Sunday, 10 September 2017

How Do You Improve Your Writing If You Don't Know What Your Weaknesses Are?


It’s a conundrum that all unpublished writers face – how do you know how to improve your writing when you don’t know how good or bad you are, or what your strengths and weakness are?
It’s difficult to know just how well you’re writing if there is no benchmark or yardstick to measure it, especially when you’ve spent so many months working on something. For new writers in particular, it’s hard to detach from the work and remain 100% objective and, to a degree, self-critical, so it’s always important to gain some kind of feedback on their writing.
But how do you know how well your story reads? Does it make sense? Is the story strong enough? Does it have the right pace? Is the characterisation good enough?  Is the writing good or bad? What are your strong points, and more importantly, are there any weak areas?
Weak areas of writing aren’t and shouldn’t be seen as negative – it just means you haven’t perfected certain areas of your writing just yet. Every writer has weak areas, until those areas are recognised and improved. So how do you recognise those areas if you’re not entirely sure that what you’re doing is right?
The obvious choice for writers is to hire an editor, but this is the one option that will cost money.  A good editor will show you how to improve weak areas of your writing and strengthen the areas that are good. A good editor will not only tell you where you’re going wrong, but will show you how you improve. Of course, not all writers can afford to do this, so there are a number of ways available, which won’t cost an editor’s fee.
The most practical thing any writer can do is learn all they can about writing from the outset. The more information and advice you have about writing, especially the technical side, the better your understanding of writing will become. You’ll soon learn what works and what doesn’t and why there is general advice about some aspects – for instance, ‘show, don’t tell’ or ‘avoid adverbs and adjectives’. These exist for a very good reason. They are universally recognised as ways to improve and strengthen writing.
The other vital thing is to read – the more books you read by different authors, the more you glean from their style, voice and the way they structure their stories. Don’t just read your favourite authors, but instead read all different genres and styles. Reading others helps foster creativity and helps to inspire. Seeing how others do it helps to formulate your own approach to writing.
If you find a novel you particularly enjoy and admire, then analyse why you enjoyed it. Was it the beautiful descriptions? Was it the rawness of its approach? Was it the thrilling pace? Did it immerse you in a different world? Did it make you keep turning the page? 
All the elements that help you enjoy a particular novel are the elements you should employ in your own writing.
Writer’s groups or workshops are another way to help improve writing. They’re not for everybody, however, but they are a source of valuable feedback and support, because they will have members who will have more experience with writing and may already be published (traditionally), and they will therefore understand the process.
Another way is to use beta readers. By using a range of people to gain reaction and comments, you’ll soon see where the problem areas are in your writing. They’re not afraid to critique honestly and they can be very forthright about what works and what doesn’t.  The only downside is that every beta reader will have a different opinion. One will say it works, another will say it doesn’t. One will love the story; another won’t, so with beta readers it’s a case of employing common sense when confronted with contradictory opinions.
For optimum feedback, use only a handful of beta readers. Too many people will just complicate things and muddy the process. Don’t use friends or family, they won’t be objective. If you can, pick fellow writers or people who’ve had experience with writing in some way.
Of course, the bravest option of all would be to submit your work to a publisher – whether that’s an online publisher, indie publisher or a large publisher or agent.  This takes some courage, because they will either accept or reject on the strength of your work, however, whatever the outcome, they often give valuable feedback on your writing. This is why rejection – far from being negative – is a valuable and useful way for writers to see the areas they need to work on and to improve their writing and their approach.
Lastly, and by no means least, there’s good old fashioned practice. Write and keep writing. The more you write, the better you become. You become attuned to your writing, you gain an instinct with it, so you start to become aware what works and what doesn’t, you’ll spot those weak areas before they become a problem, and you’ll slowly learn how to strengthen your writing.

Summary:

  • The time to learn about fiction writing
  • Read all genres and styles
  • Look at different novels and why they work
  • Join a writer’s group to gain feedback
  • Make use of beta readers
  • And the bravest move – take the plunge and submit work to publishers. Most will give you feedback/advice for improvement.
  • Hire an editor
No writer is perfect, so there will always be areas for improvement, even for experienced writers. We’ve all started at the bottom, unsure of how to start a novel, how to lay it out, how dialogue works, what show and tell means etc…but then we learn, we grow and develop and ultimately, we improve.



Next week: How do you make your story dark?

2 comments:

  1. I always enjoy reading this blog and have often recommended it to others. I do have one point of difference with the suggestions presented today. As an editor for a small traditional publisher, I do not agree that just being brave and sending to a publisher is the way to get feedback on your work. Although I do personally send a positive note with any rejections, I do not have time to critique a manuscript submitted to me. Nor is it my job to do so. If the work has not already been polished (via all the other great ways you recommended), it will be rejected. Yes, even the polished ones will still need and receive editing if we accept them, but sending a publisher a manuscript for feedback will not get your work published. And once your work has been rejected by a publisher, that bridge is burned for that particular book. If you are a serious writer, invest in learning the craft and the business. Go to writers' conferences--pay for a professional critique--join a writers' crit group with successful writers--read books and magazine about writing. And most importantly, never give up! Follow your dream to write, but be willing to seek out opportunities to master your craft.

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    1. Vie, thanks for your comments. It's good to get another perspective, especially from a traditional publisher.

      The only reason I mention the 'be brave' thing is because that's how I learned the craft when I started out well over 35 years ago. There were no computers, internet or much else, so on the occasions I did receive feedback, this helped me tremendously. I appreciate that not all publishers have time to offer much, simply because of the sheer volume of submissions, but many do and it's exceptionally helpful - even the rejections.

      But I certainly agree that writers should never give up - we're always learning, after all.

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