More than three years ago, I wrote a short story after a very long hiatus from writing.
I thought the story was pretty good. Great, in fact.
I quickly sent it off to a literary magazine, and expected a glowing response from the editor. Instead, my manuscript was returned to me in record time, covered with red marks.
Denial was my first instinct. Surely my writing couldn’t be that bad, right?
But, after a few days, I softened. Perhaps the editor did make some good observations on my story—things that could be cleaned up a bit. As time went on, and as I abandoned that manuscript for newer, better ideas, I started to realize I’d been far too hasty in my self-approval.
Since then, I’ve spent a few years immersing myself in learning about the craft of writing fiction. I’ve come so far, now I literally cringe as I read my earlier attempts.
Measuring Your Writing Growth
Fresh eyes are a writer’s best friend.
If you want to see how far you’ve come in your writing journey, and motivate yourself to continue your hard work, dig out your first honest writing attempts. A short story, abandoned novel, magazine article, blog post…anything you wrote at least one year ago.
Now, follow these five steps to determine just how much you’ve learned through practice and study:
- Grab a red pen and a lined piece of paper.
- Read your piece of writing from beginning to end. Mental notes are fine at this stage, but don’t start recording them yet.
- As soon as you finish reading, write your immediate reactions on the lined paper. What’s your overall opinion of the piece? How do you feel about the fact that you are its author? What would you think about it if someone else had written it? What surprises you most about the piece?
- Use your red pen to mark the manuscript wherever you find specific weaknesses. Is the language verbose? Are your thoughts unclear? Have you written weak transitions? Are your spelling or grammar less-than-perfect? Strike stuff out. Circle or underline whatever’s questionable. Be your own biggest critic.
- Read over your comments and manuscript mark-up. Which weaknesses did you identify that you would definitely not find in a similar piece of your writing today?
I’ve noticed so many improvements in my writing over the last three years. Things I never would have noticed before, now stick out like sore thumbs. In general, I’m more aware of the common signs of amateur writers, and I’m more capable of spotting them in my work.
The best part about writing is that you can never stop growing. Who knows–maybe a year from now, I’ll even be taking a red pen to this post.
How do you measure your growth as a writer? What weaknesses have you overcome in your writing over the past year, or more? What do you hope to overcome this year?
Join the discussion
Susan Woodring says
I’ve been tempted to throw out my earliest attempts–they’re so bad!!–but I hold onto them for the reasons you’ve mentioned. It really helps to go back and see where I was a year or ten years ago.
Thank you for this.
I’ve been tempted to do the same, Susan, but it’s so cool to see the improvement, isn’t it?
Carol Ann Hoel says
My novel has been around almost as long as my writing efforts, well, give or take several years prior to its beginning. Yes, my writing has improved. I will be impressed by my writing, perhaps, when my novel is published. Until then, I will continue to grow and improve my ability.
I think–for most of us–we won’t be impressed until our novels are published, either! Hopefully that will happen one day 🙂
Greta van der Rol says
Yes, did that with a very early piece of writing I recently dug up. I winced my way through it. This was a short story. It had some good ideas (which I will keep) but for the rest – it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it.You’re so right about the amateur writing flashing off the page.
Funny, but I really still like the ideas I had in my early stories–just not the execution. I could probably rewrite those same ideas into much better stories today.
I have a tendency to over-explain and make lists in my writing so I’ve tried to pick the strongest part of the “list” and use that. I’ve also tried to delete adverbs. I didn’t think it could be done.
But, just for a help to me, what are the common signs of an amateur writer so I can do my best to avoid them (in case I don’t notice them)….
Common mistakes of amateurs? Passive voice, telling instead of showing, use of unnecessary words, poor dialogue, slipping into a different tense or changing point of view, head-hopping, a character waking up in the first scene, using the same sentence structure over and over. There are probably a ton more, but those are off the top of my head. Don’t worry–I’m sure we’re all guilty of them in the beginning.
Nicole Langan says
Great post – love your tip!
Mary Clark says
Getting to the stage of routinely seeking feedback from other people, and accepting it graciously, whether the reader is my 8 year old, my 5 year old (who ALWAYS thinks more gore is needed) or someone from my writers’ group, has taken me a long way in the last year. I am now going to have my butt kicked weekly; I’m starting an M Res in Creative Writing, and hope to carry on growing so that I don’t recognize my own work by this time next year.
Cynthia Briggs says
Try pulling your work out after 12 years. It’s a shocking experience, although a constructive one. I agree about keeping the work to see what can be learned from the errors or lack of style, etc. For me, those old pieces have golden tidbits that need recapturing/rewriting. I, too, tend to over explain but now I’m able to pluck the meat from the previous work and produce a much tighter piece that can be submitted elsewhere. This is usually a time-saver, plus I feel good about the obvious progress I’ve made.
Thanks for the article, very informative.
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