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This question was asked by a member of my critique group at the beginning of the month and I've been stewing over it for a while now. I still don't have any better ideas, so I'm turning to you. How can a writer separate their emotions from the content of their work? How can you tell "yes, this is good" or "okay, this needs work" without having to rely on your personal opinions, which might be heavily skewed by the fact that you wrote it?

Edit to add: As Neil Fein points out, answers should focus on the different techniques available to writers and the benefits and drawbacks of each, rather than "well, this works for me." A single "this works for me" solution could be valuable, if it details how to go about the process and the benefits and drawbacks involved, but answers looking at multiple possibilities are more likely to be selected as "best."

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    The only way I know of doing this is time and seeing my writing through the lens of a critique, but I'd love to hear more. – Neil Fein Jan 28 '17 at 18:34
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    Putting my mod hat on here - answers that are less about "what works for me" and more about the options available to writers would be excellent. – Neil Fein Jan 28 '17 at 18:35
  • @NeilFein Good point. I'll add that to the question. And yeah, "time + critique groups" is probably the best answer, but it seems so flimsy and unhelpful to tell that to my writers. :) – Jerenda Jan 28 '17 at 18:39
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    @NeilFein I salute you moderator had and keep my opinions to myself. Although, writing isn't exactly like coding. I doubt there will ever be a Rational Unified Process for writing books... Just saying. – Erk Jan 28 '17 at 19:50
  • @Erk - Oh, yes, writing is not coding and we ave to give questions far more latitude than other sites do. – Neil Fein Jan 28 '17 at 20:07
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Different methods have been suggested for copyediting, that is, for finding spelling and grammar mistakes (such as printing text instead of copyediting at a screen, using a different font, reading backwards from the end of the text, and so on), but to my knowledge only one method helps in distancing yourself from the content of your writing and seeing it in a detached manner and that is

time

(as Neil Fein has already noted), but in combination with

distraction

Brandon Sanderson explains this method and his procedure in one of the videos from his writing class (watch from 6:30 to 9:14 ), and it is what all the professional writers do that I know of:

  • finish a novel
  • put it away
  • write the next novel
  • put the next novel away
  • read and edit the first novel

The process becomes a bit more complex when you have a previous novel in the works and the one before that returns from the editor with recommendations (or demands) for edits and you also need to outline the project after the next one and so on, but the basic prodedure remains the same:

let your writing rest while you work on other projects

like this:

  • finish a novel
  • put it away send it to your alpha readers
  • [write, outline, edit, research etc. your other projects]
  • put the other projects away
  • read and edit the first novel and work in the feedback from your alpha readers
  • submit the novel

The important part is that you work on something else. It is the distraction that will distance yourself from your work, not the time alone. If you just wait for six months, then your project will have been churning on in your mind and you are still emotionally involved in it. There may be some distance in that you have forgotten some details, but it is still and always at the top of your mind, just like going home doesn't destress you from problems at your job, but watching tv will: tv fills your mind with something, so that while you watch you cannot think of what worries you about your job. Similarly, if you have to "get into" another project with your imagination and emotion, then there is no place in your mind for another one and when you return to the first one you will clearly see all its shortcomings.

And: If you make your project only one, by implication: not so important, project in a life-long series of projects, then you gain the right professional perspective and "killing your darlings" will no longer be so difficult. Because, if you work on one project at a time, that project will feel like it defines you, that you are your writing, and criticism of your work will feel like criticism of you. But if you have to switch projects like any other worker moves from one comission to another, then you are no longer what you write but a writer and both progress and criticism become much easier.

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Beyond time and cleansing your brain-palate, which others have noted here, I found that being a little "off" helps me, oddly enough. A little sleepy (like foregoing my morning coffee), a little hyper (several extra cups of coffee), working in somebody else's house, working on somebody else's machine. Change something about your usual environment.

What you essentially want is not to be re-writing the story in your head as you go along reading it. You want to read it with an editor's or outsider's eye. Time and distraction accomplish a lot of this, but so can altering your mental state slightly. Obviously you don't want to be impaired, because that prevents you from accomplishing anything, but "a jump to the left" is what you're aiming for.

