One thing I am committed to is learning. I never want to stop learning, though my focus shifts from time to time. For example, years ago I was asked to write a mystery novel for grown-ups. Though I had read hundreds of them I’d never written one, so I became really committed to learning more about mystery novels for adults. I’ve thrown myself into a similar focused commitment to learning about writing for educational markets (when I’d only written for magazines), writing for children (when I’d only written adult nonfiction), and writing good query letters (when I’d really only worked with editors giving assignments). Whenever I run across some place where my lack of learning is impeding my drive to succeed, I refocus again. And during the learning time, I can be obsessive, devouring everything I can find on the subject. It’s the kind of obsessive focus I turn on research sometimes as well. It always represents a merging of interest, commitment, and need. But before beginning on any learning journey, it helps to know where you need to grow.
Research suggests that in order to properly access the quality of something, you need a level of skill and understanding in that area. For instance, people often tell me I should illustrate my own writing. That’s a kind suggestion, and I take it as such, but it also shows that most people do not understand what is needed to be an illustration. Professional illustrators (and I know quite a few) never tell me my level of art is sufficient to illustrate, though they say other encouraging things to me about it. Because of this need for skill to judge strengths and weaknesses, it can be hard to sort out where learning choices would be best focused, especially at the beginning of the writing journey.
Weakness and Struggle
If you ask most new writers where their greatest writing weakness lies, they’ll generally tell you what they find hard. The assumption is that anything you find hard is probably your greatest weakness. But that’s not always a good metric for finding weakness. Neither is enjoyment. For example, I’ve had students who enjoyed writing dialogue, but did not enjoy writing action. So they would pen “stories” made up entirely of disembodied voices with no immediate action at all. If asked, they would say their weakness was in writing action. But when pushed to actually do it, many times they wrote action quite well in a clear and evocative way. But their dialogue would continue to be overly wordy and too full of exposition. So where their real weakness lay was in dialogue, the things they thought they were good at. And not action, the thing they thought they were bad at. They merely avoided action because it “felt” hard. Now, that resistance to writing action was a problem, but it was one that was easily solved with practice. The more the writer wrote a balance of action and dialogue, the less the action felt hard. But the quality of action writing stayed consistently good. That wasn’t where the writer needed actual education and actual learning.
In reality, simple practice can help you overcome many places that feel hard and that you tend to resist or try to “write around.” The places where you need education can sometimes take a little more sleuthing to find.
One really helpful way to evaluate your weaknesses yourself is by writing a several page scene between two characters in conflict and setting it aside, not peeking at it again for several weeks (a month if you can stand to wait that long.) This will help you divorce yourself from a couple things that get in the way of self-evaluation of your craft: (1) memories of what was hard and what was easy, and (2) the background knowledge you carried into the scene. After a month, you’ll forget many of the little things you “knew” about these characters you created for the exercise, and you’ll be forced to evaluate what is on the page itself.
This cold reading of your work will help to give you some perspective. Look for things like clear flow of sentences and paragraph transitions. Look at clarity, in general. Were there any sentences you had to read more than once? Why was that? Look at sentence length and the balance of dialogue and action. Look at the characters. Do they sound very different? If you removed all the dialogue tags, would you still know which character is making each statement? In well-crafted characters, you should be able to do so. Read the exercise aloud and listen for the flow of the language and spots where you struggled to read smoothly.
Imagine that you are reading this scene from the perspective of helping someone who really wants to improve. What weaknesses would you note for this other person. Consider writing up an evaluation telling this mythical writer what strengths and weaknesses you saw in the piece. Then set that evaluation aside for several days before returning to it to see what truths might be in there. When you had a chance to step back emotionally from your writing, what were you able to see in it?
One Trusted Other
Self-evaluation can only go so far. You can only get just so much distance between your feelings and your writing. This is why it can be helpful to get an outside evaluation. But choosing someone to do the evaluation can be tough. You want someone who knows something about good writing. This can mean a published writer, but it could equally mean someone who is an avid reader but who thinks critically about what is read. A reader who generally evaluates books using surface level words like good, bad, dull, or stupid will not be helpful. You want someone who really digs in and talks about books with remarks such as “I fell in love with the character” or “I am still thinking about the story” or “it made me feel like I was actually in that place.” People who put that level of thought into describing what they read will be the most useful when describing your work as well.
One thing you must make very clear to the person before you ask for a response to your writing is that you want to improve. Make it plain that you’re trying for a clear assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. You want to know what the person thought you did well and what the reader wished were different. Keep in mind that the responses you get will be reader responses, and you’ll need to turn them into writer responses as you read them.
For example, a reader who reads your conflict scene and says, “I wanted to see what they did after the argument,” is telling you that the reader was invested in what was happening on the page. So it might sound initially like a criticism but in terms of writing, it’s pointing at a strength. The characters were believable enough and the conflict you created was meaningful enough to engage the reader. Getting outside input can be very helpful (and sometimes a little ouchy), especially when it is coupled with your own fearless self-evaluation.
Weaknesses Point to Answers
Once you know your weaknesses, you will want to know what to do about them. For example, if you discover your dialogue blends together with both characters sounding exactly alike, then you’ll want to know what to do about that. First, you can read about it. Writing books that cover fiction often cover both dialogue and characterization. I often find it helpful to read and take notes on as much material as I can find. I often discover that different authors will take different approaches to the same problem or identify different causes of the problem. This is why I try to read as extensively as possible about the subject. The first person offering advice on how to write more compelling dialogue may be saying something that doesn’t resonate with me at all. I’ll usually try it anyway, but if I find the results frustrating, the problem easily may not be with me. Different approaches work for different writers. I’ll keep digging until I find an approach that unlocks answers for me.
Once I’ve done as much reading as possible, I will often look for most learning options (especially if the weakness is serious and can affect many areas of a work). I may look for workshops (in person and online) on the topic. I’ll look for blog posts or podcasts on it. I’ll evaluate if it is a problem that needs bigger help, like a lengthier class (either in person or through distance learning). In other words, I’ll begin to look for ways to treat this weakness until I can overcome it. If it’s something I’m having a little trouble judging on my own, I’ll definitely look for opportunities for feedback about it, whether through critique partners or groups, or through feedback from professionals. In a way, I’m building a treatment plan, and I’ll keep at it until I feel I’ve brought the weakness up to a level where practice alone will continue to strengthen that area.
Learning isn’t Stopping
One of the best ways to learn to write is by reading and by writing. So I keep doing both of these even when seeking improvement in the specific areas where my writing is weak. If I stop writing while I’m reading books about writing or taking classes, then the whole learning process can fuel procrastination. Writing can be hard and sometimes scary, so you never want to offer yourself new procrastination devices. Keep writing. Try writing exercises. Honestly, one of the all-time best writing exercises is simply to create two characters with opposing motivations and lock them in a scene together for a while. This will build dozens of skills at the same time in such areas as characterization, plot, setting, and dialogue. The result will only be a scene, not a story, but I have found this exercise helped me create stories that I later did write and sell, so it’s an exercise with purpose on several levels.
Whatever direction your learning takes you, do not quit. No writer has arrived at perfection and as soon as anyone begins thinking themselves an expert, the person hops off the learning train and stagnates. Don’t be a stagnant writer. No matter where you are at in the journey, you still have places to go and things to learn. So do I. Let’s journey together.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.