The paradox of writerly rereading

by James Somers, April 2, 2012

Writing on a sentence level has this feeling, for me, of “flights and perchings,” where for a minute I’m tackling the sentence itself–the cursor is tracing out letters–and for a minute I rest. What do I do in those perchings? Well, I put my head in my hands sometimes, or I look into the distance, or, more often than not, I re-read what I’ve just written: the local context of the part I’m working on, going back maybe a few paragraphs. This last option is partly just a tic, something to do when I’m thinking hard about where to go next; and partly it’s a conscious attempt to make every sentence feel like it’s growing out of the last sentence, the idea being that to write sentence n in a flow-y way you need sentences (n – 3), (n – 2), (n – 1) in your local mental workspace.

But there is a dangerous side effect to all of that re-reading: After a while, if you do it enough, the life will drain out of your sentences. It’s not exactly like that phenomenon where you repeat a word over and over again until it looks weird–but surely it’s related. By the time you’ve finished a draft you’ve read the same sentences so many, so many times, that the experience is nothing at all like what a fresh reader would feel on a fresh reading.

You have to remember that you’re not reading those sentences at the pace of a fresh reader, or in anything like a fresh reader’s state of mind. It’s entirely different, to read sentences when you know what they’re going to say. In fact you’re not actually “reading” when you re-read one of your drafts. You’re swallowing thoughts whole, one sentence at a time. By the time you get to a sentence you know exactly where it’s going; the cluster of thoughts it represents come instantly to mind.

Where in the fresh reader a sentence constructs mental structures, in you, it merely refers to them. And the more you re-read your own sentences, the more that activity slides from construction to referring. Each sentence becomes “that sentence.” The referents calcify and fade; the re-reading becomes shallower and shallower.

(Another way of describing the effect is to say that each time you re-read your draft, the distance between what you think going in and what you think coming out gets shorter and shorter. The needle moves less and less. And of course this is because you develop an ever more stable picture of what your sentences stand for.)

This is probably why writers need editors, or early readers, and why it’s hard to spot your own typos.

I’ve been working on a long article for the last month, and this phenomenon bit me in a big way. By the time I handed it in to my editor I had no idea what it was doing. In 7,500 words it felt like I wasn’t saying anything. The sentences didn’t feel fresh to me, or full, and that’s because they’d been reduced to shallow pointers, and it’s hard, short of not looking at the thing for a week or two, to undo all the work that made such a tight mapping between sentences and swallowable-whole mental structures.

(I wonder if something similar happens to an actor delivering the same monologue over and over again. Much of the challenge of that art must be in continuing to actually read the words, read them full, the way you do the first time.)

Do you see the paradox here? In order to write well you must attend to your words; you’ve got to attack them with insane scrutiny. But as you do, you blunt your own perception. The words deaden over time–precisely because you’ve paid them such close attention.

A less bunko-cognitive-science way of putting all this is that you never really read your own stuff the way you read other people’s stuff. Or at least you need to wait awhile before you do. So it seems to me to be very difficult to take Seymour Glass’s advice to his brother Buddy:

If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.

Sadly that might not be possible, if only because all writing is not just rewriting, but rereading–and rereading is slow poison.