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!