Do a slow read of your writing. Have you chosen your words well? Is your mind jumping ahead because the text is perfected or because you could cut it and lose nothing? If you don’t want to read those words, will anyone else?
We often have so much to read we get very good at skimming. When we check our own work, we have a lot to review, so we rush ahead, looking for meaning, scanning for rough spots.
When do you take the time to slow down? When do you do a final, careful read, taking in every word?
This is the point of reading out loud. It slows you down. You can’t avoid seeing the mistakes. You can’t skip the chaff. You have to wade around in the mud and get your hands dirty.
Sometimes you don’t want to slow down because it can be ugly. Scary. Soul destroying.
It’s also time-consuming. “I’ve got a whole book to write! How can I spend such time on each page?”
Well, it’s exactly what you need to do to pass the isolated sentence test. Every sentence needs to be a good sentence. You shouldn’t let any slip by. Every weak sentence dilutes the overall quality of your work.
The best way to make sure you pass the “slow read” test when the time comes is to write with depth, precision, and richness. This usually means writing slowly, an equally time-consuming task. In the end, coming or going, slowing down might vastly improve your writing.
The value of a slow read is also the reason many great authors advocate copying passages from the books you love best. When you copy, you slow down even further. The mechanics just aren’t quick. It works on the computer, but even more when you use pen and paper. You are also free to stop and think at any point — those words aren’t going anywhere.
While you copy, you’ll find your head filing with questions about the words. As you proceed, your mind will also fill with answers and insights. “I didn’t see that before,” will be a common thought. “I didn’t realize this linked to that. This passage is far more profound than I realized the first time I read it!”
Copying a good-sized paragraph can bring deeper insights than any you’ve had before about exactly how that author put his book together. The point of copying is to go deep into the text. When we read, even slowly, we still only get a portion of the full meaning of a high-quality book.
The depths found in great books is why we can read them more than once. Yes, we re-read with the ending in mind, so we see everything in a new light. But it’s also true that new details jump out that weren’t seen on the first pass. There is always more to uncover. Great authors are exceedingly generous to readers.
Do slow reads of your writing, if you aren’t already, as a common practice. It’s best if you read aloud to force yourself to never skip even a single word. Reading aloud takes more time than reading in your head. Kids hear each word when they start reading. They are still working to decipher letters and grasp the mechanics of reading. As this shifts to automatic, the voices go away, and words go straight to the comprehension parts of the brain. As adults, we read too quickly to hear voices. We read far faster than people speak, and the brain dispenses with listening.
What if you stop yourself and force yourself to hear every word? When you do, are you bored? Does it go too slowly? Do you gain new meaning? This will depend on what you are reading, so trying it on different books, when you are in different moods, underscores that there is a difference — and that as an author, you sometimes need to slow down.
For your writing to be good at normal speed, it must also excel in read-out-loud mode.
One way to help slow read on screen is to make the font huge so you can only fit a few sentences — or even just a handful of words — on the screen. Suddenly, every word matters.
Have you chosen your words well? Do they flow? Do you get a sustained sense of meaning as you read? You must get used to writing so bare to the bone, and so gloriously rich in content and style, that you want to read every word.
Another trick is to purposefully stop and edit each time your eyes glaze over. When you automatically jump ahead, take another careful look. Is your mind jumping ahead because that text is perfected or because you could cut it and lose nothing? If you don’t want to read those words, will anyone else?
Slow reads are hard to do. You’ve been working on a passage a long time. You almost have it memorized.
The best way to get a true slow read is to park your work for a while and let it go cold in your mind. Hopefully, when you pick it back up again it will still be hot on the page.
Many great writers live by the practice of putting novels in the drawer for weeks, or months. When you take it back out again, you can judge it like a reader.
When a reader picks up your book, you want to pull him or her into your sea of words. You want to slow their eyes down and engulf them so they stay. This is when all the hard work pays off.
The Isolated Sentence Test
How To Read, Edit, and Evaluate Your Writing With Fresh Eyes
A “Fresh Eyes” Reader Can Save Manuscript Errors
You Cannot Overedit
Five Ways to Distill and Heighten Your Writing