I recently read something I wrote more than a year ago and had forgotten about. It was like reading something written by another person.
Coming to it fresh I was able to appreciate it in a completely different way from if I had just written it. Not only can revisiting old pieces of work do wonders for your own self-esteem as a writer – if you’re feeling down about your writing, going back to your old stuff can help you realise you’re not that bad after all – but it can also be a good exercise in detachment.
You can have spent ages writing something and be so up-close and personal to it that you can’t see the wood for the trees. You can have read something a million times and still not see typos because your mind is in the wrong state. Which is why typos will often jump out at readers who come to your text for the first time.
One thing you can do about this is imagine it wasn’t you who wrote your piece but someone else entirely. This could be someone imaginary like your ideal reader, or someone real like your favourite star. Even better though would be someone you know who would be critical about your work – your old English teacher or boss, for example – even someone you don’t like. “Try to read your own work as a stranger would read it,” Zadie Smith has been quoted as saying. “Or even better, as an enemy would.”
If we’re up against a deadline we won’t have the luxury of leaving text for as long as a year. But proofreading is a mind game. It’s psychological and personal, and we have to do whatever we can to keep our minds fresh.
Putting yourself in someone else’s place will help you lose any personal attachment that will get in the way of you being critical, and help you spot errors more easily.