A Psychological Distance Trick?

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Over at Writing Routines is a short interview with writer/investor/entrepreneur Paul Graham, whose pieces I've discussed here from time to time. I found the interview both reassuring and useful, because I share some of Graham's habits and learned a few things along the way.

A good example of both comes from the following exchange:

Image by Sarah Harlin, via Wikimedia, public domain.
Q. How do you know if something you're working on is not worth publishing or not any good? Have you developed any criteria that lets you evaluate your own work?

A. I have a trick for this. I think the goal of an essay is to surprise the reader. And if you write about a topic you understand fairly well and you're able to discover things you didn't consciously realize when you started writing, they'll probably surprise most readers too. That's the test: am I surprising myself?

But I do have a fail-safe. I get friends to read drafts of most essays, and sometimes they find major problems. I've killed at least two whole essays because friends didn't like them. [format edits, bold added]
The question in bold is something that has never occurred to me, but it seems quite useful for both Graham's purpose and dealing with the problem of getting some psychological distance from one's writing in order to edit it as objectively as possible. (The usual advice is to set a piece aside for a few days. This is a good technique -- except when one is writing on a time-sensitive topic.) Graham's reaching out to friends is similar to what I do already, and I'm also experimenting with having text-to-voice read drafts back to me. But this seems like it could help, too, so I'll keep it in mind.

-- CAV

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