I was talking to a former student over the holidays, and guess what piece of advice he cited as most helpful in his business writing? Not the BLOT or the advice about tightening language…not the Focus Sheet or the insights about audience and purpose. Nope. What he said was, “I remember how you told us to walk away from the manuscript for a while. I still do that, and it really works.”
In the olden days, when “files” were made from card stock instead of electrons, this was known as the “desk drawer strategy.” You take a piece of writing as far as you can, and then you put it in the desk drawer and forget about it. When you come back and read it with a fresh eye, you’ll be able to catch the typos you overlooked. Sometimes you’ll see the bigger problems, too—an argument that doesn’t track, a paragraph that seems out of order, a redundant thought.
When I demonstrate this strategy for my students, the hard thing is to get them to walk away. Switching to email or Facebook doesn’t count. You have to shut the computer down, get up, walk around, stare out a window or—interesting concept—actually converse with a living human being for a while.
In class, we use a 10-minute break for a one-page memo. Timing has to be proportionate. Right now I have a 50,000 word manuscript that I cranked out in November sitting in the electronic file drawer—I probably won’t be ready to look at it until February.
Allocating that desk-drawer time-out requires a little time management, but it’s worth it. Every once in a while, I will decide to send a just-finished piece off to my editor. I always regret it. At best, I wind up sending one of those “Oops—use this one instead” follow-ups. Worse, he gets back to me and asks, “Did you really mean…?” Worst of all, the piece is published and requires a correction.
“Proofing” is a term that refers both to that final read-through of a finished document and to the final rise of dough prior to baking. Skip either step, and you’re likely to wind up with something half-baked.