Too Close? 5 Techniques to See Our Story Objectively

by Jami Gold on September 16, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Long dock over the water with text: How Do You Get

Each time we complete a first draft, we probably celebrate or post a status on social media. Yay!

After that, we might want to dig into the story right away because we’re still excited and passionate about the premise. But many writers say they do a better job revising and editing if they first do something to gain “distance” from their story.

For many of us, ensuring our readers’ impressions match our intentions is one of the hardest aspects of writing. *raises hand* Distance helps us see our story objectively so we can revise ruthlessly, not clinging to our intentions but seeing our story’s potential.

What Is Distance and How Can We Get It?

I’m sure this isn’t the “official” writing craft definition for distance, but I say distance is anything that allows us to analyze our stories with fresh eyes, seeing what’s really on the page and not just in our head. There’s often a difference between what we meant for the reader to understand and what we actually get across with our words. Distance is whatever helps us see the reality.

Unfortunately, there’s no “always right” formula for being able to see our story objectively, so advice to set it aside for a week/a month/whatever might not help us. We each might need to use a different technique to gain that distance.

Personally, I struggle with gaining distance. I have an odd form of near-photographic memory related to spatial relations that makes it very difficult for me to see my story with fresh eyes. (And I just discovered last week that my mom has the same memory quirk.)

No matter how long I set aside my story, I still feel too close. I’ve set aside one story for years and yet feel like I could quote it from beginning to end. (I’m sure I couldn’t actually do such a thing, but my point is that the words still feel too familiar.)

This quirk means I’ve had to find other ways to see my story objectively. So I figured I’d share my thoughts and see if anyone else has more ideas. *smile*

5 Techniques for Seeing Our Work Objectively

#1: Set It Aside for X Amount of Time

This is the tried-and-true advice that most people recommend. The idea is that over time, we’d forget the details and specifics of our intentions and be able to see the story as it really exists.

Roz Morris joked about her memory being so terrible that she can barely remember a book she read two months ago—whether her own or anyone else’s. As she notes, that’s usually a negative trait, but it might make revising easier.

If this technique works for us, the only question is how long does our work need to be set aside for. That answer is going to be different for everyone, and it might change depending on what else we’ve been doing in the meantime. Reading, drafting, or revising an unrelated story (such as in a different genre) might “reset” our brain more than working on something related.

If we’re able to step back from our memories of drafting (and what we think is there) and instead see the actual words on the page (or the story’s pacing issues, plot holes, etc.), that’s probably long enough. As Roz said, “Leave your book until you’ve forgotten it and are no longer reliving your intentions as you read.”

Whether our answer is a week, a month, or six months, we have to find what works for us. That’s yet another reason why we can’t feel pressure to imitate anyone else’s writing or revision processes.

#2: Get Outside Opinions

Using beta readers and/or critique partners (or editors) is another popular way for getting insights into what’s really on the page. If we’ve ever given ourselves a head-slap after reading a comment about something we could have sworn was included in our story (but isn’t), we know how these outside opinions help us see our story objectively.

Because of how my memory works, I rely entirely on my beta readers to point out issues. Once they point out an issue, then I can see the possibilities for how to change it. But before they point it out, the words might as well be stuck in glue.

Where others might know they need to build in a month or two of “resting” their story, I build in time for my beta readers to share their comments. And due to my memory issue, I’ll never “outgrow” the need for beta readers, no matter how my skills improve.

#3: Read Our Story Aloud

Our brains process auditory signals differently from visual signals, so we’re likely to notice issues when reading aloud that we wouldn’t notice by silent reading. If we don’t relish the idea of going hoarse with a long novel, we might also try text-to-speech (TTS) software.

This blog post gives the rundown on many TTS software options. Some are free, and others work best with a certain operating system or internet browser. Depending on our word processing software, we might already have a TTS feature built in.

Note, however, that for many of us, this technique works better for finding small errors (missing words, extra words, poor rhythm, etc.) than for exploring our overall story.

(Bonus Tip: If we’re at that nitpicky stage, we can also read our work backward to avoid getting caught up in the story. Start at the end of the story and read one paragraph or sentence at a time.)

#4: Change the Look of Our Words

This is another technique that’s often mentioned as a way to proofread our work. However, I’ve also found this helpful for reading my work as “new” overall because the different format doesn’t match my visual memory.

We can change the look of our words by printing out our story, sending the file to our Kindle or other ereader, or by changing the font in our word processing file. For me, the last option is the easiest to do (and saves trees *smile*).

In MS Word, I just Select All and choose a new font. I’d recommend something easy to read but different enough that the words “look fresh.” For me, Bookman Old Style is different enough from my usual Times New Roman, but others might want to choose something even more distinctive. After we’re done editing, we can simply change the font back to what it should be.

#5: Analyze the Story Structure

This technique is why I’m such a fan of beat sheets even though I write by the seat of my pants. Sometimes we can get a sense of the overall story by analyzing its beats or turning points.

If we plot our story on a beat sheet (even after it’s been drafted), we can see how the story builds and ensure that each event connects through cause and effect. This might help us find plot holes, unnecessary scenes, or dropped plot threads. Seeing the overall story can help us write a synopsis or query letter too.

However we find distance, we want to recognize the words as they are on the page without remembering, seeing, or thinking about our intentions. Only then can we see our story as it really is. And hopefully, that insight will help us determine how we can revise and edit to ensure readers will see the story we want them to see. *smile*

Do you struggle to get distance from your stories? Do you notice a difference in how well you’re able to revise and edit when you have distance? What techniques help you find that distance? Are there any techniques that don’t work for you? Do you have any other suggestions for me to try with my writing?

