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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Discerning Writer’s Guide to Revision

To revise your writing, of course you must evaluate it. But evaluating is not the same as judging.

Judging engages your mental filters and you stop seeing what’s really there.

Once you assume something is good, you start seeing all the good things about it. Even neutral aspects will seem positive and negative aspects will be unnoticed or dismissed.

Likewise, when you assume something is bad, you can only see what’s wrong. You perceive neutral aspects in a negative light and ignore the positive.

Discernment Lets You See

You can’t make effective revisions until you can honestly assess the effectiveness of the current draft.

A writer with a discerning frame of mind can observe without filters. You see all of what’s there dispassionately, which allows you to also see what the writing can be.

Instead of shutting down the writer with “This whole thing is crap,” discernment observes “This section isn’t moving like the others. I wonder why. How can I change the pace?”

Observations open possibilities. They free you to explore and expand your repertoire so that you not only improve the current work, you develop the craft skills needed to keep growing as a writer.       

Judgment Radar

To develop discernment, first recognize that judgment will never serve you. It is the tool of the Saboteur. Don’t trust it.

Develop your judgment-radar. Pay attention to when you’re judging. Most people have plenty of opportunities to spot themselves in judgment.

Just observing that you’re judging stops the judgment, at least in the moment of observation. When you accept that you’re judging, you move into discernment.

Play Around

Another way to develop discernment is doing 10 to 15 minutes of Process, aka creative play with no expectations, on a regular basis. When you give yourself to play, you practice setting expectation and judgment aside.

You observe what happens as you draw or paint or whatever, but it’s never a big deal.

“Oh, the red finger paint does this” or “I need square paper if I want my origami swan to look like the one in the book.”

Not “I screwed up, the red paint looks ugly when I mix it with green.” Not “My swan sucks.”

Getting Personal

As a general practice, it’s wise to refrain from evaluating your work for a day or two. If you notice you’re judging your work (and you probably will), remind yourself “It’s too soon to judge.” The truth is, it will always be too soon to judge.

You really aren’t qualified to judge your own work. You never will be. But with a few days distance between creating and reviewing, you can set aside judgment’s “good or bad” dichotomy and discern “effective or needs something” instead.

When you first read your writing, resist the urge to starting copy-editing. It’s tempting to copy-edit, especially when you’re feeling adrift in a revision – you may not know what the hell to do with the characters or the pacing, but you sure as hell can spot a comma fault.

Read your draft as if it’s a book. When you start a book, you’re prepared to like it, but you’re not sold yet. You suspend judgment. Do that with a draft. Just observe what’s in the writing.

When you notice something that is “off”, just mark that spot with a Post-it Note and keep reading. Don’t start writing on the manuscript in a first or second reading; it’s far too easy to slide into judging once you pick up a pen.

There are more steps to revising obviously; this is what you do to develop the discernment you need to take the rest of those steps.

Final Judgment on Judgment

Ultimately, judgment’s “good or bad” analysis is boring. It doesn’t take us anywhere new.

Discernment makes creativity and creative change (aka revision) possible – and that’s where the real thrill is. At least, that’s how I judge it.

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