Monday, February 22, 2010

Step Away From The Vehicle

Zadie Smith in Changing My Mind:
When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second- put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal- but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you will need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in our hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the page and couldn’t see a comma out of place. And by the way, that’s true of the professional editors, too; after they’ve read a manuscript multiple times, they stop being able to see it. You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions, it’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.
I’ve had that same experience for as long as I’ve been writing. I’ll draft out a post one night and go over it four or five times and think I’ve changed everything that I possibly could- that I might as well publish it right now because there’s nothing left to change, then come back to it the next morning and realize just how clunky that opening sentence is, that my examples are totally in the wrong order, and that I can’t conclude it like that. It’s exactly what Zadie says: I stopped being able to see it. You end up with your eyes right up against the screen, and you need to step back and see it from afar. You need Beginner’s Mind. Putting some time and space in between your last revision lets you see it from a different perspective.
 
This doesn’t just apply to writing- in anything you are working on, whether it’s a product or a website or an ad campaign, you can get caught up in the minute details- should this image be two pixels to the left? And stepping away from the vehicle will provide a different perspective. Of course, only seeing it from a distance isn’t the key either- there’s a combination of alternating distances that gives something the best chance of success. The key is to be able to know what distance you’re at, and to know when to step away from the vehicle.

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