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Top Ten Writing Tips–Tip #2: I Need Distance!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Originally posted May 11, 2010

You’re probably familiar with these two adages:

    Familiarity breeds contempt.
    Absence makes the heart grow fonder

In the Disney version of Robin Hood, when talking about the fact Marian hasn’t seen Robin since they were “children” and that “he’s probably forgotten all about me,” Lady Cluck says, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Marian follows that up with, “Or forgetful.”

And that’s the basis of today’s tip.

Writing Tip #2. Put your manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can after you finish the first draft.

You want to forget as much as possible about it before you start revisions—that way, you can be more objective about it.

This topic makes me think a lot about the flooding in Nashville [in early May 2010]. No matter where anyone was on Saturday and Sunday during the storm and in the immediate aftermath, we couldn’t get a clear idea of exactly what was going on. All I knew was it was raining a lot, there were reports of flash floods, I’d seen some footage on TV, and I knew it was continuing to rain. It wasn’t until Monday, when the rain stopped and the pictures—and especially the aerial footage from the news helicopters—started surfacing that I started to realize just how bad everything was. The helicopters were able to gain distance and show us the bigger picture, show us things that we never would have seen from the ground, even right in the messiest part of the disaster. And it wasn’t until several days had passed that we were able to truly start assessing the damage.

When we’re in the midst of writing a manuscript, we’re so close to it, we can’t see misused or missing words. We can’t see where we’ve used telling language instead of showing. We can’t see info dumps or excessive explanation or description. It isn’t until we’ve cleared the manuscript from our minds, until we’ve allowed ourselves to move on to something else for a little while, that we can begin to see the things that need to be addressed.

You may already have experience with this concept—we subconsciously use it in problem solving quite a bit. When we have a problem or a dilemma and we just can’t come up with a solution, an answer, sometimes the best thing to do is walk away. A couple of years ago, I related this anecdote in a post about satisfying endings:

I edited . . . a hidden pictures book—the kind where there’s a line-drawing picture and you have to find all of the odd little items hidden in the drawing. I spent the entire day with a highlighter finding all of the socks, fish, bananas (on almost every one of the 26 pictures!), ice-cream cones, etc., hidden throughout pictures of kids outside playing ball, skateboarding, swimming. . . . On one spread, I even found a bird (it was the first thing I saw when I looked at the page) that wasn’t listed along the side as an item to find. But then I got to one near the back. I found most of the items quickly, but then I was completely stymied. There were three items I couldn’t find for the life of me. After half an hour of looking at it from every angle possible, I finally gave up and moved on to the next page.

I went back and tried to find the items again. No luck. So, I finally went to lunch.

After lunch, I went back to that page. Within ninety seconds, I had found the three “missing” items. All it took was a little time away and fresh eyes.

Though in that case, it was only an hour or two later that allowed me to see the solution to my “problem,” with a manuscript—because of the prolonged investment of time and energy—we obviously need a more extended period away from it to gain the appropriate objectivity, that “fresh eye.”

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg wrote:

It is a good idea to wait awhile before you reread your writing. Time allows for distance and objectivity about your work. After . . . a month, sit down and reread [it] as if it weren’t yours. Become curious: “What did this person have to say?” Make yourself comfortable and settle down as though it were a good novel you were about to read. Read it page by page. Even if it seemed dull when you wrote it, now you will recognize its texture and rhythm. . . .

Another good value to rereading . . . is that you can see how your mind works. Note where you could have pushed further and out of laziness or avoidance didn’t. See where you are truly boring. . . .

. . .[W]hen you go over your work, become a Samurai, a great warrior with the courage to cut out anything that is not present. Like a Samurai, with an empty mind who cuts his opponents in half, be willing to not be sentimental about your writing when you reread it. Look at it with a clear, piercing mind. . . .

See revision as “envisioning again.” If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind’s picture. . . .

Often, you might read page after page of your notebooks and only come upon one, two, or three good lines. Don’t be discouraged. . . . Underline those good lines. . . . And when you sit down to practice you can grab one of those lines and keep going.

(Goldberg, pp. 172–176)

For Discussion . . .
In your writing (or in life), how has gaining distance brought you new perspective? How has it helped you with your story, with editing, with problem-solving?


Works Cited:

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2005. Print.

Robin Hood. Dir. Wolfgang Reitherman. Walt Disney Productions. 1973. Animated Film.

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