When I was fifteen, I wrote a novel. I thought it was pretty good, and daydreamt about literary stardom.
Fast forward ten years. I recently found my old notebooks and read that novel over again. And … let’s just say it wasn’t as good as I remembered, and leave it at that.
It’s amazing what a difference perspective makes.
Usually, you’re not going to be revisiting work from a decade ago. You’re going to be busy trying to get that new website copy done, or that sales page written, or that ebook finished.
Problem is, when you’re writing, you’re working at a zoomed-in level. You’re so deeply into the words that you can’t get a grasp on the whole piece. You’re emotionally attached to your work, and even if it doesn’t seem perfect, you simply can’t see any way to change or improve it.
Here’s how to zoom back out and get the big picture.
1. Let it rest
Ever since I started writing as a teen, I’ve heard this piece of advice. Put your first draft aside for a few days (or at least 24 hours). Leave it alone.
Yes, it’s hard; you’re itching to get your piece finished. You’ll need to plan ahead: give yourself a few days in the middle of a project to take a break. Your unconscious mind will carry on mulling over that project while you’re away from it.
When you pick it up again, you’ll come to it afresh. You’ll have new insights. You’ll see different possibilities. Mistakes will jump off the page at you.
How long should you put your work aside for? I’d say, the longer the piece, the longer you let it rest. For a blog post, leaving it for a day is probably enough. For a novel, give it at least a couple of weeks — preferably a month.
2. Read as a reader
When you pick up your piece again after a break, try to get into the mindset of a reader. Imagine it’s the first time you’ve read this.
It helps to make a clear physical break between your writing mode and reading mode. Depending on your project and how you like to work, that might mean:
- Printing out the whole thing and reading it in a coffee shop
- Turning it from a word document into a PDF so that you can’t keep changing the text as you read
- Creating a “real book” version of your manuscript on Lulu
- Reading through the whole thing in one session
While you’re reading, watch out for:
- Anything vague. Have you assumed knowledge which your real readers might not have?
- Anything extraneous. It might be interesting to you, but if you can cut it out without losing any meaning from the piece, it should go. In fiction, I ask myself “Is this part of the story?”
- Anything redundant. When you’re working on a project over a long period of time, you’ll often end up with two similar sections, or very similar phrase or word choices close together. Next to impossible to spot when you’re writing, glaringly obvious to readers.
3. Ask for feedback
However great your imagination, you can never truly put yourself in the position of a first-time reader. You know your writing and your topic too well.
There’s an easy solution, however:
Find some actual readers
Ideally, pick people in your target audience. You could try:
- A writing circle — either a group that meets in real life, or an online one
- Regular commenters on your blog
- Participants in a forum or membership site which you belong to (I’m sending out my ebook draft to some fellow Third Tribers this coming weekend)
Unless she happens to be a writer too, or typical of your readership, your mom is not the best person to ask for feedback. Ditto for your spouse. They’re likely to be kind rather than constructively critical.
When you ask for feedback, be clear about what you want
If this is a first draft, you’re not primarily concerned with typos or the occasional clunky sentence. You want to know if whole sections should be cut, or whether your angle works, or if your call to action is clear.
I always give my guinea-pig readers a free copy of the finished piece, if appropriate. It’s also nice to offer to reciprocate if they ever want feedback on a writing project.
Once you’re past the revisions stage and into the final version, you’ll need to proofread. Although you can get away with the occasional typo, spelling mistake or grammatical slip in most blog posts, you’ll want to avoid any embarrassing mistakes in your shiny new ebook or your slick sales page.
I find that I’m great at finding typos in other people’s work … and awful at spotting them in my own.
Usually, I find a long suffering friend to proof-read for me, but if I’m proofreading my own material, this is what helps:
Proofread on paper
For some reason, it’s easier to spot mistakes on paper than on the screen. Perhaps it’s because we’re more prone to skimming on the screen, or because our eyes glide over any mistakes which the spellchecker hasn’t picked up.
Regardless of why, it works. Print out your piece, and go through it slowly with a red pen in hand.
