Each piece of writing you complete pushes you along a path. Even the drafts you throw away are stepping stones along your journey as a writer. Each step might be small, but all writing practice helps you become a better writer.
Thinking about writing as an incremental process not only gives insights into the writing process, it adjusts your expectations so you better appreciate what you’ve accomplished.
Figuring out what is good about what you’ve written and what can be improved is your constant challenge. Each time you see your way to making new and purposeful additions, changes, or edits, you tick forward.
Levelling up takes dedication. It requires putting lots of words on countless pages for practice, dealing with rejections, learning writing craft, honing ideas, working towards unity in your writing, and just pressing on. Once you’ve mastered the core tasks of writing, like good grammar, you’ll start producing work you can expect readers will enjoy based on its creative merit.
Often the rush of satisfaction felt at the completion of a draft is actually personal gain – a new skill under your belt. Chalk these up as wins, even if they don’t translate into gold for readers. Enjoy these feel-good moments, just don’t linger too long.
Here are a few of the times it’s most certainly “personal progress.”
Mapping a personal experience
Did you just creatively set to words something you experienced? Excellent. The ability to translate real actions and emotions to words is a great skill. But that alone is not enough to make for compelling reading if the actions themselves are not compelling. Sometimes the deep satisfaction you feel can be the ease with which you render your feelings and actions into words, not the value of the words themselves.
The best thing yet
Is this the best thing you’ve ever written? Are the word choices spot on? The villain striking? The story more detailed than anything you’ve ever written? Great! This is progress, but it’s likely of the personal type. It’s certainly better than before, but when you are still making big leaps up in fluency, you probably aren’t at the height of your game yet. Each leap is an accomplishment, and the higher you go, the better the quality of your writing.
The quickest thing yet
Did a story come to you in a flash? Was it one of the things you’ve written most quickly? This can feel great: To do in a short time what usually takes ages. This is another great sign of progress, but it’s your progress, not to be confused with great writing, necessarily. Still, mark it in the positive column.
Each time you try a new subject, a new format, or a new section of a book project, you might gain a sense of accomplishment. Because of all that went before it, you might tackle it more successfully than the last task. This is true progress, but it’s likely another stepping stone. Cross-check again, whether it feels so good because it is a personal milestone or an absolute win.
Something with a shiny new bit of craft
If you’ve never written dialogue and you end up crafting something you really love, chances are you are well on your way, but you haven’t cracked into the big league. This is true of anything the first time around. Except for sheer beginner’s luck, your best work awaits at the end of long bouts of practice. But a core piece of dialogue is a great step forward, as is a significant piece of exposition, a beautiful word image, or any other formulation of words in your repertoire. In the end, you need to be able to do them all to make it through a complete book project.
Is this the first time you’ve completed a work? Getting across the finish line is difficult; congratulations on getting there. Finishing is an essential skill in writing, something you should repeatedly practice. But while being finished feels tremendous, it’s not always a surrogate for great writing. Especially, if it’s the first thing you’ve finished, or the first thing of its kind you’ve finished.
Feeling the heat
Sometimes you’ll feel as though your mind, or fingers, are on fire, as thoughts flood out faster than you can catch them with pen, keyboard, or recorder. Sometimes writing seems white hot. You’re in the flow. Your pulse rises. It all just works. Like a runner’s high, it is a reason many writers return to their desks, time and time again. Especially, given the addictive nature of this high, the question to ask yourself is whether your best work has just appeared as a result of one of these bouts, or have you just levelled-up personally. As the heat dissipates, do your words and ideas still stand? Like writing down the best idea of your life after waking up from a dream, does it still look so good when the sun is high in the sky and you’ve had your three cups of coffee?
All of these peaks are terrific achievements. Be happy each time they occur, and then get on with the next thing. Surge past enough of these incremental upward ticks and the quality of your writing will progress to a stage that you’ll be ready to grab the attention of readers.
Love all your drafts – just get on to the next one
Often, you’ll find you plateau on a piece of work. After a long climb up the learning curve, and lots of work, for the life of you, you can’t see how to make a single improvement on a draft.
Reaching this position is great, but what if there is a higher peak? The best way to test is to ask someone to read it for you and get feedback. Many times, just getting a piece of text off your desk triggers insights. You shift from writer to reader, from producer to consumer.
Sending your work out for a read allows you to take a big step back and see the bigger picture.
It will likely come back with pointers to rough spots. Great, more new insights. You know when you clean house and you tidy up a messy table? You’re pleased the table is cleared, but it opens a view of the dust bunnies, coffee stains, and holes in the carpet. More work to do. This is perhaps discouraging in the short-term, but you’re reaching for a bigger payoff, a higher state of cleanliness that you – and your guests – will surely enjoy.
Another investment you can make is to file your work away. Let is simmer in a desk drawer, the longer the better, some say. When you reengage, you’ll see things you couldn’t before. You’ll have the gift of distance. You won’t remember what you wrote – you’ll be reading it with new eyes.
Many writers live by this rule. Zadie Smith is a highly-acclaimed author, yet she readily admits catching things only in hindsight, proof that no matter how good you are, there is always a “next.” Smith sums it up beautifully in this description of self-editing before appearing at a literary festival:
“At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.”
So, much of your writing might go under the bed, be lost on scraps of paper, or be forgotten before the words even come out. The best of it will go through a series of edits – by you and others. It’s all part of your writing process. In most cases just better is more than good enough. In time comes great writing.