Improve Your Writing by Doing Nothing

I took some time out of the office this summer. Though my children will tell you I am always at work, or always working, let me put it out there that I’m very good at being gone. Give me a day and I’ll still check email on my iPhone; give me a month and I can’t remember the location of my parking space. The minions back in school, I turned my attention once again to writing projects both professional and personal and was stunned to find a clarity that would ordinarily require pharmaceuticals to achieve. My sentences were cleaner, my prose was leaner, and editorial puzzles more easily solved. The reason? My time away—not from work, but from this work. One of the most oft-repeated maxims of successful self-editing is to take a break from your project before turning back to corrections. Simple enough, it’s the rule I find writers have the most trouble following, this writer included. Writing is scary business, after all. You put yourself out there in a tremendously public way and wait for the reviews to come in, time that inevitably feels like waiting for paint to dry. Are you as brilliant as your mother thinks you are or is your prose as purple as a seventh-grade girl’s diary entry? In the absence of external commentary we all rush to fill that void, immediately fixing the odd sentence, smoothing those transitions, changing the hairstyle and the occupation of our main character, rushing to make our work better while we’re in the zone, while it’s fresh in the mind…the clichés abound. But my experience this summer reminded me that what caffeine-addled brains might call “fresh” is usually fatigued beyond recognition. Taking a break from a piece is critical to an honest assessment of its weaker and finer points alike. My advice? Turn off the screen or throw that manuscript in a drawer and see how your work improves. --Leslie