How Critical Distance Improves Writing

The conversation about critical distance doesn’t come up often in writing circles. If someone does raise the point, critical distance is usually mentioned in passing as though other writers should inherently know what it is and why it’s important. Let’s change that today.

What is Critical Distance?

The phrase stems from researchers who lost all subjectivity in their analysis. To regain clarity (critical thinking), they had to step away from the project for a while.

Practitioner researchers have often been criticised for a lack of critical distance from their work often leading to conclusions which can be, in the field of objective research, critiqued for a lack of creditability and validity (Saunders, 2007). Also inherent in this type of research is the fact that the types of practitioners who come to this kind of research often have been thinking about the research topic for several years bringing with them a host of assumptions and ideas of what they want to find out and usually already having a theoretical stance for the project (Drake and Heath, 2011; Wellington and Sikes, 2006).

Michelle M. Appleby, University of Derby


  • Surgeons aren’t allowed to operate on family members.
  • Cops aren’t allowed to investigate a family member’s murder.
  • Judges aren’t allowed to preside over a loved one’s case.

These rules are in place because the surgeon, cop, and judge cannot be objective if a personal connection exists.

What’s more personal than writing?

While drafting, we wear love goggles. We’re so wrapped up in our characters, we lose all objectivity. It’s only after we’ve gained distance that we can view the story through the proper lens. Also, we may miss plot holes or leave threads dangling while drafting.

I’ll give you an example…

When I wrote the first draft of Restless Mayhem, one of my anti-heroes mentioned two characters from a previous book. I’d originally planned to have these two characters play a critical role in the story, but then the plot twisted and turned and my original plan changed. Well, I forgot to change the conversation at the beginning of the book. Even though I read the manuscript a few times, I still missed it. After I set it aside for a month, those two names popped right out. And I thought, gee, why are they there?

At that point, I couldn’t recall what my characters did with that information, so I left myself a note and continued on. Guess what? No one ever mentioned those two names again. Never. Whoops! I ended up changing the names to two characters who did play a vital role in the plot. But what if I hadn’t set the manuscript aside? I’d have a lot of confused readers.

Does your character have an accent in chapter two that disappears in chapter twenty?

Does someone have green eyes that turn brown by the end of the book?

Did you name the cat Henry and then change it to Harry?

Did your character have a left arm injury that moved to the right?

Even though most of the above you’ll include in your story bible—you made one, right?—we can still miss seemingly insignificant details if we forego the critical distance stage. I know you’re excited to release your new book baby, but that puppy will shine even more if you allow it to sit a while. I’m amazed by what I find once I return to the manuscript.

How can we view our creations through an objective lens?

After you’ve written the first draft, set it aside for x-amount of weeks. The length of a break varies between writers. For some, two or three weeks may be enough. Others may need a month or more. There’s no right or wrong answer here. Whenever you’ve gained enough distance that you don’t recall every scene. The best way to do that is by working on a different project while the draft cools.

Benefits of critical distance…

  • Easily fix writing tics.
  • Catch typos and grammatical errors.
  • Seal plot holes.
  • Tie-up dangling threads.
  • Swap weak verbs for strong ones.
  • Correct passive voice.
  • Fix clunky words, awkward sentences, and/or phrases.
  • Deepen characterization.
  • Better ground the reader in the setting.
  • Strengthen your theme.
  • Make your writing more expressive.
  • Paint a more vivid mental picture.
  • Infuse more emotion.
  • Change body cues (1st drafts often include obvious or less-than ideal body movements).
  • Convey emotion better.
  • Rewrite to remove some dialogue tags.

Do you let the manuscript rest once you complete the first draft? How long do you let it sit?

Amidst a rising tide of poachers, three unlikely eco-warriors take a stand to save endangered Eastern Gray Wolves—even if it means the slow slaughter of their captors.

Preorder for 99c!

*Please note: 99c sale is only available on Amazon.

Restless Mayhem releases in ebook and paperback on April 26, 2023. Can’t wait!


