I got a great anonymous Ask over on Tumblr last week from someone who wanted to know how to identify weak spots and improve their writing. One of the things that comes with time and experience is finding the language to identify, discuss, and address the feeling that something isn’t quite right or that a story is “missing something.” Not knowing them or their writing, of course I couldn’t help them figure out what specifically the problem was. But I did share with them a list of things I’ve done over the years to be able to identify weak spots and improve my writing.
1. Analyze your favorite writers.
Figure out why you like the writing that you like. Ask yourself: What are they doing here? What are they doing that I’m not doing? Why do I love their writing so much? Take notes on their stories. Plot them. Write in the margins. Read them slowly. Read their reviews—both good and bad. Did that writer you love once write something you hated? Great, even better. Figure out why that particular book was different from the others.
2. Analyze your own writing.
To improve your writing, you’ve got to understand it. Do you have an older story you wrote that you love? Figure out why. What did you do differently in that story that you’re not doing in the current story you’re writing? Make notes. Draw maps. Reverse engineer everything.
3. Develop a language to talk and think about writing.
Read craft books, blogs, anything you can get your hands on. Learn about point of view, conflict, character development, dialogue, story structure, syntax, metaphors. Get your advice from good sources, and don’t believe everything you read. If something doesn’t sit right with you, throw it out. But be open to everything that might help you improve your writing.
4. Journal and write about your writing.
Over time, you will identify consistent weaknesses that you have. Then, in the future, when you feel like “something is missing” from your writing, you can reference your notes and remember, for example, that you often have difficulty with your protagonist’s motivation, with theme, with dialogue, etc., and you’ll have a better idea about where to go looking.
5. Share your writing with someone you trust, ideally a more experienced writer than you or an editor or mentor.
Be very careful about who you share your writing with. Friends and family are not always the best choice. You don’t want someone who’s just going to throw around their uneducated opinion about your work, who has a big ego, or who won’t be honest with you. Remember: “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” are useless pieces of feedback. You want someone who can read your work and say, “Your protagonist’s passion for music made them really likeable to me. I was dying to know whether they would get into the conservatory or not!” or “My attention wandered on page two, when you described the couch upholstery for three paragraphs.”
6. Analyze the areas of your writing which are commonly problematic for new writers (and writers in general).
In my experience as an editor, the most likely culprits are unclear character motivation and lack of conflict. There are a lot of good resources (books and blogs) about this. Try a Google search for “most common mistakes beginning writers make.”
7. Trust your intuition about what needs improvement.
Do you keep coming back to the same page or scene in your story, feeling like it isn’t right? You’re probably onto something.
8. Take time away from your writing.
You’d be amazed how much more clear everything will be after a break. Give yourself at least a week for a short story, 3-4 weeks for a novel. It could also be the case that your ambitions for this particular story don’t yet match your skills, and that you’ll have to wait even longer to successfully finish it. I’ve known writers who have given up on a story only to come back to it months or years later once they’d gained the skills and insight to complete it. And then suddenly writing that story seemed really easy!