a real book. But I'm not sure I ever have 'distance' or not, I've never thought about it before. Now I'm away to think....!

Shannon Winslow said...

Reading aloud is absolutely ESSENTIAL in my view. It's especially helpful for catching word repeats (something that drives me nuts when I see/hear it in other people's work). And setting the book aside for a couple months before doing a final edit gives distance and a little more objectivity too.

Virginia Rand said...

Is it that bad to be put next to Ayn Rand? (No relation)