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by Zen
Rated: E · Article · Writing · #2146903
... and what you can do about it
You’ve written a piece, be it a poem, flash-fiction, short story or novel - or something else entirely. Your first task should be review it, edit it, review it again and so forth until you have taken it as far as you can. Then you ask someone else to review it, and they tell you everything you missed (some of which you probably wouldn’t have known anyway).

So why is it that reviewing your own stuff is so hard? Why can you review other people’s work so much better than your own?

Part of the problem is that you had a clear idea of what you were trying to achieve when you wrote the piece, and reading it back recalls that memory. You are blinded by the memory and can't see the reality of the words and grammar you actually used.

There is also the fact that you want your work to be good. If a friend passes you a few sheets of paper and asks your opinion, you won’t read it, fling it back at them and denounce it as garbage. Not if you want to keep that friend. You offer them a critique, but couched in terms that doesn’t hurt their feelings, and gives them an opportunity to improve if they are willing to take it.

Similarly, you are very, very careful not to hurt your own feelings. You’ve spent an entire lifetime building up barriers that protect you from other people, and you’re hardly going to wreck that by allowing your id and your ego to wage internecine war behind those carefully crafted walls. You first have to reconcile those differences, so your id becomes the agent by which your ego gets bolstered; not by blindly supporting it, but by allowing your id to direct you - and your ego will thank you for it as your writing improves.

There is another issue though, one that is extremely fundamental, and recognising it is probably the biggest shortcut to improving self-reviews. Writing is all about information. Whether it is character portrayal, location descriptions, action or atmosphere, you are imparting information to the reader.

When you read your own stuff, you concentrate almost solely on grammar, spelling and information. When you read someone else’s work, you see mainly style and flow. Things like character portrayal is something you have to think about. So too are location descriptions, atmosphere and so forth. Information actually takes a back seat, because what moves you the most is whether you like what you are reading. This means that you have to dissect the work in order to give it a good review, and that usually centres on things that don’t work very well - poor grammar, too much description, two-dimensional cliche characters, distraction from the story etc.

In reading your own work, because you concentrate on the information you are trying to impart, you are blinded to its other faults. As long as the information you want to give is given, you are satisfied with it. From there, you head straight toward tightening those sentences up and improving the grammar - the line-edits.

A piece of advice that is often suggested is to read your work aloud. Firstly, this will highlight any clumsy sentences - they might read well in your head, but vocalising them shows them in their true light, just as other people read them.

There is a very clear and well understood reason why this works. Reading uses a specialised part of the brain. Vocalising uses another, and hearing what you say leads to a translative part of the brain. Using different parts of the brain is like using coloured filters on a camera - it brings out previously unseen detail.

You can also read multiple times, and on each occasion look for something different. For example, are the characters well portrayed, and do each of them remain in character? Are you stopping the story advancing by the use of too much prose?

You should also ask some pertinent questions:
1. Why is this scene important? If you can’t answer this, you don’t need it.

2. What is the point of the scene? Usually, this will be a specific piece of information you wish to impart - usually to the character, but sometimes directly to the reader.

3. If there is a goal, is there also an obstacle/conflict?

4. Are you achieving the right level of tension or mystery?

5. Ditto for atmosphere and pace.

Note these are all structural questions. Remember that the question isn’t to see whether you forgot to include these things, it’s to figure out whether you got them right.

For line-edits, there is a simple rule to remember first and foremost:

Always check sentences to see if you can rewrite them using less words. Less words are easier to read, help the flow and strengthen your style. In particular, look for words that can simply be omitted. The word ‘that’ is a common example of extraneous words that creep into writing from bad habits and colloquialisms in the spoken language. If you see ‘that’, read the sentence again without it, and if it still makes sense, cut the word.

Dissecting your own work is something that doesn’t come naturally, partly because you think you already understand it well enough. A good starting point is to say “well, this is going to be rubbish, so let’s find out what’s wrong with it.” Most people strive to be good writers, but actually that’s not what is required (handy, but not required), and it is perfectly Ok to be a rubbish writer. What is far more important is to be a good editor, and that requires first and foremost, that you are a good reviewer. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken. Once it’s fixed, who else is going to know it was ever broken?
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