When we read, we rarely take in every word. Ur brain fills in what it expects to see — even if that’s not quite what’s there. (Ever mis-read a headline? Or a billboard?)
Reading your work backwards deals with this. You’re forced to look at every single word. It’s a slow and tortuous process, but if you have a piece of work which absolutely must be error-free, it’s the best way to do it.
How about you? Do you find it hard to get perspective on your writing? What methods work for you? And have you ever written something which you thought was perfect … until you looked at it again a few months later?
Let us know about it in the comments.
About the Author: Ali Hale writes about productivity with perspective alongside Thursday Bram on their newly-launched blog Constructively Productive: you can grab the RSS feed here.
Reader Comments (72)
Nabeel | Making Your Own Website says
Great tips Ali.
“Put your first draft aside for a few days (or at least 24 hours). Leave it alone.”
Yup, this trick always works. This really does help in making an article better. I have experienced this personally too.
“Proofread backwards” Never thought about this one, and when I think about it, you are absolutely right. It will force us to read every word with more attention, and will help us find more mistakes.
Ian Paul Marshall says
When I finished the second draft of my latest book, Your Great Awakening, I posted each of the chapters on a website and asked some of my tribe for feedback. It was awesome. Things that I thought made sense people were stumbling over.
For the last two revisions I printed out copies and took them everywhere with me. Reading, underlining, slashing and writing notes in the margins.
I even crowdsourced the cover. Asking my tribe to choose from five mock-ups and a final choice that was “I actually don’t like any of these.” 20% of the people that voted chose that last option which made me go back to the drawing board and work to get a cover that was beyond my expectations.
Actually, I’ve found that my mom and my spouse are my biggest critics… it sounds funny but they are two people who are incredibly honest with me… but thanks for the rest of the tips! They’re a huge help!
Clare Webster says
As far as proofreading goes, I agree with you, and I would add that reading OUT LOUD is a great proofreading technique because it’s impossible to skim over a word when you’re actually saying the words, which mean you pay more attention to spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc.
John Hyde says
Read it out loud.
John Hyde says
Artists can look at a painting in a mirror to see it through fresh eyes.
For a solo writer, leaving the work and coming back to it later is the best way to see it afresh.
If you’re in a hurry then taking the work somewhere you have never been before can help with the freshness. Try it.
This could be a park on the other side of town or drive to a strange suburb and sit in the library.
Shane Arthur says
I JUST read an article about the relationship between writer and editor that’s too good not to share here.
ps. Ali, you get extra bonus points in my book for using the word afresh. Love your word choices. 😉
Eric Pratum says
Putting it aside for a day and reading aloud are two really key things for me. If I read my old material, I find myself getting too technical and trying to overplan my future posts. If I ask the wrong person for their opinion, I won’t get a useful answer. “It’s good” or “I don’t know” seem to be the most common if you don’t ask someone who will put some thought into your question.
Jake LaCaze says
I’ve found #2 to be true. It can work either way — you can read something later and see that it’s not that good or you may read something that you thought was subpar and discover that it was actually good content.
It also helps to have someone who can be both encouraging and critical. My wife plays this role. She can tell me that something is good and then turn around and tell me that I did a horrible job of explaining something. Having such a person is priceless.
Steve Benedict says
I like the post, especially about proofing backwards, along with printing it out first. Proofing on screen is hard enough for youngsters with good eyes. It’s very difficult for an oldster, even with reading glasses. I come from a print publishing background, and I’ve always proofed hard copy.
Speaking of proofing, I am going to assume that you deliberately left in the typo in the sentence that begins with “Uur brain fills in…” under the proof reading backwards header. I just know you were doing that to test our ability to catch mistakes…right?
One of the hardest things for me is to “let it rest”. I’m getting better, but I still tend to pull the trigger without letting the article breathe for a while. When I do take the time to put it aside and come back later, I see sentences and paragraphs that “sound” (thanks@John Hyde) much better with revision.
Thanks for sharing your expertise.
Kung Fu Schools says
I think leaving it 24 hours and getting someone else to read it are the most valuable. Only downside is that sometimes … after 24 hours I want to re-write it completely! Which means I have to a) improve my writing and b) resist the perfectionist urge … otherwise I’d get nothing done.
