14 June 2010

Captain Obvious

So you're reading along in your story, and you think things are going great. You even make it all the way to the end, and there was just that one typo that needed fixing. The plot makes sense, it's kind of funny, and now, it's cleanly written. No flab, no superfluous anything. It's great.

So off to the beta readers it goes.

Their feedback returns, and you sit there having an hour-long *facepalm* moment. Why is it that all these things they point out to you suddenly seem SO OBVIOUS, and yet before you couldn't have seen them if someone had been waving a million dollars at you?

Possibly because someone waving a million dollars at you is, you know, kind of distracting.

But there are other more relevant reasons. I tried to search for some journal articles to back this up, and failed kind of epically. But it's common sense, anyway, so we'll just plow ahead!

The biggest, and most annoying, factor is that familiarity interferes with our ability to perceive correctly. We've probably all experienced this, in writing as well as life. The sentence you read five times over only to realise on the sixth time that it says something different to what you thought, the keys you spent ten minutes searching for only to find right in front of you, and so on and so forth. Situational blindness, I think it's called. *wishes she had found the articles she was looking for*

The way we interpret things also messes up how we perceive things. Two classic examples:

Count the number of 'f's in this sentence:

Finished files are the resultof years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.

Hopefully, you counted six f's. If not, go back and try again. If you're anything near normal, you didn't count any of the f's in the word 'of', because we pronounce it ov, not off, so our brain just skims right over it.

Finally, where things are influences how we notice them. Now read this:

Did you notice the repetition of the word 'the'? Just goes to show, positioning matters.

So what can you do about all these perception problems when you're trying to edit something? Number three is probably the easiest to combat - just change the font, the size, the layout, or the medium (ie print it out if you've been working on-screen). Number two is a little harder to fix, but if you're careful and thorough, you can usually catch all the mistaken-perception errors.

Number one is the really troublesome one. What can you do when you're too familiar? When you know what you mean, so you can't tell if the sentence means what you want it to? Or the scene? Or the entire story?

First up, get some distance. As much as it takes, and this will be different not only for every person, but for every project. Put it down, put it away, and take some time to forget the specifics of what you've written.

A kind of cheaty way to do this is what I do with novel drafts (doesn't work with shorts; they're too short): I write as though it's NaNoWriMo, and I never go back to check things. What this means is that by the time I've finished the draft, I have a pretty solid idea of what I want the story to be, and what I think it is. But because I wrote the first words months ago, I have no idea if they actually match up or not. So when I reread them for the first time, with the novel completed, it's like I'm reading them for the first time and am just trying to match them up to the picture in my head.

But like I said, that doesn't work with shorts, because they're, well, short. So what else can you do? Two things. One, get yourself some really good beta readers. Published authors have their agents and editors for this, but even pubbed authors sometimes use beta reader friends. Beta rule the earth. Find good ones.

Two, checklists. If you've sent multiple things to beta readers and are getting the same kind of feedback, chances are you've got a weak spot. WRITE IT DOWN. Somewhere OBVIOUS, so that next time, when you edit, you can look at it and go - hey yeah! I need to check for that! Your checklist can also include common things that you know you need to do, but might forget. For example, I had one short story come back from my betas recently and the major concern is that there is no character development - the MC doesn't grow, change, or have a journey of any kind. And how basic is that? Talk about a *facepalm* moment.

Betas and checklists, different fonts and thoroughness. What else do you use to try to help you catch the Captain Obvious stuff that you might otherwise miss when you're writing?


Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

This is a really awesome post, Inky One. I'm thinking it deserves a mention on Lit Lab and possibly a post devoted to it.

I've found that time is the best thing for me to be able to catch things that should have been obvious before. I'm doing that now with both Monarch and Cinders.

Krispy said...

Great, helpful reminder! And I mean, this concept is obvious too, so it's a double Captain Obvious!

Definitely get the different format tip. I find a lot more to correct when I read something printed out than I do on the screen.

Inkblot said...

Glam - thanks so much! Let me know if Lit Lab ends up doing something on it :) Time helps me for most stories - but there are a couple that I just couldn't find the obvious in without someone else's help o.0 :)

Krispy - lol at the double Captain Obvious! :D Different formats are pretty much the ONLY way I can edit my own stuff. I miss too much, otherwise.

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