This entry was posted in #writetip, #writetips, #WritingCommunity and tagged , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

31 thoughts on “How Critical Distance Improves Writing

  1. A very thorough examination of the topic.

    ❖ Do you let the manuscript rest once you complete the first draft?
    ❦ Yes.
    ❖ How long do you let it sit?
    ❦ Short works get a few days. Longer works, up to a month. But a crucial factor about rewrites, besides the ageing period, is the rewrite methodology. Hal Croasmun tells the story of handing off his 17th draft of a screenplay, hoping for just a few notes. The reader found a huge plot hole, a missing scène obligatoire, the result of each draft having been a “Page One rewrite,” (going through the m/s text from Page 1 to the end) over and over.
    Hal now teaches screenwriters to start with reviewing the underpinnings of the script: theme & story, working upward to character, plot, setting, narrative, and dialogue, in roughly that order. This is more likely to discover major problems early and prevents rewriting material that is going to be subsequently deleted. It doesn’t replace letting the m/s sit for several weeks, but augments the ageing process.

  2. This is why I always take a break at each rewrite or editing run. I prefer two weeks, because by that time I have begun to forget details. It is a learned behavior. I have done this in as short as four days, but still waited three extra days. Nice article.

  3. I don’t wait too long, maybe a week or so, but it’s been several months since I’ve seen chapter 1, so it’s like a fresh read. I also fix every chapter as I write it, so it’s a semi-polished draft.

  4. My rule of thumb has been 4 weeks to let a MS sit, as I work on other projects. Lately I’ve begun the review process by printing out my Scrivener-generated synopsis (which is all the “index card” info). This birds-eye view gives me a handle on the overall plot in minutes. I can then focus my reading on other matters.

  5. I like to put them in a cell and let them marinate. Sooner or later they’ll spill the beans.

  6. I don’t have a set time to wait, but usually it’s a week or so. (During tax season, it’s longer 🙂 )

    However, my best critical distance results come from my copy editor. When I send the ms to her, she reads it for the first time and catches every little misstep. She’s a treasure.

  7. Excellent timing for this post, as it so often seems at TKZ. The first draft manuscript my co-author & I just set aside was for 3 weeks before we came back and did the read-through. Having that distance is an absolute must. You catch things like saying your character is from Boston on page 5, then on page 85 they’re from Philadelphia. Oops. Or worse, you discover missing or messed up plot threads because you blundered through the first draft. So to me a month is a good solid amount of time for distancing before revision.

    My worry will be when we again set it aside before coming back for round 2 of revisions. I hope that month of distance will still allow us to see issues even though we’ve already gone over it. (still holding out for that dream of writing a perfect first draft the first time. LOL!)

    What NOT to do: Set it aside for like 6 months or a year. You lose all momentum and the story is no longer living in your head. It’s like having to learn to walk again with that particular story. At least that has been my finding. Other people’s mileage may vary.

    • I doubt a flawless first draft exists, Brenda. 😉

      Thank you for adding what not to do. Six months or longer is way too long. The month-long period works for me, too. Enough time has passed that we gain clearer vision, but not too much that we forget the story and characters.

  8. Terrific post, Sue! Typically I don’t pause before beginning the 2nd draft. My real pause happens after I’ve send a revised version to my beta readers, which gives me typically a two week pause. I come back to it with distance and their feedback.

    This mystery was different in that after the first draft was done, I reread it, made a bunch of notes, put it aside, worked on another project for three months, came back to it with that distance. The eventual result was that I recognized I had a lot of work to do to make the mystery actually work, everything from clarifying motives and suspicions to the actual “investigation” (AKA amateur sleuthing).

    Worth noting that I’m also an outliner and a lot of my revision, was done writing a new outline.

    I began a new version last November, finished it in February and then spent several weeks rewriting that before getting it to my beta readers. One thing I want to do with the sequel is do a cleanup edit as I go along, and create a new outline of what I’ve actually drafted as I go along, to help with consistency, any plot changes I’ve made, etc. Both would have saved me a lot of grief in edits, and my beta readers (who are fantastic) some of the extra effort they expended on my behalf.