Thanks for sharing – had never thought about proof reading backwards!! Crazy!
John Zehr says
Great advice. You can’t learn the basics too often.
Until I read what I’ve written out loud, I’m not confident I’ve caught most of my mistakes. Having someone read my writing aloud to me is even more helpful.
Teresa Rothove says
Ali we sometimes think we are the only ones who can pick up on someone else’s mistakes and miss our own.
I learned a long time ago the practice of reading your work backwards from an English teacher of mine. (eons ago. lol)
But you are right about picking something up after much time (months or years later) goes by. There have been many times I will pick up something, start reading it and not even remembering writing and thought I sounded pretty good. 🙂
Success to all who are out there blogging or writing their novels. Just take your time and Breathe.
I often do have my spouse proofread for me – she was an English minor and has done quite a bit of technical writing. Plus, she has a way of grounding my wayward ramblings in a constructive way.
Getting someone you trust to proofread (that’s a professional role), spouse or not, is important. But, Ali is right – most of us shouldn’t ask our spouse to do this if we want to maintain an honest relationship at home.
Great advice all!! I have actually used the “leaving it for a piece, like 24 hrs” …and it really has helped me see some obvious mistakes! all of these are great tips!! thanks for all the great advise!!
becky garrison says
The bit about reading backwards has become critical for me as I do more of my writing on the road where I don’t often have access to a printer before I submit articles.
One thing I “wish” I had done with the book I just finished – read it out loud to see how well it flows off the tongue. I didn’t realize until the book was completed that there would be an audiobook and that I’d be the one reading it. Some sentences that looked great on paper were a pain to read.
Also when I proof, I try to look at the first word of each new paragraph to make sure I am not starting the paragraphs with the same word. Along those lines, do a search and replace for phrases/words that seem to be popping up again. Amazing how many times one’s favorites will show up in the course of a full length book.
Hsuan (Shen) says
When a colleague first suggested I read my piece backwards, I thought she was nuts. But it really does work. I tend to do this for shorter pieces b/c reading a 10 pg white paper backwards just sounds painful! ;^)
Corrina Gordon-Barnes says
Great tips – thank you.
I’ve shelved the book I’m working on a few times and when I come back to it a few weeks or months later, I’m genuinely impressed by some of the phrasing, the ideas, the overall tone. I can give myself a congratulatory “Ah this is actually good, well done you!” which I can’t see – and therefore allow myself – when I’m zoned right in.
So revisiting a little while later can be a confidence boost if you’re feeling so IN your project that you’re doubting your skill or the project’s worth.
Reading it backwards is one of my favorites. I had a teacher who had us do it in probably third grade and I still remember that one lol.
Becky – I like your find and replace tip too!
khush-Adsense Information says
Great ideas Ali. Keeping a blog post for a day and then reading it before publishing, has always worked for me.
Susanna Perkins says
So I have to know. . . is the misspelling in the first line below the subhead “Proofread Backwards” intentional? Is there a prize for spotting it?
Elizabeth Deitz says
I use to teach piano, and one way of “proofing” for a performance was to memorize the piece backwards. Doing things in an unfamiliar way makes us more aware of the content.
I am a huge fan of pen/pencil to paper action when it comes to planning a piece or editing. I dig this post.
On the topic of proof reading… “Uur brain fills in…” (in Was “Uur” supposed to be “Your” or “Our”?
Ali Hale says
@Ian – That sounds like a brilliant way to draft and polish! I find that other people *always* spot the stuff that I fudged a bit, or the parts which aren’t quite so awesome in the cold light of day…
@Kristin – You’ve got great folks, hang on to them! 🙂 (My fiancé’s great at reading my fiction, actually; I proof-read his politics essays — I think I drew the short straw…)
@Clare and @John and @Becky – Great point about reading out loud; one of my writing tutors is very keen on that, and it definitely helps.
