Have you ever stumbled upon an old piece of your writing while cleaning out the plastic storage bin under your bed and thought Holy hell, this is really, really, really . . .? Any number of adjectives could come next; the important thing is that when you unexpectedly smack into your own writing – stories, English papers, journals–after years, you’re able to be surprised by the quality of your own writing, and you just might discover that the normally uphill-both-ways task of objectively judging your own work is suddenly simple. You can read your words after a good chunk of time and think, Is there anything I didn’t describe as “effervescent” or Almost every paragraph I write goes long sentence-long sentence-long sentence-short sentence or (hopefully) Man, I’ve learned a lot since then or, if you’re just a badass, have been for years, Wow, that’s good.
The question is how to reap that same objectivity when you don’t want to bury your latest story under six feet of paperwork for Future You to exhume and critique.
As you grow as a writer, you’ll naturally become better and better able to evaluate your work on the fly. Once you have a few years’ experience weeding your writing of tangents, flowery descriptions that sound nice but don’t really fit your streets-of-Detroit family saga, and the tendency to characterize every guy who wears his hair in a bun as villainous because of that one a-hole bunhead you dated, well, it’s a little easier to spot and eliminate those issues as you go. Still, assessing the good and the bad (and the ugly, the shameful, the repetitive, the stunningly worded, the aptly metaphored, etc.) of your work as a whole can be tough. Tough but possible.
If you need a clear-headed perspective to determine whether your latest composition makes a competent vehicle for the characters, scenes, and story that have been delighting your private thoughts, there are several ways to “jump-start” your own perspective. And while each of these exercises can be truly helpful in evaluating your work anew, they can also encourage a certain overenthusiasm to rewrite. That’s why I recommend you use these primarily as opportunities to take notes on your story (or make changes to a copy saved under a new file name, retaining the original) rather than overhauling it.
Read your work after you’ve finished reading a story that wowed your socks off. Bonus points if it started by wowing off your shoes. This is, incidentally, one of the times it’s best not to drastically alter your writing, so you don’t end up engaging too much in the sincerest form of flattery. Still, with a story you admire fresh in mind, you may be able to better judge whether your work could benefit from some bolstering in the general areas of the revered story’s strengths.
Set your alarm for the middle of the night, do not hit snooze, plant your feet on the floor, and do nothing else (brewing coffee is permitted, however) before you sit down to read what you’ve written. If you’re so loopy-tired that you start to see genius in renaming your main character Flargle because Samantha, as she was once known, when she was a pregnant CEO from Omaha, would be better off written as an alien named after the sound Silly Putty makes when run over on a gravel driveway, abort the mission. Go back to bed. Or drink that coffee you brewed. It’s when you’re able to tap into that alone-in-the-house (and by extension world), invigorated feeling of being up and active way before the norm that you may wrangle a few new insights. Not to mention, you may have going for you that vaguely psychedelic headscape that comes of interrupting a vivid dream. Bring that especially colorful, uncluttered mindset to bear on your story and see what new observations arise.
Read your stuff after you’ve read the sort of story you’re tempted to e-mail everyone you know with the subject line HOW THE HELL IS THIS *^%! PUBLISHED?????? Something bad. If you tend to be very critical of your own writing, this may just remind you of what you’re doing right, giving you a confidence boost that will help with this piece and with writing to be.
At the end of a busy day, preferably one that has called on your problem-solving, multitasking, dozen-hat-donning abilities, read it. This isn’t just about giving yourself an antidote for a stressful day; it’s about forcing yourself into hard gearing-shifting mode, which may adequately mimic returning to your work after a long separation to read it fresh.
In short, read your work however you can think to read it. Aloud. In Moriarty’s voice. While walking down a park trail. When you’re happy. When you’re heartbroken.
You don’t need to “get out of your head,” necessarily, to see your writing for what it is – vacationing to a less familiar locale in your head should do the trick. When you read your story across a spectrum of moods, degrees of wakefulness, etc., you effectively read it from different angles of yourself. And when reading your work means jarring yourself out of an entirely different focus, you can lend yourself the objectivity normally derived only from the passage of time.
Also, when you’re ready, consider enlisting a professional outside perspective. An experienced literary editor can help you evaluate the strengths and needs of your book if you’re feeling too close to the material, if you want a second opinion, or if you just want to make sure your work is the best it can possibly be.
Hannah Earthman is an experienced editor whose background in publishing also includes author interviews and literary reviews.