The Frontal Cortex

Reading Yourself

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.

But Dehaene and colleagues recently performed an experiment that allowed them to explore a separate reading pathway in the brain:

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.


  1. #1 Kevin D. Washburn
    July 3, 2008

    Great insights, and the neuroscience element provides a potential explanation why delayed revision works best. I love writer/editor Susan Bell’s (2007) thoughts on this topic. Revising, she explains, is “a conversation,” an interaction between the writer and text that generates waves of improvement (p. 6). The writer approaches the draft as a critical reader and “converses” with what he previously wrote, attacking the draft, determined to give his voice the best possible expression.

    Bell, S. (2007). The artful edit: On the practice of editing yourself. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

  2. #2 Yule Heibel
    July 3, 2008

    While I’m a big fan of revising, the advice to do so with an eye on the neuroscience findings could potentially cut both ways, and have some not-so-great consequences as a result.

    Can we generalize to say that reading on auto-pilot is not the ideal state of reading for comprehension, or (dare I say it?), “art”/ “literature”/ and all that?

    If so, here’s how the advice might cut against desired outcomes.

    For example, let’s say after re-reading you decide that your text needs to communicate better, and so you “upgrade” your convoluted, complicated prose to fluency, …which can however mean that you make it easier to swallow for exactly those people you wanted to awaken: your readers, who you hope you can shake out of their auto-pilot habit.

    For communicators in business and marketing, reaching the masses on auto-pilot is not a bad goal. For writers trying to have a conversation (as per the previous commentor’s reference to Bell’s book), it might not be quite so good.

    Maybe a revision is like dancing while talking/conversing, except in your head. Sort of like architecture as frozen music and all that…

    But by all means, revise, revise, revise. Believe it or not, I actually revised this comment — and it’s still clunky! Maybe I’ll come back in 3 months or 2 years and try again! 🙂

    PS: I love your blog, by the way, and am still a huge fan of your article on Elizabeth Gould in Seed Magazine (as well as your other writings, of course!).

  3. #3 Lee Pirozzi
    July 3, 2008

    I always go back into any work when it is left in my art
    studio for a while. Sometimes I bring the work out of the studio and place it in different lights and different areas
    of the house so that I walk by it for a few days – and I inevitably make changes. I believe that while I am sometimes in a creative rage to use the energy to finish, I start feeling it more than seeing it, and it is great to capture that in the work. Later, I can go back into the art without the creative fever and correct oversights.

  4. #4 Kevin D. Washburn
    July 3, 2008

    Lee, your revision process as an artist has similarities to that of Randy Moberg. Check out “Anatomy of a Painting” at

    I wonder if neurological differences exist for the various stages of non-verbal, artistic development. Would be an interesting study!

    If Lehrer’s hypothesis is correct, it provides a brain-based explanation to a writer’s common experience: we revise better with time between the initial draft and a return to it. Changes in our thinking-in our cognitive approach to the text-must exist between the drafting and revising. I’ve always ascribed this to greater objectivity, but even that implies a change in thinking, which may indicate neurological differences in the two processes.

  5. #5 GrayGaffer
    July 3, 2008

    Not only the Arts: I as a computer programmer write a lot of code, and its readability is a significant factor in the composition. For several reasons:

    1: the main one, 6 months or more down the road somebody else is probably going to have to make some change. Some of my early days of ‘clever coding’ got thrown away and re-written from scratch at this point, not particularly economic. Now KISS reigns.

    2: It is not uncommon when reading over recently written code to mis-read. You know some part is correct, and each time you read over it you see its correctness. Yet ultimately it turns out to not be correct. Maybe one character wrong, or an increment omitted. Even knowing this happens is not enough to avoid it.

    3: re 1: as often as not the poor sap having to make the changes is yourself. Doesn’t seem to make it any better, or easier. So now I code for clarity first, and only compress/fold it as and if that becomes necessary for execution speed or space. Lately of course these limits are much rarer to encounter.

  6. #6 Susan Amy
    July 4, 2008

    I am an amateur writer, editor and proofreader. When having to re-read what I have written and don’t have the luxury of letting it sit, I employ tricks to break the auto-pilot. Sometimes, even just changing the font can work. Or printing out on coloured paper. Being strongly auditory, I like a person whose voice I like to read my writing back to me and that way it’s easier to spot something that jars. When there is no one around to do this for me, an exaggerated melodramatic reading aloud helps me notice true absurdities in adjective use or plateau clauses.
    I bought your book on audible first and am now reading it. Thank you – it was exactly what I needed for a Memoirs Writing workshop I held last year.

  7. #7 Ron Crossland
    July 6, 2008

    The general idea here seems to be to change the way your brain interacts with what you have written. Changing from “writer” to “reader.”

    The delay technique has always proven helpful for me. But the most helpful is reading what I have written aloud to someone else. The reading-speaking brain neurology seems to open up a new route to me to discover not only what “sounds” clunky, unclear, or flat – but more interestingly it actually activates my creativity and I come up with new insights about the piece I’m writing (whether nonfiction, fiction, or poetry).

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