Pushing Past Our Comfort Zone – Continuing to Learn When We Think We Know it All

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

– Socrates

I’m at that stage in my writing where I no longer feel like a complete novice. I’ve made many of the classic beginning mistakes – I fell in love with my own words whether or not what I was saying moved the story forward, I sprinkled my sentences liberally with adjectives and adverbs, and the narrative voice? We were best friends.

I’ve since moved on to the more advanced mistakes.

Like becoming a bit complacent with my craft.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot that although I may now be able to whip out some excellent dialogue and show the action of a scene and insert some awesome sensory details and have great pacing and an authentic teen voice that I still have things to learn; that this is an ongoing, evolving journey that I may never truly master.

My friend and fellow critique partner Helen Newton came along just in time to remind me. She gave an excellent presentation at our Tulsa SCBWI schmooze earlier this month where she discussed novel revision techniques. One of her suggestions dealt with reading your manuscript out loud – in different ways, like in a monotone or with an accent. The purpose of this exercise was to make mistakes in your writing easier to see when you hear your words read aloud  – especially by someone else or in a different rhythm. When we become too familiar with our own work, we can miss glaring mistakes that others might see without a problem.

This reminded me of a recent story I heard on NPR about radiologists who were given films of lungs and asked to look for cancerous nodules as part of an experiment. Almost all failed

Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe
Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe

to notice the picture of the gorilla superimposed on the slides  because of their narrowed scope. They were looking for disease, not gorillas. This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness”.

“In other words, what we’re thinking about — what we’re focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see.”

So did I have “inattentional blindness” in my writing? I’d heard this practice of reading one’s work aloud was a good idea before, but never before in such detail. I’d also never had the patience to try it. It was one thing to read a picture book manuscript out loud, but an entire novel? And more than once? Forget it.

But the very next week, I was preparing my submission for our upcoming OK SCBWI conference in April, and I was working on completely new manuscript. I needed some input before submitting it. There was no time to get feedback from the great and mighty dream team, my critique group, so what was I to do? I recruited some beloved family members and gave the read-aloud idea a try. I’m useless when I read my own work aloud because I stop and edit too much, hence negating the whole purpose of the exercise.

I have to admit having two different people read aloud through my pages was really helpful. They both also made helpful editorial comments when they were finished – which showed me that they’d finally learned to spare my feelings and comment from the heart. All of which kept me from sending something out that was less than stellar.

Now if I could just talk them into reading my completed YA manuscript – it’s only 350 pages. I sense a hefty bribe is in order there.

So what about you? Do you read your manuscripts out loud? Do you use a program to read it out loud for you? Do you cajole adoring family members into reading it for you? What other revising exercises do you find helpful for seeing the hidden mistakes?

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4 thoughts on “Pushing Past Our Comfort Zone – Continuing to Learn When We Think We Know it All

  1. Valerie, you are so spot on. The more I know, the less I know I know. Great quote. Here are a few things I do as well at the dreaded revision stage. I put it on my kindle in a new font to see how it feels reading on the e-reader. I also have a non-genre interested reader look it. In other words, someone who reads, values writing, but doesn’t read the genre I write in. I also have have a notebook with me for those ideas that just emerge at odd times (like at work) that the editing process stimulates. That’s more story logic than actual words, but that’s an important part of it too.

    1. ooh! i love the idea of putting your own words onto a different format like the kindle. i should try that for sure. and having someone who loves to read but is not a writer read your work does have some benefit. they can give you overall story comments – what works, what doesn’t, etc. and one should always carry a notebook. (thanks to my daughter, i now have a waterproof one for in the shower!) great suggestions!

    1. hi william. you right click on the image and save the image to your computer. then you can upload it or copy and paste it into your own blog, depending on your blog format. good luck with your post!

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