@Shane – Thanks for your fellow appreciation of words. 🙂 Thanks too for the link to the piece on writers and editors; an entertaining read, and one I’ll want to come back to if I ever end up working with an editor myself…
@Steve and @Susanna – Er, totally deliberate. Totally. *ahem*
(Bonus tip: “When you edit your finely tuned piece just before sending it off, PROOF READ AGAIN.” Also, there’s a little-known law that anytime you write about proofreading, you’ll have a typo in there…)
@Teresa and @Corrina – Yep, I sometimes come across a piece which I don’t remember writing — and I’m always surprised that it’s good! It’s quite a boost. 🙂
Ahh… that’s the second golden nugget I’ve learned today. Today must be a good day. Thanks again! 🙂
After being told I could not write (unless it was technical) for most of my life I have ventured out of my shell at the age of 64 to collect my thoughts. Much of the courage was developed as being a subscriber to this blog. These pages filled with ideas have become my breakfast, lunch, dinner and some late night yummy snacks of brain food.
Your copy is so good and right on that it features words that my brain can taste!
I have several projects in progress ranging from some résumé writing advice, to some treatments for TV/movies, to a biography of a person who has overcome many problems and bore all of the trials and tribulations with the grace of an angel.
and to those who contribute.
Sonia Simone says
Since that Uur was “You’re” when I pasted it into the post (you’re in the clear, Ali!), I assume Brian inserted that as an Easter egg. 😉
I do always think that it is good to trim the word count on posts as well. It tends to make the keyword densities cry out a little louder.
Anil Atluri says
“Put your first draft aside for a few days (or at least 24 hours). Leave it alone.”
That is something I always do, leave it alone for a day, except in rare cases.
@Hyde:For a solo writer, leaving the work and coming back to it later is the best way to see it afresh.
Good tips, Ali.
Soothing Music Blog says
I started to use the 24 rule and it helped me out. You can find things when you give yourself some time away from it.
Tina Ann says
I have heard of the reading it backwards technique and it is wonderful no matter how torturous it is. This was a great post! Love it!
Very good! The proofreading backwards idea is new to me, but I can see where that would prevent the mental wash-over we tend to do. I’ll use that for sure. I agree about Mom; too kind. My wife is my harshest critic; not because she’s mean (far from it) but because she’s precise. I also read my work aloud to gauge the flow — and because it spooks the dogs!
Bamboo Forest - Tick Tock Timer says
If you’re reading your piece backwards, is that going to help one find grammatical mistakes? After all, if you’re reading it backwards, you’re not really grasping what you’re reading, or are you. I can see how it could work with spelling mistakes, just not grammar.
I like this post. Especially because recently I read a short story I wrote about two years ago and was shocked at how BAD it was. I remember liking it at the time I finished the piece.
The idea was still there, and I thought it was a good concept, but the writing was not cutting it. I since revised the short story and like it now (I hope I don’t hate it a year from now) 😉
Anyway, I think I’ve learned A LOT by digging up my old works and reviewing them. As far as improving my writing is concerned, reviewing my old stuff has proven nearly as effective as writing constantly.
Shawn McConnell says
I always let my posts marinate for a bit before getting back to them, it’s lets the flavor of the post come through!
I also try to ask for feedback too, nice tips ali
Proofreading can do wonders. You can spot some grammar lapses and illogical statements as well. Thanks for sharing some tips 🙂
Mike Reeves-McMillan says
I used to be a copy editor for a publishing house, and I would sometimes proofread upside down (not backwards). It forced me to slow down and look at the actual words that were there, not the ones I thought were there.
Vitaly Tennant says
What a great post … full of awesome tips. I agree, sometimes we all need to slow down, take a break, re-read, and post away. Thanks for the content.
Paula Biles says
Here’s a nifty proof reading technique that works better and is easier than reading backwards. Change the STYLE of font from sans serif to serif (or vice versa) — for your entire document. So, if you use Arial, change everything to New Times Roman. This requires only a few keystrokes in most word processors. For some reason this works amazingly well.
Asking for feedback is a great way to turn bad content into good content
Resting written words works. So does reading backwards.
Good content and good advice. Thank you.
Sonia Simone says
@Paula, I like that one!
