Do you ever read your own writing? Not as part of a rewriting and editing process but just for pleasure? In the last five years, I’ve written over half a million words – it may even be closer to a million – in the form of articles, blog posts, book reviews, novels and non-fiction books. And that doesn’t include all the paid writing – tenders, case studies, websites, brochures and other types of marketing copy. I can’t possibly remember it all. So sometimes I go back and read bits and pieces of my own writing.
There are a lot of books out there, I like discovering new ones and I’m not narcissistically self-indulgent so after the rewriting and editing process, I’ve never sat down and read one of my own books from cover to cover. But every now and then I’ll bring up one of my book reviews, articles or blog posts and read it through.
Sometimes it’s because I have an idea for something I want to write and I need to make sure it isn’t too similar. Sometimes it’s because the things I have written really reflect a particular period in my life and I’m feeling a bit nostalgic (kind of like reading old diary entries except I don’t keep a diary). Sometimes when I’m struggling, when I’m trying to write and it isn’t working, when I’m writing total crap, it’s because I need to remind myself that I’ve been good in the past and I can be again. And sometimes when I’m feeling good about my writing, I do it to remind myself that I’ve been crap in the past and could easily slip back if I don’t keep working hard. If it has been a while since you wrote the pieces you’re reading, it can almost be like reading someone else’s work. You discover new things and rediscover old ones in just the same way you do when you reread your favourite author’s books.
Anyone with a decent amount of humility will have moments of embarrassment – “What was I thinking?” – mixed in with moments of pride – “That wasn’t half bad.” Rereading the first longer piece of fiction I ever wrote – a novella – is cringe inducing (unoriginal plot, stereotypical characters, bland writing). Conversely, my oldest and most dominant cat declaring, “Louise is my human. Got that? Mine!” and complaining about the bastard who owned (and abandoned) him before me cutting his balls off in a blog post I wrote from the perspective of my cats makes me smile every time.
If you don’t have any “That wasn’t half bad” moments, then you have a problem. Either your work isn’t that good or you can’t recognise that your work is good. Of course, one of these is more of a problem than the other. But if you don’t enjoy reading your own writing or if you can’t at the very least appreciate it objectively, how can you expect other people to?
Regardless of whether you enjoy it or not, reading your own writing can help make you a better writer in the long run. You can identify what you’ve done well (as we’ve all been told many, many times before, the distance of time can really help with perspective) and hopefully keep doing it. You can identify what you’ve done poorly (again with a bit of objectivity because you’ve forgotten writing half the things you’re reading) and try to do it better in the future. And reading a range of pieces rather than just focusing on one can show patterns and make identification of these things a little bit easier than assessing just one piece of writing would.
Rediscovering your own writing can also be an important part of the marketing process. Fans (assuming you’re lucky enough to have some) can often have an encyclopaedic and verbatim recollection of your work. And when they finally meet you at a book signing or a book reading or a lecture in a library or at the supermarket (you never know where you might be recognised), you should know your own writing as well as they do so you can discuss it with them knowledgeably and meaningfully. It can be quite embarrassing when people bring up things you’ve revealed on blogs or social media or in your novels and instead of recognising and being thankful that people are reading what you’re writing, you instead either have a total mind blank or become suspicious about how they know so much personal information about you. (I do this – I frequently forget that I’ve included a piece of personal information in a blog post or in a tweet, especially in a tweet which is such a small piece of writing that it feels almost disposable even though it’s the total opposite, out there forever unless you go back and delete it and even then, like everything else on the internet, it’s never really gone).
Of course, reading your own writing has limits. When you’re writing, there should be a fifty/fifty balance between reading your own and reading others. And when you’re not writing, it should be more like a one/ninety-nine breakdown. Otherwise there’s a chance of becoming a little too self-involved. And there are enough writers who have already succumbed to that.
So the next time you have a gap in your schedule or you’re feeling nostalgic or you’re looking for a way to improve, reading a few old pieces of your own writing might just do the trick.