Editing: Eye Drift

Some time ago, I finished a free-writing exercise for my current novel which left me with 160,000 words to work with.  Reading it over, I found myself naturally skipping whole paragraphs and then suddenly alighting on a sentence or two, or a page of text.  When I read back over what I had missed out I found that, in my opinion, I had been right.  This suggests a very quick and simple method of broad-stroke editing.  But what’s the mechanism at work here?  And can it be trusted?

The eye shift is a common phenomenon in reading.  According to Wikipedia, it was a French ophthalmologist called Louis Emile Javal in nineteenth century who noticed that people read through a combination of ‘fixations’ and ‘saccades’ or shifts.  A skilled reader shifts every quarter of a second, and fixes for 200-250 miliseconds, taking in four or five letters at a time.  For 15% of their time they’ll be going back over the text.  Poorer readers shift less, and fixate and regress more.

Which is all very interesting.  But what we’re talking about here is the eye drift.  The point when your brain thinks, ‘I have had enough of this,’ and starts searching around for something more engaging in the text, often missing whole sentences or paragraphs.

So, what makes it start or stop drifting?  There is a great deal of research, for example, into ‘readability’.  The Fleisch Kincaid Test used by Word bases its scores on length of sentences and number of syllables per word.

As an experiment, I put in the opening paragraphs from Love in Time of Cholera by Marquez, and Best Kept Secret, the latest Jeffrey Archer novel.  The first starts, ‘It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.’  The second, ‘Big Ben struck four times.’  The first got a score of 15, indicating a reading age at university level; the second got 10, or 15-16 year olds.  This means that the Archer should be more readable than the Marquez.  But my previous experience with a Jeffrey Archer book (Kane and Abel) is that after a paragraph or two I got bored and ended up skipping the whole thing.  So, if the Marquez is harder to read, why do I drift less?  A simple answer to this might be that, as a post-graduate, the reading age is more appropriate.  But I’m reading the latest Stephen King novel at the moment, which rates the same as the Archer, and really enjoying it.  To say nothing of Hunger Games, which can be read by 8-9 year-olds, and I happily rattled through all three parts.  So, something else is going on.

The full first paragraph of the Marquez novel is:

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before. The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.

What holds my attention?  Not just the use of scent and colour (gold cyanide, no less) but the hints of unrequited love, adventure, the brief but full biography, and the friendship.   The language is poetic and feels like a finely carved piece of ivory.

But one person’s ivory is another’s dead elephant.  A lot of people would drift through the Marquez, but eat up every line of the Jeffrey Archer.  In her Fiction Bitch blog, Elizabeth Baines says, ‘Reading is a dynamic process in which a complex array of things come into play: the reader’s taste, mood, expectation and, above all, education – by which I don’t mean formal schooling but cultural immersion.’  Too right, mate.

Elmore Leonard once said, ‘I leave out the parts that people skip.’  But it might have been more accurate to say, ‘…that I skip.’  When you’re editing your own work, beyond spelling and basic grammar, you tend to be guided by your own taste.

There is also the question of how the eye drift as an editing tool could possibly work at such speed.  Research that followed Javal’s initial observations shows we only take in information during fixations not shifts.  This would suggest that a drift only feels like a drift.  What is actually happening is a series of fixations, though less than during normal reading.  This is probably aided by the fact that you have a sense of what you have written, and memories of particular passages.

I’m not sure I’ve completely established why this technique seems to work – or if it does.  All I can say is that it works for me.  I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts.

By the way, The Fleisch Kincaid score for this post is 8, which means it is readable by 13-14 year-olds.

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