Something we used to do when I wrote novels was to turn a manuscript into fake galleys — in other words, format it horizontally like a book. It reads completely differently. It’s not as good for typos, but it’s better for flow and music, to get a sense of “is this thing really working.”
Love the ‘proof reading backwards’ tip, you are right…its hard and needs a lot of patience, but I have managed to find tiny little errors more efficiently this way.
My problem is that in order to proofread my work most effectively, I end up reading it over and over again, in eventually I loose confidence in choice or words or sentence structure. Leaving it aside works sometimes, but again I end up reading it over and over again. 🙁
Great Tips Ali
I’m quite guilty of doing all the things I shouldn’t do when it comes to writing! It’s a wonder I’m still a writer infact.
I’m still trying to get a perspective on my own writing skills as well, and I’m hoping that will evolve in time. I’ve been told I tend to write my blog posts like a textbook: working on that now.
I’m also quite good with typos to! Hence I’ve been leaving posts for a few days to simmer, that’s helped some. I’ll try out your back reading method, although the thought of doing that is scary!
Thanks for the tip Ali…
If I try to read backwards my cognition drops to about zero!
Dean Saliba says
Tip number one is the on that I find helps me the most. I will leave my article, go do something else and then come back to it and I find that my writing is stronger after this little break.
Letting the copy/text rest for some days is very helpful. Sometimes you’ll get completely different ideas regarding how to improve the piece.
Ali Hale says
@Sonia – Haha! That sneaky Brian…
@Bamboo Forest – You could try reading each sentence, rather than each word, in reverse order. Though I like Paula’s tip of font-changing too. Thanks Paula!
(Printing out a hard copy works well for me, like changing the font, or like Sonia’s galley mockup.)
Joshua Black-Underdog Millionaire says
Letting is rest is the key to really creating something great. When I write the first draft of a book, I like to create as fast and feverishly as possible. When you work at this pace, it does not allow you time for self-editing and self-criticism. You just right and spit it out.
Then… the magic happens. This is where you just put it down for at least a day or maybe even a week.
When you go back to that feverish writing you can edit with a clear head, pulling out all of the gems that you originally came up with and getting rid of the things that don’t stay with your main theme.
The Underdog Millionaire
King Sidharth | 64 Notes says
Man! I wrote a novel when I was 11, too! Ha and yea same effect when I re-read it like a few weeks ago.
Sure I am gonna try this on everything I write…. err. except this comment.
Sterling Mckinley - Baltimore SEO & Internet Marketing says
This is a very good list….and reading backwards never heard of before, but will give it a try.
Something that helps me in proofing is listening to the text (while reading along) on a text-to-speech program (for example, TextAloud). It helps me to catch typos and grammatical mistakes that I would have otherwise missed (brain fills in the blanks on minor mistakes or missing words), and to know what the piece sounds like if it were read aloud by someone else.
When I write in my native tongue, Serbian, I do not have to worry too much about spelling. Our alphabet is phonetic , one letter=one sound (“write like you speak, speak like you write”). I have pretty much polished my style in Serbian, but I still send everything written to my Aunt, a retired journalist and a merciless editor.
I like learning and collecting tips for improving writing in English – this language is a completely different beast!
I let my husband who is a writer read and proofread all my articles and posts. He is very objective and never tires of scolding me for misuse of comas and articles.
But writing draft after draft on paper with a pencil, as we did in school, teaches you a lot. I am a firm believer in the 24 hour rule.
Thanks for your invaluable advice on this blog.
Kirby Rooks says
I like to read aloud anything I have written as I gain a better perspective.
Your ideas are also apart of my ritual of writing but sometimes I rush the “rest” part which cost me every time I do it.
Good solid and basic advise we should all refresh ourselves with from time to time.
Simon Croft says
More great advice.
Leaving it alone is also my problem as I then tend to forget about it and write something else.
I also find proff reading on paper helps, I just think that as it was the way I was brought up to read, it does make it easier, maybe me feeling old though.
Cameron Douglas says
Great advice. Its amazing what you pick up on reading some one elses work – particularly given the amount of time that they have spent with it.