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26 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Jennifer Holm September 16, 2014 at 6:47 am

Nice! I come from an art/graphic design background (among other things, lol) and one of the tools I used to evaluate a piece was a reducing lens. Basically, when you look though it, everything seems very very far away. Perfect for discovering that the lovely lily you’ve been slaving over for two days actually looks like a giant booty (not that that’s ever happened to me, ahem).

Anyway, thanks for the suggestions on how to bring that kind of practice to writing!

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Jami Gold September 16, 2014 at 8:33 am

Hi Jennifer,

LOL! Yikes, I’m glad that’s never happened to you. 😉 I hope you find something helpful here. Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee September 16, 2014 at 11:59 am

Another method: Write the story as fast as possible and possibly while sleep-deprived, so you forget what you wrote by the time you get to editing.

I’ve had this work on some shorter stuff. 😀

I also like having my computer read my writing to me, and I make sure to change the font and font size between different stages of working on a story, to help me see what’s actually there.

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Jami Gold September 16, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Hi Carradee,

LOL! I’ve actually hit that point when fast drafting too, so you’re right. 😀 Thanks for reminding me of that technique!

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Roz Morris @Roz_Morris September 16, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Ooh, thanks for the mention, Jami – and some good points added here! I’ve got my current novel, Ever Rest, in a holding spot at the moment, but the trouble is it’s proving difficult to forget. I keep having ideas and throwing them in a box for when I start revisions but the darn thing won’t stop simmering! Perhaps I’ve finally learned to remember things, just when I’d grown to like being absent minded. 🙂

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Jami Gold September 16, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Hi Roz,

LOL! Yes, that often happens to me too. I like that word–simmering–for that part of the process. 🙂 I hope you manage to figure it out! Thanks for the comment!

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reneeregent September 16, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Great follow-up to last week’s post! I had to back away from my WIP after getting a ton of feedback. Hopefully after a time, I will be able to see it with fresh eyes. In the meantime, I am working on another project completely, so that my brain can be obsessed with a different storyline and characters. So that is my suggestion, work on another project for a while!

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Jami Gold September 16, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Hi Renee,

Great point! Sometimes we need to gain distance after getting a bunch of feedback too. Distance might be able to help us see what suggestions will help us get to the story we want.

As you said, working on something else can help reset our brain too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Musil September 16, 2014 at 8:21 pm

Jami, right now I’m in the avoidance and procrastination part of revision! After going a loooong time without opening this manuscript, I’m a bit frightened by the amount of work that needs to be done. However, distance makes us see more clearly what needs to be done and that’s a good thing. I go months without opening a ms after draft one. With subsequent drafts, I’ll go about a week to a month.

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Jami Gold September 16, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Hi Julie,

LOL! Avoidance and procrastination is often another term for “letting our story rest.” 😉

I know what you mean though. When we’re facing a big revision, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and not know where to start. But as you said, distance can help with that too–seeing what our priorities for the story are. 🙂 Good luck with your revision and thanks for the comment!

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Sharla Rae September 16, 2014 at 9:00 pm

Another great blog Jami. Getting away from the book for a time does work for me and when I don’t have time to do that, I do the reading out loud thing. I’m terrible at reading out loud but it does point out confusing sentences or awkward wording. I used to draft my son into reading it out loud to me which was even better! If he stumbled, I noted it on the MS as he read. These days I have no one to railroad into that job so I guess I’ll go back to reading out loud myself. 🙂

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Jami Gold September 16, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Hi Sharla,

Ha! Yes, I’d like to recruit someone to read my work aloud, but my stories are a bit too spicy for me to do that to anyone, or for me to read it myself anyplace public. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Sharla Rae September 17, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Never asked my son to read the spicy parts. Ha! It would have shocked the poor kid.

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Jami Gold September 17, 2014 at 9:23 pm

Hi Sharla,

LOL! I wasn’t sure how spicy your stories were, so I wasn’t going to judge. 😉

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amanda September 17, 2014 at 5:35 am

I have the hardest time getting “distance” with my writing. Definitely putting it away for some time works, but even then what I want to say and what I have said seem to be two different things. I have found beta readers work really well. Why did character x do this? How do these two know each other? Those questions help a lot. I’ve never tried changing the font on my manuscript. That’s one I will try next. Thanks for the great post, as usual.

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Jami Gold September 17, 2014 at 8:35 am

Hi Amanda,

Yes, it’s so hard to get into readers’ shoes and know how they’d interpret our writing. I hope this gives you some ideas. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Emerald September 17, 2014 at 7:41 pm

I find putting it away for six weeks works best for me. It’s what I’ve done for two of my books now. For my second, I picked it up again after four weeks, and it just wasn’t enough time. After the six weeks, I also used my first beta reader, and I’ll be doing it again on the next one. My two secret weapons to gain better insight and perspective.

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Jami Gold September 17, 2014 at 9:25 pm

Hi Emerald,

Yes, I have a couple of trusted beta readers who are okay with getting my near-first-draft stories. That really helps when I read a block early on and need help to know how to improve the story. They’re my “secret weapon.” 😀 Thanks for sharing!

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R. A. Meenan September 18, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Excellent advice! I generally will take time off from my book between editing sessions, usually a month or more.

I’ve never been a fan of structure, but recently I read through Kristen Lamb’s blog about structure and realized I generally follow structure anyway. It’s just a subconscious thing.

Though I’ve never been a fan of beat sheets. I don’t honestly know how to use them. Maybe I’ll check out your post about that and see if I can figure them out.

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Jami Gold September 18, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Hi R.A.,

I’m a “subconscious structure” person too, in that I didn’t recognize story structure until studying it and then realizing I included it instinctively. A good place to start is with my Basic Beat Sheet. I try to cut through the jargon. 🙂 Good luck and let me know if you have any questions!

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