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You write a little. You go back and read it. You write a little more. You start from the beginning, re-read the first little bit and then read the little bit you just added. You write a tiny bit more onto that but now…you’re starting to feel weird. You’re starting to feel anxious. Sure, you sort of liked what you read, but it could just be improved in so many places. The language is too flowery, or too simple. The structure is too convoluted and it’s obvious any other reader is going to be confused. Maybe you should go back and fix it…here…and here…and right there.
You re-read it again. Now it definitely looks like crap.
What happened? Things started out so promising. You had this awesome idea, and these great characters playing around in your head. You even had this delicious shadowy feeling about the ending, and it was going to be explosive. Riveting. But now, re-reading the first few pages, nothing looks like you pictured it in your mind. And instead of feeling excited when you think about your story, you’re starting to feel downright depressed.
That’s what happens when you re-read your work over and over, before it’s finished.
Have you ever had to dress up for something special? A date with someone you really like, or an interview for a job you really want? It’s easy to get sucked into trying on ten different outfits and fussing with your hair in a million different ways, until looking in the mirror becomes something like torture. Suddenly, nothing looks right, much less fabulous. And then you try on that first outfit again because you know you felt halfway decent in it, only to discover that now, that same outfit looks completely hideous.
It’s the vortex of self-doubt. And it doesn’t matter if you’re re-reading the pages you’ve just written, or trying to look stunning for the red carpet. If you’re emotionally invested in a certain outcome, a certain set of expectations about what you should look like or the level your writing should be at, it’s easy to get sucked into a black hole of critical energy. When we re-read our work over and over again, before we have the entire sloppy first draft in front of us, this negative energy moves in and quickly takes over.
So what’s the difference between re-reading sections of your work before it’s finished and re-reading the sloppy first draft after you cross the finish line?
When your story is still incomplete, you are much more likely to give up on it.
Yes, your whole sloppy first draft is going to exhibit all the problems, inconsistencies, and awkwardness of any other individual section of your writing. And yes, you’re probably going to cringe when you read the entire thing through for the first time, and you’ll be disappointed in places because it doesn’t match up to your expectations. But something else will happen too. You’ll see themes that you would have missed if you only had one section to work with. You’ll be surprised, and even delighted, in other places when the writing surpasses what you thought you could do. Overall, working with a finished first sloppy draft is a radically different experience than concentrating on just one chapter of your incomplete book.
I’ve talked to many writers who struggle with this problem. In fact, it’s common for writers to come to me with what they believe are possibly irreconcilable problems with their book, saying that “the plot just doesn’t work” or “the characters are one-dimensional”, and when we delve in further it turns out the real problem is that they’ve written part of the book, or only a couple of chapters, and they’ve been re-reading this material over and over again, picking it apart mercilessly.
Now, sometimes it is necessary to go back and re-read in order to remind yourself of where you are in the story, or figure out if a certain event has happened yet. That’s totally fine. But keep it brief. Really just go back to quickly check on this or that, and then concentrate all your energy on writing new stuff and moving forward. The very first time you do any detailed, line-by-line careful reading of your book should be after you’ve written the very last page.
Truthfully, this approach is really hard. I won’t lie to you, it is. Every writer wants to re-read the new stuff, like two minutes after we’ve gotten it down on the page. Our brains get a definite reward in doing that. And if you’re the type of writer who can give it a once over and then leave it be and keep moving forward, more power to you. But if you’re not finished writing your book, and you’re re-reading parts of it over and over, feeling panicky, depressed, and despairing that you’ll ever make it work, stop re-reading. Ban yourself from revisiting the material you already have, and look ahead, to the work you need to create.
It’s like that feeling of looking into the mirror a thousand times until you’re unhappy with what you see. Your reflection didn’t change, but your perception did. If we can suspend judgment until we have an entire finished draft to work with, we have a much better chance of our perceptions not getting in the way.