Something I have been thinking about off and on for a while now (a few years?) is the question of how we read our own writing, especially during the editing stages. What sensibility kicks in when we evaluate and revise the pieces we’ve been working on in search of ways to make them better?
In the midst of reading some projects in various stages of completion, it struck me that I read my work as if through what I imagine is the perspective of someone else. I never to do this while writing, only while editing. This perspective offers me critical voices to draw on–it’s like having other readers with me at the table. Call it Ventrilo-Reading.
The question is to whom do these critical voices belong? The answer seems to be: my teachers and friends. As I read I remember teachers I have had going back some twenty years, and I also think about friends. (And of course, some former teachers remain friends!) As I scan the writing line by line, I imagine these other readers reading, and so for a moment achieve the illusion that it’s not me reading, but them, so seamlessly do I seem to inhabit their sensibilities. As I read I ponder whether or not a line would make sense to them, whether it’s good enough as is, or whether it could be further clarified, further compressed to make its ideas clearer and simpler. Little seems all that clear as I picture my imaginary readers pausing for a moment at a busy juncture or unnecessary word (goodbye adverb), furrowing their brow (as I furrow mine) as they puzzle how they might gently make suggestions to make things better.
My imaginary readers are always on the lookout for BS–all those points at which I lose them by making an unsupported claim or saying something that is simply not germane enough to the matter at hand. “Get rid of this,” they say flatly, striking it with a single pen stroke. (Why do we see more looking at hard copy rather than the screen?) Or maybe it isn’t a matter of BS but an idea is clearly is in the wrong place or repeats something that was already said. “Move it here,” they offer, drawing an arrow towards an appropriate destination.
Working line by line, heeding these incisive suggestions by my imaginary readers who noticed stuff that I didn’t, I tweak and move and delete words and phrases. As I do so, the project and its ideas become humbler and maybe a bit less sure of themselves. With the right edits though, the writing also becomes cleaner. “Finally,” the voices say, glad that I’ve heeded their suggestions, “it’s getting better.” And as the prose gets cleaner and thus clearer, I sometimes receive an unexpected gift. Just like that, my critical readers have vanished, replaced by another imaginary audience–general readers who can finally follow along. If I’m lucky I might hear them speak: “I see what you’re trying to say.”