December 10, 2020
Much of the time, when we come up with our goals connected to writing, they involve writing a certain number of words, completing a project, or submitting material. But there is one goal that should be on everyone's list, and that's studying and improving our craft. Almost all goals are helped along when we work on that one. We sell more. We complete more projects. We write more words. We improve our revision quality. All of these come more easily and more effectively when we improve our craftsmanship.
What's the Foundation?
To improve your craftsmanship, you need to know where you are right now. For many, correctly identifying our own strengths and weaknesses can be difficult. And a solid critical assessment of where your study efforts are best expended can be incredibly valuable. So how do we find out what we need to improve?
One excellent way to learn where your writing is strong and where it is weak is to seek out outside help. Critique groups, critique partners, book loving readers, and paid consultations are all valuable to learning where your strengths lie and where your weaknesses are holding you back. This is a new way to look at critiques. For many, a critique is all about getting this particular piece ready for submission, but that only helps you improve one thing without necessarily helping with your next work-in-progress. But when you specifically ask people to read something and then tell you what things (pacing, plot, voice, grammar, organization, dialogue, engaging the reader, characterization, meter, word use, etc) you have done well and what things you've done poorly, you begin building a framework for study and improvement of your craft. If this is a critique group or critique partner, you might even want to offer the person guidelines listing all the possible items (pacing, plot, voice, etc) and a scale of 1 to 5 (or 1 to 10) with low numbers showing places you need to work to improve something and high numbers reflecting things you show strong skills in. This kind of feedback can help you target specific skills and improve your writing of everything, not just one piece.
Launching Your Own Search
Some of us do much of our writing journey on our own. I firmly believe that getting feedback from others is invaluable, and I've often been awakened to weaknesses I didn't know I had by outside input. But you can sniff out some of your problems on your own by a few indicators. One is in your behavior and one is in the results.
For instance, think about your writing and give an honest answer to the question “what things do you tend to avoid?” The answer can be enlightening, as it's basic human nature to avoid our weak spots. It's never comfortable to fail. For example, I've seen early writing from beginners that almost reads like a play. It's all dialogue and no action, no description, no world building. In a case like that, the writer is leaning on what they believe they do well (dialogue) in an effort to avoid including things they don't think they do well. But the problem with this is that trying to get dialogue to do the work of all the other elements of story ruins the dialogue as well. So avoiding the hard stuff tends to have negative effects even on the stuff you love doing.
Another way to find your weak spots is a quick analysis of a piece of your work. Use colored highlighters to mark different sections so you end up with a visual assessment of your work. In fiction, you might use yellow for all dialogue. Pink for description. Blue for action. Green for transitions (moving us ahead in time or moving us to another setting). Then take two colors of ink pen and circle verbs with one and nouns with another.
After you've done all this, look at how well you've balanced action and dialogue, and how often you’ve woven them together. Another issue I've seen with beginning work is a tendency to do description in blobs, then stop entirely to do dialogue, then stop all conversation to give a blob of action. But in a good story, as in life, we are seeing and speaking and doing things, often all at the same time. On our way into a grocery, we spot a friend and notice she's colored her hair and we say, "I love the new color." Or perhaps we choose not to remark on the unfortunate shade of poo yellow. But all these actions, words, and sights are going on together. And they should weave in and out of one another in your writing as well. So your visual study should show that paragraphs are a mix of elements.
If your work is not fiction or narrative nonfiction, your analysis might be based on looking at transitions. Support/proof statements. Hooks. And maybe noting what the point of each paragraph is and whether everything in the paragraph relates to the point. So I might use blue for statements that state the point of the paragraph and yellow for everything that supports the point. Then I can make sure my piece includes enough support for the assertions I make. For essays, I could also choose a color for statements that are opinions and another for statements that are facts to be sure my essay isn’t simply rambling opinions, but that opinions are backed up by facts. (I might use another color for anecdotes which can do the work of facts in backing up opinion, but must be used carefully.) What these exercises are designed to do is to force you to see the way you handle the workings of each piece, which can help you spot weaknesses.
If you want to learn if you have issues with flow and clarity and general strength of prose, then consider recording yourself reading your work aloud and playing it back. Then you can truly hear how the work sounds. Judging with your ears can help you find weaknesses you might miss through silent reading. And anything that sounds wrong points to an area where you might strengthen your craft.
Once You Know, Then What?
Once you have identified your weaknesses, then you can set your craft goals for the year. Exactly how you approach those goals will also depend on what you can afford and how you best learn. Writing classes can be fantastic and distance learning classes can enable you to fit the instruction into your busy life. Coming into the class knowing what kinds of things are your weakness can help you ask your instructor pointed questions about these areas. Other instruction options can include workshops at writing conferences or those done by Highlights Foundation. Workshops are often very focused on specific elements and you may find one that specifically matches the area you need to improve.
Still, workshops and classes are a definite investment and one that not everyone can make, even when you know it would be a huge help. In cases like that, you can build your own class through the wealth of writing books in print. I often use Amazon to find out the array of books available in areas where I want to do some focused study. Then I'll check to see if my library owns any of those books (because I do like reading for free when I can). I also sometimes buy used books or lesser-expensive formats like ebooks in order to get a nice collection of potentially helpful texts. Then I pursue them exactly as if they are a class. I either do exercises that come with the books, or I come up with my own to practice what I've learned as I move chapter by chapter through the work. I also make it a point to read the books used as examples. It is amazing how much you can learn and improve from a "course" you create for yourself. This can also be a good way to jump start your learning while you are saving up for a pricier option of a class, conference, or workshop.
However you go about pursuing the goal of improving your writing in the coming year, the payoff will be huge. No matter how good we are, we can always be better. So keep craftsmanship on your writing goals for 2021. It'll be worth your time, for sure.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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