To self-edit with any success at all, I need distance from my work, to somehow separate what I read there from intimate knowledge of my vision so that it’s the words that do the work, not my resident imaginings. With distance, it falls on the writing to evoke scenes no longer fresh in my mind. Not so amazingly, distance reveals holes in the pictures. And flat writing becomes visible for the first time, those lazy word choices or adverbs that got me through the task of getting the story down but don’t do diddly-squat to create the reader experience I need to provoke.
Once done with a draft, I try not to go back to a book for at least a month, though six weeks is better. However, unless I have other projects interesting enough to distract me, I find that very difficult to do. A few days go by and then, like a scab that needs picking because it keeps itching, I open the file and pick. Compulsive, I know, but I don’t see how anyone could write an entire novel without a healthy dose of compulsive behavior to keep giving the wheel a turn on tough days.
So I needed to find other ways to get around the fact that I refused to allow my book adequate time to chill. Here are some that might work for you.
You could do as George Carlin one talked of doing in the last stages of polishing his material--smoke a little pot. Failing that, what?
If you’ve been working exclusively onscreen, create a printout and go through a hard copy. That’s a must. But it’s the least you can do to gain a little psychological distance.
Read it aloud to yourself. For me, this ALWAYS reveals clumsy structure, or unwanted repetitions and echoes, or missing information, or too much information, or other flaws. I don’t do this often enough, probably because I simply forget about it.
Another technique that works for me is to reformat the narrative to look more like that in a book. Here’s how to do it using Microsoft Word (this is doable in WordPerfect as well).
1. Change the font. If you’re using Courier, it’ll never look like a book. If you’re using Times New Roman, it’s closer in appearance to a book’s text, but it’s a narrow newspaper font seldom used in a book. And it would be better to eye a different font anyway.
Author M.J. Rose, The Halo Effect, prints her manuscript out in a different font and then takes it somewhere else to read--2 or 3 hours a day at a library, or on a train from Connecticut to Boston and back all in one day. I like that idea--your words have to overcome unaccustomed distractions.
To change the font, type Ctrl+a (or Apple+a with a Mac). This should select all the text. Then go to the font window in your toolbar and change it to one of the book-style fonts: Garamond or Palatino or Georgia, if you have them. If you don’t, Times New Roman will do. Font size: 12.
2. While you’ve still got everything selected (or do Ctrl+a again to select all), change the spacing to be more book-like as well. Click Format>Paragraph. In the Line spacing box, use the drop-down menu to select Multiple. Then, in the “At:” box next to it, type 1.1 or 1.2 and click OK. Adjust to taste. This will give you a book-like spacing. But you’re not done yet.
3. Change the margins to create a bookish column of text on the page with about 10-15 words in a line. The margins I’ve found helpful are: top, 1”; bottom 1”; left and right, 1.7”. This will give you a very different look.
4. It’s fun to really go all the way and see how it would look book-style by doing this:
a. Change the page size. Click File>Page setup and go to the Paper size tab. Change the paper size to: Custom size and type in 5.5” for width and 8.5” for height. Or 6” by 9”.
b. Now change the margins to top: .66”, bottom, left and right to .6”.
c. Change the font and spacing as noted above. Might try a smaller font size, 11.5 or 11, depending on the font.
d. Justify the margins. Select all the text (Ctrl+a). Click Format>Paragraph. On the Indents and Spacing tab, go to the Alignment box, click the arrow to show the menu, and choose Justified. Then click OK.
I think you’ll find that the re-formatted narrative reads differently, either onscreen or in a printout. I’ve even printed out a book on 5.5” by 8.5” paper, using both sides of the paper and formatting just like a book (headers, page numbers, justified margins, font, spacing, etc.), and had it tape-bound at Kinko’s, which yielded something very much like a perfect-bound trade paperback. Now, that’s fun to hold in your hands—your book as a real book! It’s educational, too.
If you’ve found other ways to put a little distance between yourself and your words, please let me know and I’ll pass them on.
Let me hear from you. If I can help you with a question about your writing, email me and I’ll apply a beady eye to it. Tell me if I can share it in a post or if you want a “private consultation.”
All contents © Ray Rhamey 2004.