When you want to improve a piece of writing, showing it to someone (such as a beta reader) is often a good idea. This doesn’t apply to everything, obviously, but it’s especially valuable for text intended for publication, or when you’re concerned about how the audience will react to what you’ve written.
Steven Pinker, in The Sense of Style (2014), recommends that you also ‘show a draft to yourself’ – preferably having spent time away from it. This too is sound advice. It’s not new, but I like the slant Pinker puts on it, that you should show it to yourself as though you were another person, which, in a sense proportionate to the time that has passed, you are. He says you may find yourself wondering, as he does:
‘What did I mean by that?’ or ‘How does this follow?’ or, all too often, ‘Who wrote this crap?’
I am told there are writers who can tap out a coherent essay in a single pass, at most checking for typos and touching up the punctuation before sending it off for publication. You are probably not one of them.
Pinker doesn’t elaborate on these writers who unspool their text virtually complete, but Charles Darwin came to my mind. He once wrote – where, I can’t recall – that he never studied style but would ‘try to get the subject as clear as I can in my head, and express it in the commonest language which occurs to me. But I generally have to think a good deal before the simplest arrangement occurs to me.’
For most of us mortals, it’s easier to get a rough draft down first and then revise it, sometimes over and over again. Pinker elaborates on his preferred approach:
Most writers polish draft after draft. I rework every sentence a few times before going on to the next, and revise the whole chapter two or three times before I show it to anyone. Then, with feedback in hand, I revise each chapter twice more before circling back and giving the entire book at least two complete passes of polishing. Only then does it go to the copy editor, who starts another couple of rounds of tweaking.
That’s pretty rigorous, but not unusually so for a professional writer – though it varies tremendously at all levels. As a copy editor, I receive some texts polished enough to need only the ‘tweaking’ that Pinker mentions, but it’s more common to receive texts that warrant more involved work.