Typos, missing words, nebulous clarity, awkward phrasing, bumpy transitions: they’re all difficult to see when the work is close to your heart, freshly sprung from your noggin. It’s hard to proof your own work.
Every day I read and reread passages I’ve written and miss things an outsider would easily catch. It always amazes me when my eye nets an error in a sentence I’ve looked at five or six times, having consistently overlooked the obvious. So I’ve made a habit of applying a few special tricks to enhance my ability to catch these things more swiftly and smoothly.
You’ve got to set it aside. Walk away. Forget about it. Let it ferment. In a dark, cool place. For as long as you can stand it. Time creates distance between your passion for the story and the technicality used to tell it. That distance helps you be a much better detective.
Letting the pages go unread for a few days is ideal. A week is even better. In a month, you’ll see more. Naturally, when you’re on a deadline and it’s due tomorrow, you don’t have that luxury. Still, you have to walk away and let it sit. Stretch whatever time you have as long as you can, then reap the benefit.
In life, this is equally helpful. That argument you can’t seem to win, with yourself or someone else. The idea that feels so big, it scares you. The nagging self-doubt or heartbreaking decision you have to make, but just can’t get your head around. Identify it, then walk away from it for a day, a week, a month if you can afford to. Walk away cleanly, openly, inviting objectivity to meet you on the day when you return to look at it again.
When you don’t have time — and even when you do — the next best trick is to change the way the words dress up and present themselves to you. Changing fonts and margins is a tremendous boost to your x-ray vision. A new typeface can make hidden glitches instantly visible; what was burrowing down into obscurity in courier new suddenly declares itself loudly in arial.
When I’m ready to reread, I always make a second version of the document with wider or narrower margins, dramatically different fonts and adjusted spacing. It’s not only helpful for my sleuthing; the altered appearance also refreshes my interest in reading something I may have already written off. It looks more enticing and allows me to approach it with virginal enthusiasm.
In life, we should all do this more often. That coworker who bores and annoys you. The commute that delays and maddens you. The drudgery and familiarity dimming your light. Find a new way to dress it up. You may not be able to change another person’s behavior or what they’re wearing (saying, doing, projecting) but you can absolutely change your mental fonts and margins when you’re around them. Speak and interact with them differently. Find a new angle, a new story to tell about your character. In traffic, change your music and upgrade your self-talk. In drudgery, be the new.
This little trick works well with the first two. Between courses in a restaurant, the chef might send out a small dish of sorbet to serve as a palate cleanser. When you need to effect mental distance and refreshed perspective, a quick hit of someone else’s writing can function as sorbet.
I like to pick a book by an author with a wildly different style from mine, read a few paragraphs, then let that cadence stick when I return to the work. The contrast offers shadows and jabs that jostle the words in my focus. It helps me shake things loose well enough to see them distinctly, apart from the love affair I was having with them when it all got started.
CAVEAT: This one can be tricky if you’re not running high on confidence in your own voice. An author you look up to can be inspiring on a good day, devastating on a self-doubting day. If you feel yourself wobbling, choose a nastier sorbet. It’s not important for you to like the taste for it to serve its purpose. Read someone whose writing is imperfect, clunky, bad in your opinion. Take only a small dose of their disaster, then detach with kindness and return to your own.
In life, embrace every spoonful of sorbet available to you. In bitch-n-moan scenarios, choose appreciation and gratitude – about anything, related to what you’re going through or not, it doesn’t matter. A small hit of appreciation can obliterate the most stubborn mental prison and make the world in you newly ready to spin up a worthy sunrise.
I wish you well! -Laurie