Zadie Smith, writing in The Believer, offers future novelists some advice:
When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second – put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year of more is ideal – but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go on stage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out 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.
So true. Although it’s always depressing reading old writing – the flaws are so obvious – it really is the ideal editing state. When prose is too familiar, all of those errors, excess adjectives, mediocre metaphors, etc. have a way of fading into the background. Or maybe you notice the flabby sentence, but you think: “I can’t kill that pretty line. It took me an hour to write.” Good editing must be ruthless.
Now for the rampant, reckless neuroscientific theorizing. The lab of Stanislas Dehaene has done some very cool work distinguishing between two reading pathways in the brain. When we are reading “routinized, familiar passages” a particular area of the brain known as the visual word form area (VWFA, or the ventral pathway) is activated. This pathway processes letters and words in parallel, allowing us to read on auto-pilot.
They asked 12 adult participants to read words of different lengths that were either intact or degraded (transformed) in one of three ways: they were rotated up to 90 degrees in either direction; extended visually in length, with up to three spaces between letters; or shifted into the far right or left visual field. As one might expect, the more degraded the visual representation of these words, the longer it took to comprehend them. Furthermore, reading time was related to the length of the words only when they were very degraded, suggesting that degraded words were being consciously deciphered. So far, so predictable. Results from functional MRI scans, however, provided far more interesting insights. Although intact or slightly degraded words activated the VWFA and the ventral route, text that was highly degraded activated another area often described as part of the dorsal route. This route has been linked to letter-by-letter processing especially in children who are learning to read.
This suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of fluency, with easy sentences full of cliches and printed in legible helvetica font being the most robotic while tougher sentences with rambling sub-clauses, rare words and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort (and more activation in the dorsal pathway).
My hypothesis is that reading some writing that you’ve just written relies on some hyper-version of the ventral pathway. You’re so familiar with the words that you don’t even really notice them – it’s reading at its most mindless. In contrast, when you follow Zadie Smith’s advice and allow your sentences to be forgotten, you rely on a slightly less automatized version of the ventral stream. The end result is that you actually have to think about what’s on the page. And that’s when you get out your red pen.