Great advice from Zadie Smith via Jonah Lehrer: “The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.”

Smith is talking about writing novels and says that “the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.”

While those of us writing shorter pieces under some form of deadline can’t put pieces away for years – or days – we can still use a few tricks to create some distance from our own sentences so we can try to read them as if someone else wrote them. In brief, anything that keeps you from silently rereading the draft straight through from beginning to end will help overcome the tendency to think, “It made sense when I wrote it and it still makes sense.”

  • No matter how little time you have to write a draft, break the process down into steps: note taking, drafting, taking a break, editing. The longer the break, the better able you’ll be to come back to the draft with an editor’s eye.
  • Develop a personal editing checklist and edit for just one thing at a time. See this checklist on The Writing Wiki.
  • If you didn’t use an outline to write the draft, create an outline from what you wrote. This will help you see the structure instead of getting lost in the flow.
  • Read your draft aloud, have your computer read your it to you, or have someone else read it to you.
  • Read the paragraphs in random order to break up the flow. Examine each one for logic and sentencing.
  • Read the sentences in reverse order starting at the end of the draft.
  • If you write at a computer, print out a draft and read it on paper.
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information_overload

Speaking of being conjobulated, it’s clear that what’s happening offline is happening online as well, as indicated by a growing number of articles about the problems of information overload and multitasking. I’ve collected a few on The Writing Wiki.

This from an article on The New Atlantis:

“In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, ‘Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.’”

There’s some serious irony in this quote from “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast” by Matt Richtel:

“The E-Mail Addict feature in Gmail is more of a blunt instrument. Clicking the ‘Take a break” link turns the screen gray, and a message reads: ‘Take a walk, get some real work done, or have a snack. We’ll be back in 15 minutes!’”

Get some real work done in fifteen minutes?

And social media just seem to add to the problem. From Betsy Schiffman in a Wired blog post on Web 2.0 Expo Preview: Torture by Information Overload:

“Now that the first burst of enthusiasm for social networking has died, people are realizing that web 2.0 is actually a huge time sink.

“Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Plaxo may have helped foster community and communication, but they’ve also added immensely to the flow of often-interruptive messages that their users receive, leading to information overload and possibly a nasty internet addiction.”

It’s clear that it isn’t just how much information there is but also the messy way it’s delivered. Facebook and Twitter pump out so much information, I feel I have to check in regularly if I don’t want to miss something important, but by design they display all posts as equal, so I have to look at everything, try in vain to distinguish what might be of value from all the noise, and then follow several links, by which time I’ve lost any momentum I had on a project.

Attempts to adjust workplace habits with 15-minute breaks from email or even email-free days are feeble and don’t account for emergent activity, or for the entrenched attitude that the constant information flow has high value.

What’s needed is a fundamental reevaluation of how we relate to technology, but if this happens, it will likely be the result of a slow self-correcting evolution spurred by profit and nurtured by technology itself in the form of user channels that separate important and unimportant flows and artificial intelligence that learns from profiles and usage patterns how to distinguish important information for the user.

Or maybe it really is my age, and young people growing up in the midst of the flow will give the lie to research conducted by their elders and be just as productive and just as scholarly as any other generation. After all, it’s hard to miss the irony of baby boomers –the first generation to grow up watching far too much television, who were still smart enough and productive enough to lead another major technology revolution – now being worried about the participation of their kids and grandkids in a far less passive technology.

It’s most obvious with non-native speakers of English. Despite knowing more about English grammar than most native speakers and having a broad recognition vocabulary, they often continue to struggle to construct a workable English sentence.

Why?

Here are some excerpts from a 1985 Donald Hall essay in Newsweek titled “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture.”

“When we stopped memorizing and reciting literature, our ability to read started its famous decline. It was the loss of recitation – not its replacements (radio, film, television) – that diminished our literacy.”

“If when we read silently we do not hear a text, we slide past words passively, without making decisions….”

“In the old Out-Loud Culture, print was always potential speech; even silent readers too shy to read aloud, inwardly heard the sound of words. Their culture identified print and voice. Everyone’s ability to read was enhanced by recitation. Then we read aggressively; then we demanded sense…”

“As children speak poems and stories aloud, by the pitch and muscle of their voices they will discover drama, humor, passion and intelligence in print.”

As children – and adults – speak poems, stories, essays, and even well-written news articles and business reports aloud, they also hear the natural syntax, phrasing, and rhythm of English. They learn it as music, and just as song lyrics float around in the mind ready to be called upon when needed, this memorized syntax and phrasing will sit upon the tongue when we write.

Most people think reading is the best training for writing, but we write with our ear, not our eye. We voice our sentences onto the page, and the more we train our ears, the better – clearer, more powerful, more dramatic, more musical – our sentencing will be. Reading silently can help us become better editors, help us spot what looks wrong on the page. But as Donald Hall suggests, most silent readers “slide past words passively.” They pick up some meaning from the words (rarely demanding sense) but hear none of the power or nuance or even basic correctness. They don’t hear what sounds bad and what sounds good.

That’s why so much business and government writing is so awful. It isn’t that the writers aren’t educated or don’t care enough to take the time to do a good job. They simply don’t have a trained ear. Wrote Russell Baker in How to Punctuate, “When you write, you make a sound in the reader’s head. It can be a dull mumble–that’s why so much government prose makes you sleepy—or it can be a joyful noise, a sly whisper, a throb of passion.” If you can’t hear it, you can’t write it.

Even native-speaking adults can improve their ear for the music of English. It’s never too late. To train your ear, pick the best examples of the type of writing you want to do and read them aloud. Hear the music—the richness and variety in the sentencing. Then start reading all sorts of things aloud, and hear the difference. Hear and see the tangled, twisted sentence. Hear and see the difference between dull and dramatic repetition. Then read your own writing aloud.

Beyond helping us write sentences that are more natural, musical, and correct, reading aloud helps us “read aggressively and demand sense.” Only then will we begin to write the same way, examining our sentences to ensure the words work together efficiently to make sense.

This clarity is all the more important today as busy writers communicate in short emails, brief blogs, and 140-character Twitter bursts, while busy readers attempt to consume far more than they can stomach in a day.

Whether you’re goal is correctness, clarity, or power, reading aloud will help.

Bonus tip: If you write in MS Word, you can have Windows XP or Vista read back your drafts using text-to-speech. This is a great way to proofread drafts and hear mistakes you might miss when reading. I’ve started creating instructions for this in The Writing Wiki, but could use some help.

Here’s a crude example of text-to-speech:

I’ve started The Writing Wiki using MindTouch. The inspiration was creating a style, tips, and links resource for my UC Berkeley Extension students, but everyone is invited. Check it out, register, and contribute if you’d like.