11 March 2013

the beginning is the end: the benefits of editing backwards

Today I am letting you in on one of my personal editing and teaching secrets. Come on, move in closer ... A little closer ... just a little closer. Ready?

I read backwards.

I'm pretty sure this editing (and grading) strategy came from an old reading habit. You know how most people read the first few pages or the first chapter of a book to figure out if they want to read it, building anticipation for "where it goes from here" or "how it ends"? I am totally the opposite. My reading habit has, for a long time, been to read the last few pages. Yes ... I am a self-spoiler. There's just something about knowing what's coming, but having to figure out how the characters and authors got there that excites me into wanting to read a novel.

"the end is the beginning"

So how does this work for editing a novel manuscript? I don't know about you, but by the time I get to the end of the novel I'm working on I'm a proud mommy. I've bled, sweated, and cried my way to the end, so that when I actually write those final words it's often met with a sigh of relief, a tear of joy ... and an almost complete inability to look at it objectively.

Reading and editing your manuscript backwards almost immediately inverts the writing process. When you begin a project, the primary question you ask as you work is "What comes next?" What do your characters do now? Where do they go from here? How do they respond to what just happened? When you work backwards through the manuscript, you change the question. Now the question becomes "How did I get here?" It's a helpful question, because instead of being proud of getting from point A to point B, you enter the critique stage of ensuring that point B makes sense, and so does point A, and allow yourself to question each call without being influenced by knowing "what comes next."

"a declaration of independence"

Any well-written paragraph in a manuscript has a certain level of independence. The task of reading from end to beginning is ensuring that necessary independence. Reading from beginning to end makes each paragraph dependent on the one before. In the process of writing, or reading, your manuscript chronologically, you allow what came before to influence your impression of what comes next. That's not necessarily a bad thing ... but it makes it very hard to not become attached to what you've written.

Reading a manuscript backwards, paragraph by paragraph, is a useful way to somewhat "detach" yourself from the work you've done. You avoid allowing yourself to get caught up in the pleasurable flow of what you've written, and instead force yourself to see each step, each paragraph, each action separately for how it works apart from what's come before it.

"the road less traveled"

I would, on occasion, suggest to different students as they struggled through a paper that they try this technique. I'd tell them to begin by reading the conclusion, and asking themselves, "How did I get to this conclusion?" The paragraph before the conclusion, then, needs to answer that question. It needs to provide evidence supporting the conclusion the author came to. The topic sentence at the beginning of that paragraph should provide a link between that paragraph and the one before it. The paragraph before that, then, needs to provide evidence of the claim the author came to in that paragraph ... and so on from there until the author reaches the introduction, which needs to provide a foundation for all the work and writing the author had just reviewed. I would sometimes grade essays this way as well, particularly if it was a topic that I was already very familiar with; rather than letting my own understanding of a topic influence my reading of the student's paper, I instead was forced to read it looking to make sure each point flowed logically.

I encourage you, as writers, to give this same practice a shot. Allow yourself, as a reader and editor, to distance yourself from your role as a writer and creator. See how this "new perspective" on your own work can change both how you read your work and how you revise it!

Your Turn: What is your favorite way to edit and revise your manuscript? How do you avoid getting caught up in the narrative you've woven to allow yourself to edit it objectively? Feel free to share your tips and techniques in the comments below!

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