Look, here it is in a nutshell: if you want to become a better writer, you need to become your own worst critic. You really do. I know how it sounds and believe me, I don’t say it lightly, but deep down you are the best judge of your own writing. You know if your writing is good or not.
Now, I am not saying that you need to critically obsess and analyse every sentence or word you write (don’t be silly!), but you need to be aware when you are half-arseing it. And you know when you are half-arseing, right? It’s those times when you write something that maybe took you forever to write – you’re happy it’s done and maybe it’s ok – but you know, deep down, that it’s not great.
Of course, these are also the moments when you start making excuses for yourself. Stop me if any of these ring a bell:
- Why am I so hard on myself? It’s great! (No, it isn’t and you know it)
- Why am I such a perfectionist! I need to give myself a break, it’s great! (See first comment)
- Let’s leave it for now and I’ll come back to it later… (Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. However, if you do, I guarantee you’ll end up deleting it)
- Ah, whatever, it’s good enough! (For what? To take up space on your computer?)
I guess what I am really talking about is honesty – with your writing and yourself. I have seen a lot of writers crumble at the first sign of a negative reaction to their work, because I think they already knew about the problems to begin with. And I should know, I’ve been there myself – far too many times. Giving and receiving criticism is not easy, but the best critic you can ever come across is yourself. If you have a nagging doubt that your piece is weak, well, it probably is. Just be honest and ask yourself – is this really the best you can do? Of course, you can ask others for their view too (and you should!), but keep in mind that if that nagging voice is going off in your head, then changes are needed.
Another thing to consider is that writing, like most other art forms, takes time. Not to sound like an old curmudgeon here, but in today’s world, everything needs to happen now. Like now. Right now! Everybody is in a rush to do things and get it done yesterday. If this is you with your writing – just stop! Set your own pace, achieve greatness in your own time. I recently came across a set of instructional videos on storytelling developed by Pixar Animated Studios – you know the geniuses that created Toy Story, Ratatouille, Wall-E, etc. Well, there is a line from the following video that I thought would be pretty spot on for this article:
The truth is, our stories don’t always come out exactly perfectly the first time, or the second time, or the third time, or the fourth time, up to the 30th time. And so you keep going again and again. Only after retelling the story many, many times, does it really sparkle.Pixar in a Box: Introduction to Storytelling
At Pixar, a story can take up to four years to get right…. four years! Have a look yourself at the videos – at the very least, they are guaranteed to cheer you up!
By now you might be thinking something like, “Ok, well, that’s all fair enough and all, but how can I tell if my work is actually good? I mean I think it is but how can I really know for sure?”
I have an answer for that but it depends really on where you are in the whole writing process.
THE SHORT-TERM SOLUTION
While writing, you will create passages that are outstanding. You will blow yourself away with certain words, sentences, paragraphs, maybe even whole chapters. You will congratulate yourself by re-reading them to yourself several times, amazed at just how wonderful they sound to you.
That’s great – hold onto that feeling!
Now remember those passages that you laboured over. The ones that took several (hundred) re-writes. The ones that kept you up till the early hours, that drove you nuts… but you finished them somehow. You told yourself that they were fine. They will do. After all, other writers such as [insert famous author here] have produced work with weak, nonsensical parts – why the hell shouldn’t you?
But you know, deep down, that you shouldn’t accept this. Never settle for mediocracy. If you were able to shine before, you will do it again. In this case, you should step away from your work for a while, talk to yourself, and try to find out what the actual issue is. Maybe you are stuck. Maybe it’s indicative of a wider problem with your story. Or maybe, it’s something as simple as just needing a break. One thing that I do is to highlight the offending section in yellow, and try to move on with the rest of the story. It’s always in the back of my mind of course, but I try to not let it slow me down. It’s a hard thing to do, but I am getting better at it. Then much later, when my mind is more relaxed, I return to the section and either change it, or delete it entirely. The latter is more common. Either I find out that it was never really that essential to the story, or that I was on the wrong track. Quintessence is, if I have the feeling that it’s not my absolutely best work, it doesn’t stay in.
You don’t have to copy this approach if it doesn’t work for you. Find your own way. But one thing is important, don’t lose faith in your ability, and always be honest with yourself.
THE LONG-TERM SOLUTION
So you have completed your piece. You feel good about it, you feel accomplished – well done to you!
But how’s your inner voice? Everything honky-dory upstairs? Is your voice reminding you of those sections that you struggled with? If so, you need to take action before you even consider publishing options.
I have collected the following ten questions from various sources across the web (some links below). They were designed for ‘beta readers’ – members of the public, or non-professional writers, with an interest in reviewing early drafts. I know a lot of writers who have engaged with beta readers to good effect. The advantage of having a stranger or an acquaintance review your work is that they can offer an honest, and unbiased opinion – which is great for pinpointing those weak areas.
But, here’s the thing – why not become your own beta reader? When reviewing my own stories, I try to slip into the mind-set of someone reading it for the first time. It’s not easy but I find it a good approach to really tackle weaknesses in my story, and even to identify areas that I wasn’t aware of.
Here are a list of my favourite questions. Use these too when reviewing your own work, or give them to a beta reader to help guide them.
- Did the story capture your interest from the start? Was there a good hook?
- Was the setting of the story clear (when/where it took place)?
- Were the characters’ motivations clear?
- Did the characters feel genuine with distinct voices, flaws, and virtues?
- Was there a point at which you felt the story lagged? Where, exactly?
- Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
- Was there enough conflict, tension, and/or intrigue to keep your interest? Why or why not?
- Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
- If you could change anything to make the story better, what would you change?
- Can you recall three things about the story that worked best for you?
If you can answer most or all of these truthfully, and are still content, then congratulations, you’ve done it! Think about it – who cares if it’s not to everyone’s taste or if it’s rejected fifty times (there could be many other reasons for this) – you have produced a piece that is your best work and that makes you happy. And that’s what it’s all about!
On other thing I created that might help you with your review is the Writer’s Grid – see image below. Although you should use this yourself, I find it an ideal tool to give to others to help them with rating of your work. You can access/download it here via Google Sheets.
I hope you found this advice helpful. As always, good luck with your writing!
The following links are ones that I return to time and time again. I hope you will find them useful too for your own fiction writing.
- Resources in Writing A great collection of various info that every writer needs
- Tips for Writing Prose
- What not to submit to literary Magazines this is really good overview of the types of things Strange Horizons are sick of seeing. Most of this will also apply to other mags too
- 15 Questions to Send to Beta/First Readers
- The Art of Storytelling – Pixar in a Box A really tremendous (and free!) course explaining key elements of storytelling.
Article written by Shane O’Halloran. Have something to say? Leave a comment below or contact Shane directly via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or email. Or, you could just buy him a coffee if you like? (AKA a pint)