    Thanks for getting Monday going in fine fashion. Have a great week, my friend.

    • I think you’ll enjoy rolling edits, Dale. Not only does it produce a cleaner, more meaningful first draft but it gives us a chance to update the outline. An outline should be a living document that changes if we let our characters run wild while we’re “in the zone.”

      Wishing you a fab week, my friend!

  9. Wise advice, Sue, as always!

    “The best way to do that is by working on a different project while the draft cools.” This method works well for me esp. if the other project is a nonfiction article. Shifting the brain from a fiction mindset to a nonfiction one really clears my thinking and observation. Like cleansing the palate with sorbet. Of course, sorbet is good anytime!

    Like Dale, my cooling off period is while beta readers have the manuscript. Plus they’re excellent at catching holes, inconsistencies, and repeated gestures like snorting, pursing lips, touching a shoulder, etc.

    Unfortunately deadlines don’t always allow the luxury of set-aside time. 🙁

    • Thanks, Debbie! Switching from fiction to nonfiction works well. And yes, sorbet is awesome anytime!

      Ah, yes, deadlines. Now that I create my own deadlines, I allow for that well-needed cooling period. 😉

  10. Great post, Sue

    Like Dale, my distance comes while my manuscript is out to beta readers (usually about two months). I’ll wait one month, then start editing the big picture issues. By the time I get comments from my beta readers, I’m ready for the problems they’ve uncovered. I also do rolling edits while I’m writing the rough draft.

    Thanks for discussing an important topic. Have a great day!

    • Whatever works best for you is the perfect amount of time, Steve! I can’t imagine writing a first draft without rolling edits. My manuscript would be a mess.

      Wishing you a fab day, my friend!

  11. Good stuff, Sue! For us newbies and you oldies . . . 🙂

    For me, length of time depends on fiction or non-fiction. I can’t tell you why. How’s that for vague? Right now, I’m letting my next non-fiction percolate for probably another week or so. It’s been a month since I last looked at it.

    Thanks for a super start to the week.

  12. For me, that first critical reading is about the big picture of the novel instead of the small points. The small points tend to be right before the final edit.

    • Nice to “see” you, Marilynn! I thought of you this morning when I published a new crow article on my blog.

      I’m on that first critical reading with the WIP now. Love that part! And yes, I agree. It’s the perfect time to think big picture. After I set it aside is when I search for smaller details.

  13. Do you let the manuscript rest once you complete the first draft?

    No – because I don’t write drafts. I have to do everything differently because of the limited-use brain I work with.

    Scene at a time, from gathering everything that will go into it (from the master plotting process of the whole trilogy) to filling out all my written prompts to writing, editing, polishing – and never looking at it again except to enjoy reading it. As if I were writing an anthology of linked short stories.

    There exists, from the planning process, an execrable rough draft created just to see if I could write the whole story that will end up being a half-million words. I could. It is my biggest stumbling block to progress, so, in every scene, when I have culled a few thoughts I want to keep from that beast, and don’t have to look at it again until the scene is finished and I tackle the next one, there is RELIEF.

    And the relief is because the words I had way back then were so primitive and derivative – and I’ve learned to do much better; I look forward to keeping only the ideas and starting fresh on the words.

    Then I can go forward having defeated the Old Text once more.

    And on to the next with no critical distance at all, just critical and self-analytical immersion. Weird, eh? But it’s what works for me. If it didn’t result in actual fiction I’ve published, and like, I’d think I was wacky to burke tradition. As it is, I wonder if I’ll ever get around to writing about my different writing ‘method’ – in case there are more people like me out there, writing. One more book on writing – how exciting.

    • Your process fascinates me, Alicia. It’s so cool how no two writers work in the same way. You go, girl! Thank you for sharing your process with us. 😀

Comments are closed.