Exploring the psychological aspect of writing with consultant clinical psychologist Sue Carver
When I read through my writing recently after a break of a few weeks, I found many faults with it. Reading the same piece of work through again soon afterwards I thought it seemed a lot better, even though I hadn’t yet changed it! Why do we react differently to our writing after a break from it? Is there an optimum period of time for leaving it before editing?
Thanks for your question. I enjoyed tossing it around my brain.
There seems to be a rare consensus among writers about the wisdom of leaving a gap between finishing a piece of work and starting the editing process.
“Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to serve.” Andrew Motion.
“… try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.” Zadie Smith.
“The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories.” Sarah Waters.
My trawl of the creative writing literature and writer’s websites suggests there is also agreement about the minimum amount of time required between writing and editing: three to four weeks seems to be the received wisdom and that chimes with my own experience. Jane Austen, however, put her novels away in a drawer for a year before starting the editing process. There may well be a lesson there for us all.
Why does it help to allow time to pass between writing and editing? I would say because time, or what happens cognitively during the passage of time, enhances objectivity. Both emotional and cognitive factors are likely to be relevant, but I will set emotion to one side and focus here on: perceptual set; visual habituation; memory and forgetting.
Perceptual set is the tendency to perceive or notice some aspects of available sensory data and ignore others. Bugelski and Alampay, 1961 used the ‘rat-man’ ambiguous figure to demonstrate the importance of expectation in inducing perceptual set. Subjects were shown either a series of animal pictures or neutral pictures prior to exposure to the ambiguous picture. Those subjects who had had prior exposure to animal pictures significantly more frequently perceived the ambiguous picture to be a rat.
We fail to notice writing errors for similar reasons.
Extrapolating from this research, the more recently we have read the same piece of writing, the more likely we are to perceive what we expect to perceive and the less likely we are to be able to see it ‘afresh’.
Habituation is the psychological process in which there is a decrease in psychological and behavioural responding to a stimulus after repeated exposure to that stimulus. For example, a short time after we dress, the stimulation of clothing against the skin fades and we become unaware of it – hair shirts aside.
Habituation affects all senses and this bias towards novelty appears to be ‘wired-in’, presumably, because of its survival value. For the editing process, visual habituation is relevant: put simply – at the level of brain chemistry and neuron firing – the more recently visual information has been scanned, the less attention the brain will pay to it.
A brief foray into the cognitive processes involved may be useful.
Sensory memory, the information we receive through the senses, lasts only a few seconds.
Short Term Memory (STM) takes over when the information in sensory memory is transferred to consciousness. Short term memory lasts longer than sensory memory (up to 30 seconds or so), but it still has a very limited capacity: 7 +/- 2 bits of information, such as a string of 7 digits.
Finally, there is long term memory (LTM). Unlike sensory memory and STM, LTM is relatively permanent and practically unlimited in terms of its storage capacity. It is the type of memory most relevant to your question.
Factors which strongly influence the transfer of information from STM into LTM are the significance and rehearsal; the more significant information is to us and the more we rehearse, the more we tend to remember. In learning theory terms, going over and over the same piece of prose constitutes rehearsal.
The ability to retrieve information from LTM tends to reduce over time, although failing to remember something does not necessarily mean the information is no longer stored. The information may well be there but inaccessible because of weakened retrieval mechanisms.
‘Over-learned’ information – rehearsed so often it leaves a very strong trace – is very resistant to decay.
To sum up, the longer one leaves it between writing and editing, the less rehearsal there will be and the more likely forgetting, of at least some aspects of the work, becomes. In addition, the influence of perceptual set and habituation are likely to be reduced, the combined effects facilitating greater objectivity. I hope that rather long answer to your question persuades you to let as much time as possible elapse between drafts. I may just have convinced myself.
Sue Carver, consultant clinical psychologist and writer of fiction and poetry, has a keen interest in the psychological aspects of the creative writing process. She doesn’t entirely agree with Erica Jong that “all writing problems are psychological problems...”, but she would be happy to consider, from a psychologist’s perspective, any writing-related questions that you may like to pose.
Please send your questions to: email@example.com with the subject heading Carver’s Couch.