Gary Hoffman says
I wish more writing students took Ali’s advice on proofing, especially giving pieces a 24 hour rest and reading backwards which means to stop fretting about introductions for at least 24 hours. One other idea: change writing strategies within a piece to energize yourself as the writer as well as your reader. See the book ADIOS, STRUNK AND WHITE for ideas on how to to this.
I love that someone else is advocating for proofing on paper. I actually print everything I write and go through it with the dreaded red pen. It makes a world of difference.
Blog Angel a.k.a. Joella says
I really believe in the “let it rest” idea. I find it especially helpful when I get writer’s block. Best thing to do is back away and leave it. My subconscious mind keeps working away on it and when I come back everything just seems to flow.
Ali Hale says
@Joshua – Ah, a kindred spirit! I write fast and furious in the first draft too (and very few sentences make it unchanged into the final one). I chuck away whole scenes and subplots, but I figure out what the story’s really about during the writing…
@King – There’s a time and a place for perfecting writing; I think most people will give a bit of leeway on comments. 😉
@OliB – Great tip! Will try that one myself.
@Lana – I imagine that English must be an awful language to learn! I love the richness of it (we have so many words which mean almost but not quite the same thing, perfect for poets and creative writers) — but the inconsistencies can be maddening.
@Simon and @Jennifer – I like to proof on paper too. Reading on the screen just isn’t the same (for one thing, I’m much more prone to skimming and skipping on the screen).
@Gary – Interesting point about changing writing strategies — do you mean writing in a different style? (I’ll have to go follow up your reference to find out…)
@Joella – Yep, I find that my mind does funny things while I’m not looking. 😉 I often come back with a fresh idea or a new angle.
Yes, different strategies usually involve shifts in style but mostly format, say moving from an anecdote, to a Netting, to Thesuaruscoping, to a Devil’s Advice conclusion, all on the same topic. The terms are all explained in ADIOS, STRUNK AND WHITE.
Holly Earp says
I liked your ‘read it as a reader’ section. By keeping things relevant and to the point, you’ll cut out any unneccessary waffle which may jeopodise your article as a whole. People will much prefer reading your content when it’s all quality, as opposed to some quality filled in with odd other lines. It’s also good to make sure everything which you’ve said is clear and to the point, any vagueness will put people off and they’ll soon become bored of reading.
Larry Teaker says
I think a great bit of advice that you give Ali is to always try to appreciate feedback. Whether it comes from friends, family, colleagues or complete strangers, constructive criticism is essential in the process of improvement.
Don’t be a baby! Take it on board, it will help you to grow as a person and a writer.
Reading backwards sounds like a pretty horrifying process, though I can see where it could be effective. That is, if you don’t pound your head against a wall and knock too many brain cells loose before you’re done.
Great tips! I find it most helpful to get feedback from a couple of trusted writer friends, people I know will give me constructive criticism.
Mia Zoll says
I jumped to your site as soon as I read about it. I definitely need a great tag line and some help, who doesn’t need help?
You wanted a little bit about my websites and me
I have several websites,
I buy and sell vintage jewelry,vintage wedding dresses and accessories. I also make and sell glass, silver and gold jewelry, except I don’t have much on my websites right now.
I was working 40 hours a week and doing my websites. I decided that if I worked 25% on my websites as hard as I worked at my 40 hour job, I could make a lot more, so here I am.
The problem is, I don’t know when to quit working, and work on my jewelry. Since I quite my full time job, I am trying to alot some jewelry time so I can work on my Masters Registry in PMC. Very exciting. So there you have it.
Can you write me a tag line?
Thanks for you help
Roschelle~Inconsequential Logic says
“Letting it rest” has worked for me soooo many times. I work nights. when we’re not busy i might start writing my next blog post. i’m usually not able to finish. so, i save until i’m able to get back to it (usually in a day or so)
it’s amazing what time away from something you thought was stellar can actually show you about your writing.
Thank you Ali Hale for such great ideas! It is advisable not to submit the project immediately without proofreading it. One should give it sometime by putting it a side. And the moment it is checked later on, some mistakes can be rectified plus new perspective of ideas emerging. It is a good idea to ask a family member to read it in order to see those mistakes that the writer is unable to notice.
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