Reading your own writing is a strange experience. It’s kind of like listening to your own voice while you’re singing: it feels like such a part of you that it’s hard to know what it really sounds like.

With your voice, it’s easy to record yourself and then play it back. Instantly, you get the same experience as a listener. It’s much harder with your writing, because your brain is very good at short-circuiting the reading process. It’s seen those words on your screen a thousand times, and so it doesn’t route them through the same neurons that get used when you read someone else’s work.

There’s also a subtle psychological ‘packaging effect’ when you read an unpublished manuscript. Because it’s not bound, justified, and paginated the way a book from the bookstore would be, manuscripts feel like they’re not books. Printing and binding a book says “this is a real book.” Printing a manuscript on an inkjet printer says “this is a work-in-progress.” Worse, it’s your work-in-progress, and it’s easy to believe that those Times New Roman words aren’t worth the copier paper you just printed them on.

So how do you trick your brain into reading your own work in the same way that you read a book you would buy from a bookstore? Well, short of wiping your memory clean, you can’t do it. But there are two techniques that can help.

The first is a bit of advice that probably dates back to Homer: put the manuscript away and work on something else. Let your brain process some other words of yours. When you come back to the first piece, a lot of the baggage will have been wiped clean, and you’ll see your story in a new light.

The second technique is to read your book in the most book-like format you can. Up until recently that was almost impossible, short of sending your rough drafts off to a vanity press for a one-copy print run. But with e-books, it’s a cinch to take your manuscript, format it for a Kindle or Kobo reader, and put it on your device.

(It’s a cinch, anyway, if you use Scrivener. If you don’t use Scrivener, well, this alone might be a good enough reason to switch.)

It’s amazing how different your own story feels when you put it on an e-reader. It’s like taking a painting, framing it, and putting it up on the wall of a gallery. Almost immediately, certain sections feel like they belong. Your brain says, “sure, this is a real book.” And some sections feel wrong, like they’re typewritten rough drafts that got pasted in. If you’d read those same sections on your screen or on printed paper, you might have passed by them without a second thought. But now that they’re part of a real book, they stand out as the stinkers they are.

So take some time away from your latest draft and work on something else. When you’re ready to come back to it, put your manuscript on your e-reader and read it in bed, or on the train, or wherever you read other people’s novels. Don’t worry about line-editing; just look for sections that feel unnatural. Mark them with the highlighting function on your e-reader and move on. When you’re finished, rewrite those sections and make them as fresh as you can.

Reading your work like this won’t replace beta readers, or developmental editors, or line-editing. But it will give you a good feel for which parts of your story are off-key, and give you confidence in the parts that do work well.

filed under electronic-words-are-people-too