Writing but not growing
March 10, 2014 6:08 AM   Subscribe

How can you make sure that as a writer you're getting better?

So there's something that I've been turning over in my head for a while and this felt like a good place to ask. If you're someone who's interested in writing, general piece of advice is to just keep writing, keep sending your stuff off, keep rolling with the rejection punches. Fine and good, don't mind slogging it out, craft means work etc etc.

But you rarely know why, exactly, your stuff hasn't been taken on and it's really hard to know what kind of mistakes you're making: having friends etc read over your work is good, but often they're too nice and more often feedback is too specific- what's wrong with this page rather than what general, consistent mistakes you're making.

So, how do you make sure you're writing 'healthily'? That you're not being a hamster in a wheel going around in circles, but making actual progress?

And, how can you make sure that you're progressing?
posted by litleozy to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Read stuff you wrote a year ago. Two years. Three. Do you see a progression?

Or: Read stuff you wrote six months ago. Are the mistakes leaping out at you? Is it clear what you'd do differently if you wrote it now? If so, you're progressing.

Don't worry about rejection slips. They mean what they say: Your work doesn't fit their needs at this time. It's a decision relating to markets, not to the quality of your writing. Keep at it. Especially with the internet being what it is, you will find your audience in time.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:22 AM on March 10, 2014

FAMOUS MONSTER has it. I'd say go back and edit some of the stuff you wrote several years ago. If you can't find anything to improve, I'd say you're probably a little stuck, and would benefit from some sort of group or class that can kickstart your writing process. But if you find yourself thinking, "This is garbage! I can make it so much better now!" then you're progressing.
posted by xingcat at 6:38 AM on March 10, 2014

Keep writing.
Write more and more and more and you will produce gems.
posted by entropone at 6:46 AM on March 10, 2014

Check the quality of your reading. Better input can sometimes have an equivalent to better output. (I say this as someone who was writing technical manuals while reading stacks of Nabokov and suddenly found it much easier to generate output.)
posted by mochapickle at 6:59 AM on March 10, 2014

Thanks for all the advice so far, hadn't thought of going over old stuff and seeing what's changed, nice one!

My worry though is blindsides, seeing only part of the issues and ignoring the more fundamental ones. I'm a very poor judge of my own work

Also entropone, I know this is kinda negative of me but I don't believe that any more: keep writing blindly and all you may do is reinforce bad habits.
posted by litleozy at 7:43 AM on March 10, 2014

Get into a writing workshop or take a writing class for its workshop. Get constructive feedback.
posted by GrapeApiary at 7:43 AM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your ability to evaluate your own work and see what you could be doing better doesn't necessarily improve at a constant rate, just as your writing doesn't, and both halves of the equation are important.

Try to find a group of serious writers -- not your friends. I think both critiquing others and being critiqued will help.
posted by Jeanne at 7:48 AM on March 10, 2014

You need outside feedback.

First, that's true generally. "Roll with the punches" is advice about not getting discouraged. It has nothing to do with improving. That's separate. You can make headway by writing, writing, writing, but you won't necessarily get better by doing that. You can equally end up spinning your wheels, or as you say, reinforcing bad traits. And yes, going back and revisiting old work can give you useful perspective. But who's your audience? You're writing for other people, right? There is a low ceiling to how much you can improve onstage performance skills from inside your bedroom. One way or another, you need the element of audience exposure.

Second, when you find yourself saying aloud, "I'm a very poor judge of my own work"...then you—personally, and in addition to what other people generally require—need outside feedback. I'm not a fan of writing workshops, but some people find them useful. That's one option. There are others. You need other perspectives. And very importantly: make sure you are prepared to hear them constructively.
posted by cribcage at 7:51 AM on March 10, 2014

My worry though is blindsides, seeing only part of the issues and ignoring the more fundamental ones. I'm a very poor judge of my own work

You know what helped me a lot? Finding forums where people ask to have their writing critiqued. You don't even have to have your own work critiqued - just read what people say about others. Read what's being written and understand the mechanics behind it. Armed with this information, take a harsh look at your own stuff.

It took me a long time to learn that writing is something done in two stages: The first is actual writing, and the second is revising, and you have to learn to do both.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:20 AM on March 10, 2014

Writing group. You need to be in a writing group. Ideally of people at more or less your own level.
posted by musofire at 8:22 AM on March 10, 2014

Writing group is a good idea, but it assumes you're up to it. Can you take criticism, and can you give it? Both are skills that don't necessarily come naturally.

For the former (taking it), you've got to figure out how to separate yourself from your work, which doesn't just mean agreeing with everything anybody says about it. You need to figure how to hear what you need to hear.

Likewise, giving it. It's one thing to be honest about how you feel about somebody's incomplete stuff, it's another to deliver your critique in such a way that it actually penetrates without either hurting in the wrong way. And then you need to accept that sometimes your critique is just not what they need.

And all of this assumes that you've got yourself a functional group.

Good luck.
posted by philip-random at 10:06 AM on March 10, 2014

Read books on how to write. Here is one of my favorites.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 10:57 AM on March 10, 2014

You know, one thing I really miss about writing poems (mustache aside) was that there was a massively active online poetry critique community. Absolutewrite is worth it's weight in gold. Zilch like it for script-writing as far as I've seen.

I will take up the advice of finding a writing group (I actually really like being critiqued and critiquing, not in a bloodthirsty way, but in a 'this feels like building' way), all I'll say is that the ones I've been to have tended to be a bit parochial, a bit trying to fit the pages in between the cups of tea, or dominated by one personality. But that's luck of the draw really.

Thanks for all the advice already, hugely helpful. I was hoping that there was some kind of way to check your own health, so to speak, but can see how you'd need outsider perspectives.
posted by litleozy at 11:00 AM on March 10, 2014

"...feedback is too specific- what's wrong with this page rather than what general, consistent mistakes you're making."

It might be worth hiring a good editor and explicitly ask him/her to note these sort of consistent mistakes and point you to remedial lessons on the topics. For example, back when I was a technical editor at a research institute, I worked with a lot scientists and engineers for whom English was their second language. I'd keep little tallies of the *type* of mistakes they made as I corrected their work and then give them links to the relevant topics on the Purdue Online Writing Lab site. Most of them did end up improving over time.

The cheapest way to do this is probably to take some composition classes at your nearest community college. Make heavy use of the school's writing center and ask the tutors to give you this sort of feedback.

You could also try working through some English grammar workbooks/textbooks on your own.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:47 PM on March 10, 2014

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