Craft Capsule: Reading Backwards

Carter Sickels

This is no. 54 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA many years ago, a member of the workshop passed on a piece of advice he’d once heard: Read your manuscript backwards. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention (he was a bit of a know-it-all), but the advice stuck with me, clanging around in my brain, and I’ve since turned to it when line editing and hammering out bigger structural issues.

Reading backwards doesn’t mean you read from right to left, or from the bottom of the page to the top. What I do is print out the manuscript, start with the top of the last page, and work my way back to page one. This exercise works differently for me depending on where I am in the process. When I have a final draft, reading backwards helps with line editing. When I read backwards, I use my brain in a different way, and it slows down my reading. I focus on the words, not the story, and spot repetition and unnecessary words.

Reading backwards has also helped me resolve structural issues and build narrative tension. I was struggling with a short story I’d been trying to write for months. It wasn’t working but I couldn’t figure out why. I let the manuscript sit and cool, like a hot potato; when I returned to it after a few more months, I tried the backwards reading trick. The ending of the story worked, but how did I get there? There were holes in the plot, and too much exposition that glossed over important information. The first-person narrator, so focused on his lover, never stepped up or revealed any insight into his own interior. I hadn’t written any scenes with him alone or with other characters. These backwards-reading discoveries helped me restructure and revise the story; I cut exposition, wrote new scenes, and rearranged the scenes I already had to amplify the tension. 

When I’m stuck I’ll try looking at the story from a fresh angle—whether reading backwards, changing the font, hanging pages on the wall or spreading them out on the floor. I read the entire manuscript aloud. I retype. These are all ways to trick myself into approaching the novel from a different place. Sometimes it works. And when it does, it’s like seeing the project with a new pair of eyes—catching what I missed, or discovering a hidden door that leads me to the true story. 


Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Amie LeeKing