From Mythic Scribes:
There’s a question that crops up on writing forums a lot: how do I improve my writing?
And quite often, the most common advice is “read and write lots”. Which is perfectly fine advice. Knowing what’s good and practicing your craft are great ways to improve.
But there’s only so far that advice can take you. At some point you’re going to need to follow a third piece of advice:
Know your weaknesses.
By identifying weaknesses, you can work harder on improving that aspect of your writing rather than just practicing everything and hoping for the best.
But not all weaknesses are equal; and not all weaknesses can be identified by the same methods. So I’m going to split this into two: in-text weaknesses and out-of-text weaknesses.
In-text weaknesses are those elements generally discussed in writing threads: characterisation, pacing, description, dialogue and so on. They’re the actual words that make up the story. There are three key ways you can determine whether you fall prey to any of them:
1. Read your work
Looking at what you’ve read and comparing all recent projects to one another will enable you to pick out trends. Does a certain theme keep appearing? Do all your protagonists sound the same? Do you overuse a certain word or phrase?
As well as picking out trends, you need to constantly ask yourself whether or not the story, or some element of it, is working. And if you compare your notes to what you ended up writing, you can work out whether you achieved what you intended.
This will be more effective for older work, partly because you’ll have improved more since writing it than more recent work, but also because you will have forgotten much more of it than your most recent project. For your most recent or active project, it’s a good idea to set it aside for a while before analysing it, so that you can approach it without it still buzzing around inside your head.
2. Read someone else’s work
Sometimes you are too close to your own work. You know it too well, and miss things as a result. Reading someone else’s work allows you to approach something without preconceptions and without sentimentality. At the same time, analysing someone else’s work means you’ve got your critical brain in gear. You’re looking for what works and doesn’t work, you’re looking for mistakes.
The way to take this a step further and to make it useful to you is to think, for every feature – whether good or bad – you identify in the other person’s work, consider that same aspect in your own work. Say what you’re reading has very good characterisation. Consider what makes it good. Look at how the author presents the character. Compare it to your own characterisation. Do you use some of the same methods? How is it different?
And if while you’re analysing someone else’s work you also provide the author with feedback, you’re in a position where you can ask them to reciprocate.
3. Ask someone for feedback
Getting feedback gives you a fresh perspective, a new set of eyes. You’re so close to your own work that there may well be things you can’t see, even when considering it in comparison to another’s writing. What you think works might not; what you’ve forgotten to mention will stand out to a reader who doesn’t know it in advance.
Remember with feedback that it isn’t the be-all and end-all. Different people have different tastes and different skills. The feedback you get is an expression of the tastes and skills of the reader. You are free to ignore their judgement if you disagree. But if several readers all identify the same aspect of your writing as a weakness, you should listen.
Out-of-text weaknesses are things like procrastination, insufficient outlining, fear of starting, overdoing worldbuilding and so on. These are about the way you approach writing, about the confidence you have in your abilities, and your personal skills that aren’t specifically writing related, like time management.
Because they’re not about the words, it can be harder to identify when you have one of these weaknesses. If you struggle with endings because you don’t plan enough, nobody can tell you if all they see of your work is the prologue. Identifying these kinds of weaknesses requires a degree of self awareness. You need to ask yourself “why?” at everything. If you’ve started a lot of projects but not finished any, you need to consider why that might be, for example.
There is a way of determining at least some of these. It comes down, once more, to analysing your work, but this time not just reading it. In fact, you don’t need to read it at all.
Consider your recent works. If it’s easier, create a table. The first column is your project’s title. In the second column, describe the story in a sentence or two. In the third, record the progress you made – in words and in approximate percentage of the story. Finally, in the fourth column write the reason you stopped working on it.
By comparing information from different projects you can identify weaknesses. If all your stories got to about 75% and then you stopped, you might have a problem with endings. If there are several projects you halted before you wrote a single word because you lost passion, maybe you did too much planning, or focused in too much detail on something that wasn’t important. If there are a lot of stories you stopped because of writer’s block, perhaps you didn’t do enough planning. These aren’t the only reasons, merely suggestions; analysing the information will enable you to come to your own conclusions.
Target your weaknesses
Once you know what you’re not so good at, you can create a plan of action for improving those aspects of your writing – or your approach. Now you know what to write, or what to read about. Instead of just writing and writing and having the same thing wrong with every project, now you can target those weaknesses, practice specific elements of writing or improve your planning process.
Of course, if your problem is getting distracted by the internet during your designated writing time, then it might be that your weakness is procrastination. In which case, all that reading and creating tables might do more harm than good; and in which case, what are you still doing here? Back to work!