Let it Sit

Friday, May 07, 2010
by Marcia Peterson

Have you ever read an old piece of your work, something from way back, where it seemed as if the words were written by someone else? Reading it again, weaknesses stand out in ways they did not before. Perhaps plenty of good writing is there too. Either way, it's distance from your work that provides the new and helpful perspective. By allowing enough time to pass, you can experience a neutral reading of your writing projects, allowing you to clearly see what to change to make your work the best it can be.

For how long do you need to set something aside before looking it over again? It varies according to the type of writing. In my prior career I wrote lengthy business letters, which I printed out and proofread before deciding they were good to go. With especially long or complicated correspondence I'd wait until later in the day to send it and to my surprise, I'd sometimes find one or two errors that were invisible to me just hours earlier. With other types of writing, such as essays or articles, I've noticed that it can take a few days or weeks until the work can take on the strange otherness that allows me to read it fresh. This new, impartial reading almost always points to places to revise or tighten up to makes things better.

"The more time you allow between writing, rewriting, and rereading, the more objective you will be about what you've written," David Carroll says in A Manual of Writer's Tricks. He recommends a specific waiting period for certain kinds of work. Here is his recommended schedule:

*When writing any report or work of nonfiction: Do not reread it the next day. Wait at least three days. A week is better if you have the time, and two weeks better still. Then reread and correct.

*When writing a short story: Wait at least a month before rereading it and rewriting it.

*When writing a novel: Finish it, correct it, re-write it, and put it away for six
months. (An entire year would buy you even more objectivity, but that's asking a
lot.) Then take it down, read, and revise as required.

This approach obviously requires real discipline because it asks that you complete work ahead of deadline. You'll need to give yourself the necessary time between creation and due date to let the work rest, and become somewhat foreign to you. An agent or editor will surely be reading with this sense of detachment toward your work, so the rewards of waiting, then revising are well worth it.


Laura said...

This is old, but still great, advice - in Horace's Ars Poetica from 18 BC he says you should let a manuscript sit in a drawer for 6 years before you even consider showing it to someone else. :-)

Marcia Peterson said...

6 years is probably ou of the question for most people! :) But I do agree that the longer the wait, the better. You really see the work in a different way.

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