Skimming and Glancing

Writing is as much movement as it is sitting still. Everyone has had the experience of their fingers literally dancing over the keys. Things are cooking, and you can barely type fast enough to keep up with making the letters match your thoughts. Granted, it’s a rare experience, but the sensation indicates just how much writing is located in the body as well as the brain, how even for someone who lives in his head as much as I do and equates exercise with the joy of cleaning out the garage, I can barely sit still when this happens. On occasion, I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve even stood up, as if I were playing an organ keyboard. Is the result any good? Never mind about that right now.

For sure, some sort of a current courses through the body that suggests language being accessible at high speed and a nearly indestructible focus. Try disturbing the writer during such a moment: you’re blown back by the sheer force of the wild and crazed look you will get.

When I’m going over a work at this stage of early revision, I notice that I’m often a little more physically distant from my screen, or if reading a hard copy, I’m holding it at a bit of a remove—as if to get a more objective view. I’m also, if this makes sense, “running” my eyes over it at a much faster pace than I would if, say, I were further along in the revision process.

A writer only has so many objective readings for each given piece. They can be renewed by time passing, like getting additional minutes on a phone card, but essentially taking advantage of unfamiliarity becomes limited. The value of glancing or “skimming” one’s own writing comes into play here. For it’s in skimming that many intuitive decisions are made about the larger structural issues of a narrative. You can get a good idea of where a significant wrong turn or choice has been made for the narrative on an early reading of a draft. As I said, because we have a limited amount of objective readings in us before we turn to someone for editing, the key seems to me to be preserving that productive separation between oneself and the text, as if restricted airspace, and not violating it by losing one’s commitment to instinct at this stage. In short, don’t get too cozy with your work before you’re really ready to sleep with it.

One of the biggest shifts in the revision process is when you decide to show the work to someone. At that point, you no longer have an exclusive relationship with the writing. Someone else’s eyes have set upon it for better or worse, and you’re now collaborating. Collusion is not a bad thing. But the trade-off is that there are two (or more) of you judging any given aspect of the work. The taut distance you’ve previously established, that “running” across it with your eyes under the auspices of your sole attention, is modified by this new cooperative relationship.

This is the best reason to keep a piece of writing to yourself for as long as possible, so you can figure out its intention on your own. Of course this can prove especially hard with a novel, when you crave validation and encouragement, if not an outright guarantee that your loooong project is worth pursuing. But again, it’s a trade off. Certainly, someone can save you a lot of time if you’re immersed in an unproductive eddy (see previous post on “Bogs”), but doing so prematurely may result in abandoning the authority of your own judgment in favor of an internal debate with your readers (“But he really liked this part, though she didn’t, but her friend did, but wait that was someone who hates everything I write . . .).

It goes without saying that writers all have their own approaches to revision. Some writers, Cynthia Ozick comes to mind, craft each sentence until they’re satisfied it’s finished if not perhaps perfect and don’t move on until they’ve done so. Others, verging on hypergraphia, write multiple drafts, slashing and burning with reckless abandon. Most of us, however, fall in between these two poles and make our way as best we can.

My sense is that one has to keep the major parts of the work as flexible as possible before they’re fixed in place, as if moving heavy furniture around a room. Your eyes are actually doing the heavy lifting, comprehending necessary changes before your reasoning takes over (certainly important at other times in the process). But during this time sound and sense are keen prognosticators of what changes have to be made: the very glancing or skimming that you’re doing allows you to also hear the authentic voice of the piece, and make changes based on the confluence of sight and sound.

1 thought on “Skimming and Glancing

  1. >In all seriousness, have you conducted experiments in altering your physical self in service of writing? That is, drinking alcohol or coffee? Taking adderall or ritalin or valium? There's so much evidence of writers making use of substances — leaning pretty heavily on them, in fact — to create the mood you describe. Tracy Daugherty has a funny tale of being ordered by Donald Barthelme to write a story overnight, and to drink a bottle of wine (or perhaps whiskey) in increments to force the piece into existence.

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