Becoming Better Readers of Our Own Writing
Claire Fuqua Anderson
Oct 06, 2013Whether your reader is the editor of a literary magazine, an agent, a teacher, your mom, the imagined love child of Amy Hempel and William Faulkner, or a nameless, faceless ghosty-like presence, you have one. Sometimes we meet our readers face to face, in workshops or writing groups, but more often, probably, we invent some imaginary reader whom we hope will detect genius in our words, perhaps understand even more about our own work than we do. That kind of reader I hope to have - intelligent, generous, willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and forgive holes here and there - is usually not the kind of reader I am when I come to other people's writing. When I read other people's writing, I demand to know where I am in place and time, who is speaking, and what this character yearns for more than anything else in the world and why. I must understand what's happening in a literal sense and eventually why it matters in the context of the whole. I need sentences that don't trip me up or (God forbid) contain a typo. I want sentences that further plot, reveal character, make me laugh, floor me with their profundity, slay me with their beauty. The truth is, I'm just as demanding a reader as you are - we want to read good writing, dammit, because there's more of it out there than we can read in a lifetime. But we also want to write it. And it seems to me the most efficient way to create the kind of writing we want to read is to tap into the demanding reader, as well as the intelligent and generous ones, inside of us. Even if no other living person reads a single word of what we write, we still have that reader - we, the doubtful writers, who were likely readers first - and that reader is there when we write, along for the ride because she loves books like crazy, stays up all night reading them, prefers their company over that of real people. She's been reading all her life. And she knows - as we plod and obsess and labor and get it not quite right again and again and again - exactly what our problems are, which is why she interrupts so often to tell us to change "seemed" to "appeared" and "halo" to "corona." She is nitpicky. She has standards. But she loses sight of the basics sometimes, and she forgets to shut out the vivid picture in our heads and force us to see what's actually on the page. She is our best friend and our worst enemy, this reader inside. If we can really let her speak - without shutting her down to declare our original intentions and grand designs, without taking it so personal, without letting our pretensions get in the way - she will tell us what to do. 1. In the words of Ace of Base, "just walk away." We've all been there - the pages we wrote yesterday that we were convinced could change the face of literature today looks like the drivel of a hardly sane child. Finish the draft, and then leave it alone. The voice of your internal reader will be all the more adamant when you return to the writing after days, weeks, or months away from it. I recently had the pleasure of opening the file of a story draft I remembered so fondly to find the narrator irritating beyond belief within the first page. The joy was so strong I walked away from it again. 2. Don't underestimate the power of the basics.
Frank Conroy writes, "In my opinion the struggle to maintain meaning, sense, and clarity is the primary activity of any writer. It turns out to be quite hard to do, demanding constant concentration at high levels, constant self-editing, and a continuous preconscious awareness of the ghostly presence of a mind on the other side."1 (See? Ghost reader.) Writing what you mean, while making reasonable sense, and expressing it clearly is no doubt harder than it sounds. As readers we glom onto the physical, the concrete, the basics, the who-what-when-where-why, and we don't realize how important they are until they're missing or unclear. 3. Try to take in one word at a time. Part of the challenge of reading your own work is ignoring what you know is supposed to be there. The more you can absorb each sentence as it's written the better you can project your reader's understanding of it. In psycholinguistics, the garden-path sentence is one that seems to utilize one syntactical structure when it's really using another, forcing the reader to recalibrate the sentence. For example: The boat floated down the river sank. (The boat that someone floated down the river sank.) (Here's a video on garden-path sentences for you grammar fanatics.) Unwanted ambiguity can often be traced down to the syntax. Consider the sentence "The woman killed the man with the gun." Did she use the gun to kill him? Or was the man she killed holding the gun? If you, the writer, see the woman holding the gun in your mind's eye, it's perfectly understandable that you might read over that sentence and not detect its ambiguity. If we approach our own sentences as our readers do, relying on the words on the page and not the images in our heads, the better we can structure those sentences to reveal information in the order we intend the reader to receive them. 4. Notice when you start to skim. A friend recently remarked that reading your own writing allows the writer to see what's working and what's not. Where you are riveted, your reader will be; where you skim, your reader will, too. Trust your reading self. 5. Imagine you are reading to reject yourself. The unhappy truth about sending out our work into the ether and hoping that someone will like it is that that someone is probably drowning in other reading material. A reader with the goal of getting through a stack of manuscripts is not hoping the narrative comes together at the end but rather ready to junk it at the first inconsistency. Reading my own work with that critical eye - looking for the earliest fault that could justify its dismissal - radically changes the way I revise. 6. For God's sake, write what you love. Pleasing that one person who has the power to put your words into publication is important, and sometimes seems like the most important task at hand. We want to please some person, preferably people, with our writing, but the problem with readers, once you start consulting them, is that eventually they will inevitably disagree. Sometimes pleasing your internal reader means displeasing others, and that's okay. It takes conviction to write something you yourself would voluntarily read if you yourself had not written it. 1Conroy, Frank. "The Writer's Workshop." On Writing Short Stories. Ed. Tom Bailey. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 80-89.