Step 1: Step Back
Step 2: Stop Playing God
Step 3: Shake Off Your Curse of Knowledge
Step 4: Get in Your Reader’s Head
Is it over? Just four steps to editing your own work? Of course not! Coming up next: some Strategies, some Technical Considerations and How to Put it All Together and Actually Do It.
The fourth perspective that you need in order to edit your own work is a clear sense of what the experience is like for the reader who is reading your work. This is the perspective that the vast majority of new writers never seek. They may step back and look at their work objectively, they may stop playing god, they may try to shake off their curse of knowledge, but holding the reader’s perspective in their heads seems too difficult and mind-bending. And so they don’t.
I would venture to say, however, that this skill – the ability to think about the reader’s experience of your work – is one of the primary things that elevates a piece of writing from good to great. If you can craft an experience that lets the reader into your protagonist’s head (and make no mistake – there may not be a protagonist in works of memoir and self help, but the theory still applies**) they will actually feel what that character is feeling – not sort of feel it, but actually feel it.
Recent MRI studies have proved this phenomenon. A piece by Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times explains:
“Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions `theory of mind.’ Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”
In other words, as Paul’s article goes on to say, “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.”
The writer’s job is to deliver that experience to your reader. How do you do that? There are four main ways – and when you are editing your own work, you want to be conscious of each of them. This will be clunky at first but as you practice doing it, it will become more and more automatic:
1. Let the reader know what the protagonist is thinking and feeling, not just what they are doing or what is happening. In memoir, that means you let the reader know what YOU were thinking and feeling. In how-to and self help books, you let the reader know what someone doing or experiencing the thing you are talking about could expect to think and feel. The thinking and feeling part is how we connect to the work. It’s our way in. As agent Ann Rittenberg said, “I see plenty of writing that has kernels of good in it, but it’s hedged around with so much tentativeness, or uncertainty, or excess, or stinginess, that it doesn’t allow the outsider – the reader – in.” The upshot? Be generous in sharing what your protagonist is thinking and feeling. It’s a gift you are giving your reader.
2. Let the reader know why those feelings matter to the protagonist. It’s not enough just to show or describe the feelings. You also have to tell us (yes, tell) what they mean to that person and why that meaning matters to them. Our readers are constantly asking, “Why should we care?” and we need to answer.
One way to think about all this in terms of your writing is SAY-MEAN-MATTER. Those are the three levels they use to teach literary analysis at my kids’ high school. Say is the surface level of things – what the writer is saying. Mean is the next level down – what does this actually mean to the writer, to the reader, to anyone? Matter is where all the richness lies – the answer to the “why should we care?” question. As writers, our job is deliver on all three of those levels.
If you want to explore more about why humans are so hell-bent on finding meaning, check out these two fabulous videos:
- Comedian Louis CK. Three minutes long. SO worth it.
- Business guru Simon Sanek on how great leaders start with why. This Ted talk has 20,000,000 + views for good reason.
3. Let things unfold. The reader wants to be in the moment as if we are experiencing it. We want to feel it. If you race through, and things whiz by, we won’t be able to have the pleasure of immersion. One of my dear friends said that in times of typical teenage upset, her mother used to always say, “Let life unfold. You can’t force a flower to open any faster than it’s going to open.” I love this mother and this advice – and it applies to stories and arguments as much as it does to teenage angst. Give your work the space it needs to unfold and let the reader be in it as it does. I sometimes say to my students, “Let it breathe,” and this is the same principle. The work needs time and space to unfold.
4. Raise questions and you answer them. Readers are curious. Indulging our curiosity is one of the great pleasures of reading. A book should have one primary question that it is answering (what your point is), but along the way, it should raise and answer a gazillion other, smaller questions. Writers who have mastered the rhythm of how to do this – how long a reader will wait before they get frustrated, how long a reader can hold a piece of information in their head – tend to write the kinds of books that become blockbusters.
A prime example of this is the opening chapter to the first book in the Harry Potter series. You’ve all no doubt read it. Read it again, and this time, note down how J.K. Rowling raises and answers questions — and when.
- Right from sentence one, we know that there is something “not normal” afoot. We want to know what it is – so a question is raised.
- From sentence two, we know whatever is happening is strange and mysterious, so it’s a bit of information, a bit of an answer.
- On page 2, we get more information: there is a cat reading a map and then there are owls swooping overhead, so we begin to think magic? This is a second question that builds on the first, and we get to be in on the game as it unfolds – the game of what’s happening here? And why does it matter?
- On page 6, actual magic begins to take place and we begin to understand the world we are in…. It’s very satisfying. We feel IN it. We have been allowed to watch it unfold. And while it unfolded – this main story question – we met several interesting and intriguing character, who raised many questions we now want answered, as well.
See how Rowling is in control of your curiosity here? It’s such a pleasure to read. Which is, of course, the whole point….
** In memoir, the character you are creating on the page is the protagonist. You are also the narrator, and you are also the author who is creating that narrator. All the same rules apply about asking question, letting things unfold, and letting the reader into what you are thinking and feeling and what it all means.
In how-to and self help, there is also a kind of protagonist, although we wouldn’t use that word to describe it, but it is a mirror of ideal reader, the person you are teaching or guiding or serving. It is someone who has some sort of specific pain that you are setting out to alleviate by your wisdom. Your reader wants to know that you feel this pain, that you understand it, that you have a solution for it, that you have the authority to fix it. They want to know at every turn why you, the author, believe it to be painful and what you, the author, know about why it matters and what it means. Being in control of the questions you are raising and answering is critical in this genre, too. You want to be like a master guide, leading your reader through the wilderness, showing them the way with authority and grace.