How to De-Familiarize Your Writing

Nas Hedron,—Posted 30 September 2013

This article will deal with several different ways of achieving a key editing goal: de-familiarizing your own writing. This technique has many forms, but underlying them all is the same principle: when you look at your work from an unfamiliar angle, you see it more clearly.

The Concept of De-Familiarization

As you create a piece of writing, you’re not just writing, you are also creating a mental image of the work in your memory. If you read your work shortly after you write it, while that mental image is still fresh, your ability to see what’s on the page is obscured by the stuff that’s in your head.

At the simplest level, the mental image of your work can literally prevent you from seeing what’s really on the page. If you’ve accidentally typed “he walked into the the room” you may read it as “he walked into the room” because that’s what you meant to type and that’s what’s in your head. You aren’t seeing the page, you’re seeing your own mental image of what’s supposed to be on the page, and that interferes with your editing.

There are less obvious forms of “not seeing” as well. Let’s say that your character’s living room has blue walls. Maybe the blue walls aren’t critical to the plot, but you believe they add to the mood. Every time you read a passage in which something happens in the living room, in your head you see those blue walls. But you may not notice that you never actually wrote that the walls were blue. Only if you can free yourself from your mental image of the story and see exclusively what’s on the page will you notice that it’s missing and be able to correct it.

The bottom line is: to edit well, you need to see exactly what’s on the page (just as a reader would), and to do that you need to make your work less familiar to you—you need to get some distance from it.

Here are some ways to do that.

Let Time Pass

Possibly the most commonly cited rule of editing your own work is: let time pass.

When you first write something you’ll read parts of it over as you go along and make changes to it—that’s part of the initial writing process. But to begin the real editing process you have to let time pass so that you get some distance from what you’ve written. This makes it easier to spot errors and identify areas for improvement.

Once you have a first draft of your manuscript, put it aside and don’t think about it, preferably for at least a month. If you write during that time, work on something completely unrelated.

Once the month has passed, take out your draft and review it. If you haven’t gone through this process before, you’ll be surprised at how different your work looks after some time away from it and, often, how obvious it is which parts need more work.

Edit on Paper

I said in the first article in this series that we would return to this point—so here we are. And I know what you're probably thinking: isn’t this the twenty-first century? Your book is in a computer file, right there on the screen, so why wouldn’t you edit it there?

One way to de-familiarize your work is to see it in a new format. As with letting time pass, printing out your draft on paper will allow you to notice things in it that you didn’t see on the computer screen.

Editing on paper serves another purpose: it allows you to edit in two stages, which generally produces better results.

First, go through your draft marking up everything that you notice. Be very free with your notes, because you’re not deciding what to change yet, just flagging things that might need to be changed.

This helps to keep you from getting bogged down in making changes as you go. On top of that, going through the whole manuscript fairly quickly allows you to notice issues that persist through the entire manuscript, because you haven’t forgotten the things you noticed in Chapter One by the time you get to Chapter Ten.

Once you’ve done your first quick pass, go through it again more slowly, deciding carefully what to do (if anything) about each potential edit you noted on your first pass.

(You can try to duplicate this two-stage process on the screen, but it's not as effective. First, you may experience eye strain after a certain amount of time. When your eyes get tired, you unconsciously tend to hurry in order to finish what you’re doing so that you can rest your eyes. Second, there's too much temptation to start re-writing. This will tend to sidetrack you, whereas editing a printed copy puts space between you and the keyboard.)

Read Somewhere Else

Printing out your draft also makes it easier to take it elsewhere: to a park, or a coffee shop, or the food court of your local mall (a personal favorite of mine). Or, if you’re easily bothered by other people, just take it into your kitchen or bedroom—any place that isn’t where you wrote it and isn’t somewhere where you’ve read it before.

If you leave the house, you don’t even have to take the whole manuscript—just take as much as you think you might get through.

You can try changing your reading position as well: if you normally work sitting at a desk, try reading it sitting up in bed, or lying on your belly on the floor, or even read it standing up. If you’re going to try standing, pick one shelf of a bookcase that’s at the right height, clear the books off it, and use that as your desk. (Remember: Hemingway, Nabokov, and Philip Roth all wrote standing up).

All of these things will help you see your draft with fresh eyes, and see accurately what’s on the page instead of what you think you put there.

Read Out Loud

This helps to de-familiarize your work, like the other techniques in this section, but it also helps you judge the pacing of your writing and it’s particularly helpful for polishing your dialogue so that it sounds natural.

You can also use a text-to-speech (TTS) program to read your writing to you, which has the advantage that you can listen with headphones and thus do it at a time when reading out loud isn't an option.

Recent versions of Windows and Word both have built in text-to-speech functions (Narrator and Speak, respectively). There are also several freeware standalone programs (you can find some on the TTS page or the TTS page) and at least one web-based program, YAKiToMe.

Many of these have a somewhat stilted sound, making them less useful for judging whether dialogue flows naturally, but as long as you can understand what they’re saying you’ll get some benefit from the process, and they’re certain to improve with time.

Change the Formatting

Last but not least, before you decide that you’ve finished editing a particular piece of writing, try this: change the formatting and edit it again.

For example, change the typeface, change the size of the text, or adjust the size of the margins. All of these will make the sentences and paragraphs lie on the page differently. You can also try formatting the manuscript in two columns, which will achieve the same end.

Changing the formatting can be especially helpful in catching doubled words which were previously split across two lines, because it tends to bring them onto the same line.

Changing the typeface has an extra advantage, in that it changes the shape of some letters and the width of some words. This gives the text a new rhythm, and can reveal typing errors and other problems that weren't as noticeable in the previous typeface.

Serif and sans serif typefaces read differently, because the serifs act as visual cues to guide you along the line of text, so alternating between the two categories is a good idea.


Over time you'll develop your own preferred way to de-familiarize your work, or you may even invent a new one that you find useful (in which case let me know), but this list should provide at least one method that works for you to start.

In the third article in this series, How to Self-Edit More Effectively, we’ll look at a range of other techniques you can apply to your editing process to get better results right away.

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