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    Agreed, anything that changes your POV on a piece can help. One think I have done in the past is to use the email to Kindle feature so I can read my MS on my Kindle as it if were a published book. That can really make you see it in a different light. – user16226 Jan 28 '17 at 23:58
  • Working sleepy seems impractical. 1. When I'm sleepy, my brain doesn't work well enough for me to actually improve upon the errors I might identify. 2. From experience, when I'm sleepy I no longer care about whether my writing is good or bad and only want to get it over with, so I won't want to find any errors. 3. Being in sleepy state for a 100,000 page novel (and the next novels after that) will mean consistently strange working hours or long time sleep deprivation, and that is both unhealthy, makes me grumpy, and further deteriorates my performance. – user5645 Jan 29 '17 at 9:01
  • A 100,000 page novel would make me sleepy.😀 – user16226 Jan 29 '17 at 12:21
  • @what I figured that one might be controversial. I was trying to convey "a little sleepy," not "utterly sleep-deprived." Basically you want to turn off the angry perfectionist part of your brain. Mine can be shushed if I haven't caffeinated yet. Your Mileage May Vary, obviously. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 29 '17 at 15:19
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    @MarkBaker images.huffingtonpost.com/… – user5645 Jan 30 '17 at 7:38
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How can you tell whether "yes, this is good" or "okay, this needs work"?

These are objective artistic judgments. Emotional distance from the work is certainly part of what you need to make them about your own work, but you also need artistic detachment. What I see very consistently is that the better a writer is, the better the stuff they are reading. Some of the best writing teachers stress this as well. (See, for instance, Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose.

If you feel your judgement is impaired by your closeness to the work, get some emotional and artistic distance but putting it away and setting yourself a course of reading. Read the stuff you love, but not stuff similar to what you are writing. Read the classics. Read for several genre's. Read as intensively as your schedule with allow. Give yourself time to find your love of literature in the books you are reading. This is the basis of your emotional connection to your own work, so this re-grounds you emotionally in the wider world of books that you love. And exposing yourself to the work of a diverse set of good writers clears your pallet, artistically, and give you an objective standard of art against which to judge your own work.

After immersing yourself in five or six good books, or more, to the point where you feel refreshed and rededicated to your art, pull your book out of the drawer. It probably isn't going to stand very well in comparison to the books you have been reading, and the differences will be obvious to you. But do this enough time and you may get to the point where you pull it out and find it still stands up. That is when it is ready to submit.

While the approach of writing something else to give you a time gap on your first work doubtless give you some emotional distance, it does not give you an better artistic perspective. When it comes out of the drawer, you will still be comparing you to you, and that is not really the kind of artistic or emotional detachment that you need and will get from a concerted program of reading.

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There are various ways to do this, and they're all to some extent personal. They're personal because they have to be.

They have to be because the essential goal here is to be someone else, a different you to the one that wrote the writing in the first place. To do this, you have to know how to deal with the first-draft-writer version of yourself, you have to know what other versions of yourself exist, and how to bring them out.

This is why I think there can never be a universally applicable answer to this question. It all depends on who you're dealing with when you're dealing with you.

So my advice is to experiment. Find the ritual that works for you. Like any ritual, it doesn't have to matter so much what you do. You just have to - one way or another - cause a change in yourself, to find a way to summon the versions of yourself that can't - or simply refuse - to appear on command.

Here are a few examples of the sort of things that you could try:

  • Doing all of your writing in one place, and your editing in another.

  • Playing music while you write, but not while you edit (or vice versa).

  • Writing in the morning, editing in the evening (or vice versa).

  • Printing off your work so that you can't edit it, annotating the printout, then making edits based on your annotations.

  • Writing by hand, then editing on a computer (it's probably irrelevant, since we're talking about you here, but for what it's worth, this is the one that works best for me).

  • Finding an activity (going to parties, playing a sport, watching films, meditating) which alters your mood in a significant way, and editing immediately afterwards.

  • Pretending you're someone else while you edit. Perhaps someone who has enjoyed previous writing by you and is about to read your new stuff with a critical (but not entirely unsympathetic) eye.

  • Leaving a set amount of time before editing (as others have suggested). Of course, this could easily be combined with one or more of the others.

  • Writing in one font, editing in another.

  • (Etc.)

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