We all need an outside peer writer or editor whose fresh perspective helps us re-see our writing. Why? It’s surely happened to you that you’ve written a word— “thorough,” for example— then, after reading it a few times, it slowly begins to look like a foreign object, bearing almost no resemblance to its true self, as if it were spelled “Bls*9lURs!n”.
There’s a name for this phenomenon: Semantic Satiation. (Don’t you love it when there’s a name for things?)
Psychologists first wrote about the neurological phenomenon in The American Journal of Psychology in 1907.
“If a printed word is looked at steadily for some time, it will be found to take on a curiously strange and foreign aspect. This loss of familiarity in its appearance sometimes makes it look like a word in another language, sometimes proceeds further until the word is a mere collection of letters, and occasionally reaches the extreme where the letters themselves look like meaningless marks on the paper.”
Remember when John Lovitz in a Friends episode got high and repeated “Tartlets” until “the word lost all meaning”?
Whether high or painfully sober, we’ve all been there both in a verbal context and certainly with our writing. The brain simply gets tired from the repetition (which may also be why we lose our marbles when we have to say the same thing six times to our selective-hearing spouses and children).
We can chalk it up to brain-cell fatigue. Sure, when the cells in our brains are called upon the first time, they’re still fresh and responsive; however, even by the second time they are slower, and the third time yet slower. By the fourth + time, the cells are so worn down, they don’t even bite, and the only thing that perks them back up is time.
Semantic Satiation is not limited to single words, however. It happens for whole documents as well.
When we work on a book-length manuscript, business plan, memo, blog, website page, project description (shall I go on?) or basically any piece of writing, we become familiar with it. Too familiar. (Hey, baby.) (Stop that.)
We writers are nothing if not tenacious (who else is tough enough to continue to slog through the requisite 100 rejection letters per year?), so we keep plugging away.
The problem is the longer we labor over the document, the more desensitized to its various issues we become and the less effective we are at giving it its due.
That’s also when mistakes slip in, we leave things out, or it all begins to look like gibberish, and that’s when we’re most susceptible to throwing our hands in the air and calling the whole thing off.
Writing is Re-Writing
When Hemingway famously said, “The only kind of writing is rewriting,” he was right. But because there’s a limit to what the writer can see in their own work, for example, when he reworked the ending of A Farewell to Arms 47 times, he surely relied on his peers to step in when he couldn’t see his own lines anymore.
He was lucky to have a wealth of creative talent around him to give him literary wisdom and feedback on his drafts. The work we know of his today can be due in large part to the company he kept. Feedback from Gertrude Stein? We should all be so blessed.
A Fresh Perspective Helps You Re-See Your Writing Anew
Above all, it’s vital to remember that when we are working on a piece of writing, and its clarity and details are fundamental to its success (whether that’s publication, others’ enjoyment or information, or sales), we must get others’ fresh eyes on it to help us re-see it anew.
In my blog about blogging, I’ve spoken to how important it is to have your final version proofread by another person to catch errors at the line level: comma mistakes, missing words or misspellings, and other glitches in clarity or correctness.
But during the work’s development, because it gets harder to see and finesse the big issues that make for good writing, it’s also pivotal you get another pair of skilled fresh eyes on the case.
That peer writer or editor can quickly and easily see that which underpins the story, chapter, or essay, find gaps in clarity, overwritten sections, and target its construction, purpose, tone, and voice in addition to notice details such as typos and missing punctuation.
Editors and fellow writers have the practice and acumen to enable them to go underneath and inside the work and explain to the writer their experience of the existing material and their ideas as to what the piece could become with some adjustment and application of craft.
Ultimately, their insights help us “re-see” our work from a whole new perspective.
That insight can be thrilling: indeed, sometimes we have to leave home in order to see it more clearly.
Wonderfully, there’s a name for this process, too: Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback.
What Is a Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback?
A Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback involve a peer writer or editor providing a holistic assessment of a piece of writing to give the writer a clear idea as to how the piece is coming across.
In their written feedback, they speak to all aspects of the draft from large-scale writing craft issues down to the smaller ones, paying attention to where there are gaps or the story veers off track, character arcs and logistics like Eudora Welty says in her essay on writing, “Always be sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky.”
Further, if done well and thoroughly, the feedback will include concrete suggestions for how to implement the suggested changes in order to bring the work into its next leaner, tighter, and overall better iteration.
In the online writing programs offered by One Lit Place, we teach this approach as an integral part of every writer’s own writing process.
Learning how to go inside of a piece of writing to see how it is built gives a writer an enormous amount of insight into the construction and architecture of a story.
Our editors who work with our authors one-on-one are trained in such an in-depth interrogation of a literary or scholarly work and respectfully discuss with our writers how within the scope of the work they can fine-tune the elements upon which it is built to bring it into its best form.
In the end, while it’s noble to carry on even “when you feel as thin as a playing card” (said by the great Joyce Carol Oates, who would know a thing about writing from her hundreds of publications), at some point, our tenacity is too semantically fatigued to let us do right by our work.
Bringing in a fresh pair of eyes, particular eyes belonging to an editor or someone skilled in the art and craft of providing careful constructive manuscript evaluation or developmental feedback, is one of the best investments we can make.
And when you’ve put this much sweat, time, and love into something, getting the opportunity to re-see it from a new perspective is what will set it on a whole new productive path toward publication.
Up Next: What is Developmental Feedback and How It Benefits All Writing
In “Road Map to Revision: Developmental Feedback”, I talk about what Manuscript Evaluation or Developmental Feedback is, what it isn’t, and how it serves as a detailed roadmap for the writer to move ahead with revision.
When you’re ready to take your work to the next level, have a look at how we support our writers, and feel free to reach out for a FREE consultation about your writing any time!