Holding Up The Mirror: Hands-On Tips For Spotting Flaws In Your Writing

When it comes to the best way to embed learning and improve your technique, the jury’s in: plenty of studies out there say that anything you can identify yourself will stick with you quicker and better than something someone tells you.

And that’s true, right? We all know that the brilliant a-ha! of working something out yourself is both more satisfying and a deeper realisation than having someone explain something to you. So how do we apply this to our writing? I don’t know about you guys, but I’m totally capable of staring at something for days on end, knowing it’s not quite right, but incapable of figuring out what I should change. Self-identified improvement is all well and good, but when you can’t self-identify, then it’s less a helpful teaching mantra, and more the kind of thing that leaves me grinding my teeth.

Here are a few of the things that I do to help me hold a mirror up to my own work, and improve through identifying what I can do better.

1. I get to work for my critique partners.

Wait, what? Bear with me, guys! I know it sounds like looking at someone else’s work is no way to identify flaws in your own, but I guarantee it’s one of the most valuable things you’ll do. When I’m critiquing someone else’s work, I often spot something that doesn’t sit right, then have to really think about why that is. The process of considering, and then trying to explain in comments what I’m getting at? Super educational. This goes to the heart of what I’ve said above — someone else can teach you all the theory in the world, but the thing you identify yourself is the one you’ll understand most deeply.

And then, I guarantee, when you go back to your own writing, you’ll find ways to apply what you’ve just learned. So many times I’ve carefully explained something in a critique note, then picked up my own MS the next day and spotted it. That experience of finding it in my writing is so very valuable, and it’s the first step towards really improving that aspect of my own writing.

2.  I write up tests and checklists.

So step one is reading a really interesting blog post on how to do something (add tension, write a great scene, snap up your dialogue), but step two is actually doing it. And for sure, these things are easier said than done — anyone who’s tried it knows that! When it comes to applying those lessons to your own writing it’s easy to think ‘Sure, I always do X’, but it takes a lot more work to really check that’s true.

If I’m struggling with something in particular and I’ve found a few great articles or a chapter in a book on how to do it better, I try and write up a test, or a checklist, then put the lesson aside and actually fill it in using my own chapter. It can be laborious, sure, but it means I really hold the mirror up to my own writing and check that I’m walking my talk. Usually I find that one bit that’s not quite behaving, and you can bet I’m going to be faster to identify it next time.

3. I let time work its magic.

This one’s an oldie, but a goodie. We’ve all heard it over and over again — once you’re finished writing, put your work aside and keep those itching, twitching fingers away from it! The longer you can leave it, the better, but I recommend at least a month. Eeeeeeverybody has their day, one day, when they think they’re the exception to this rule. Here’s the thing: you’re not. (Nor was I, the time I thought I was.) You can hand your baby off to critique partners as soon as you punch out THE END, but don’t you go back until you’ve had some time apart. It will be like reading someone else’s work, and you’ll start to see what really is there, not what you think should be.

What do you do to hold a mirror up to your own writing? How to get get perspective? I’d love to hear your ideas!

        

16 Responses to Holding Up The Mirror: Hands-On Tips For Spotting Flaws In Your Writing

  1. jeffo May 13 2013 at 7:32 am #

    Regarding the crit partners thing, what I also find (especially when the person is going to be reading my work in return) is that pointing out a flaw in their writing also leads to a fair number of, “Hey, I do this, too!” moments. Critting others is a terrific way of shedding light on your own foibles.

    • Amie
      Amie May 15 2013 at 2:58 am #

      Oh, it totally leads to realising you commit exactly the same sins. Same problem, different perspective, works wonders!

  2. Julie Eshbaugh
    Julie Eshbaugh May 13 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Great post, Amie! One thing I do is send the MS to my kindle. It looks so different in that format that it helps me see it through fresh(er) eyes. Your last tip, of course, is the one I think all writers know they should do and the one they fib most about doing. I know I hate to put aside a MS I’m about to label “finished.” But you’re right – there’s nothing like time to help you see your own work more clearly. 🙂

    • Amie
      Amie May 15 2013 at 2:59 am #

      Oh yes, so true! I print, or put it on my kindle, or do anything to make it look different. I know Sooz likes doing revisions by hand too!

  3. Alexa Y. May 13 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    I love this post! It’s always hard for me to look critically at my own writing, but I think your tips are sound. I’m especially fond of the one that hints at separating yourself from your MS for a little while! I think it’s important to grant yourself this little reprieve, because it definitely helps you distance yourself and look at the piece through new eyes.

    • Amie
      Amie May 15 2013 at 3:05 am #

      It makes all the difference in the world, and we all think it’s a good idea… until it’s time to do it. Then we just want to keep moving!

  4. Heather Villa May 13 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    I, too, found the reward of setting my MS aside. I was humbled when I realized that I had so much work to still do!

    Yesterday, I asked my husband to read the first three chapters of my MS out loud. I identified what worked and what didn’t work.

    Thank you! And congrats on your novel.

    Best,
    Heather

    • Amie
      Amie May 15 2013 at 3:05 am #

      Oh Heather, I love this idea! Having someone else read it out loud is genius! I’m going to try this myself!

  5. Stela Brinzeanu May 13 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    Time and helpful friends are always a winner for me! Great post. Thank you!

    • Amie
      Amie May 15 2013 at 3:05 am #

      Thank heavens for both!

  6. Janita May 13 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    This has always been my difficulty, especially for things like essay writing where I have to utilize a lot of descriptive writing. I can never objectively look at my work (and I never finish it quickly enough to give myself time to distance from it). For me though, number 3 is the most important. I’ll look back on some of my previous work and either hate it or love it, and it won’t even feel like my writing!

    • Amie
      Amie May 15 2013 at 3:07 am #

      I agree — one of the main challenges with setting things aside to marinate is finishing in time! Still working on that one myself….

  7. Kim May 13 2013 at 9:03 pm #

    This is a great post. I agree with it all. When I critique my partners work, I start to see things that I do too and realize — uh-oh, I need to change that. It also really helps to give my work some time off. If I stare at it too long then I won’t be able to see what’s wrong, even if I misspelled the most basic of words. Give it a week (better yet, a month) of not looking at it, though, and I’ll catch 90% more things then I would’ve before.

    Really great tips, thanks for sharing!

    • Amie
      Amie May 15 2013 at 3:07 am #

      Hilariously, I just came to look at these comments RIGHT after proofing something I’ve proofed ten times already… and I found a typo. In other words, you’re SO right! Glad it was helpful!

  8. Linda Adams May 19 2013 at 11:13 am #

    I’m visual spatial and sometimes have trouble translating the pictures into words. I also don’t really see the details, since they blend in with the whole. To me, a single detail is a lot, and a telling detail is extremely hard to do. I ended up asking my critique group to explain to me how to do them. Since I don’t see them, I have no frame of reference (sort of like being color blind, I guess).

    So I ended up with sort of a mental checklist. I know that if I mention an object like a tree, I should mention what kind of tree it is (specific details). Likewise, if I want to get telling details in, I have the characters have a conversation, and it comes in during the conversation. I have to make sure I get a good picture of the layout of a setting and then try to get those specifics in the story. I also have to pay attention to sizes and distances, because I can often leave these off in ways that are really obvious. Characters have been known to beam up from the first floor to the second!

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