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A question was put to me recently, which was: “How do I know if my writing is getting better?” and I didn’t know what to answer.
The first reaction I had was in my head: “You can’t!”. Hiss and despair. But after a moment I was able to think of a few tools that a person could use to detect improvement, and that the Story Grid tools we use on a regular basis could be one option among others.
A good way to know if your writing has improved is when you read something you wrote last year and hate it. Your instincts might involve screaming and editing. In severe cases—the use of accelerant and matches.
This might apply to your novel, writer’s journal, a blog post, a letter to your Nana. This feeling isn’t such a nice one. Who wants to feel that what they have written is lousy? No one. Though there is some consolation to be had. It means that you are now able to see the imperfections that you had not seen before. This can only mean that you are a better writer now than you were then, even if then is a year ago, a week ago, yesterday.
FOOLSCAP & SCENE ANALYSES
Your writing skills are not an island; they come from your ability to analyse works of fiction, TV/films, from reading, from good old-fashioned butt-in-chair practice, from loving the craft, and pushing yourself to be better. All these skills we acquire are interconnected, and it’s these that enable a writer to form their voice.
Since we use Foolscaps for analysis purposes, and since you have a few close by, then tracking your aptitudes with them is possible and easy.
Here is a method I’ve tried:
- Choose a Foolscap from your stash. (I like to date mine just for this reason)
- Make a point not to read it.
- Watch/read the film/book/show (do it cold if you’ve a top-notch memory)
- Write another Foolscap
- Compare the new and old Foolscaps to look for changes/clarity
Maybe one of your old answers was “Jack Sparrow drank whiskey and got drunk.” The new answer might be “Jack Sparrow drank whisky and got drunk because he was Refusing the Call to become his best and most authentic self.”
Just this small change shows that you know more about story, in this case, The Hero’s Journey, than you did before. Alternatively, you could have a completely different answer because your vision of the genre changed, and so the core scenes shifted as well. Maybe your new answers are shorter and closer to the point. It’s in these small areas that we can evaluate the level of analysis we’re doing.
You might also find that your answers are similar and this is wonderful too—it means that you have reached a level of mastery over Story Grid concepts that you should be proud of.
You can also follow the same steps with a scene analysis you’ve done or with the 5 Commandments.
If you consistently have problems with identifying, let’s say, one of the 5 Commandments, you know that you need to focus on that one thing, and there are a variety of Story Grid resources to help you hone, from podcasts to excellent posts, and there are now more than one Story Grid nonfiction book to get you on track. There are plenty of Story Grid Certified Editors that can point you in the right direction as well.
IT’S IN YOU
We know story—it’s ingrained so deeply with us—that we might write these elements of story in without even having to think about them, and it’s only at the editing stage do we realise that we knew what we were doing all along. As Shawn says or a regular basis: trust yourself.
As writers, we are ever hard on ourselves and are often underwhelmed with our work. As your skills improve, and you gain some mastery and confidence, you will start to like your work. You might already have found our voice or you might witness the emergence of it, but you do have one, that is a promise, as long as you are true to yourself and the stories you want to tell.
This does not happen overnight. It takes study and practice both. Progress happens when we study the elements of fiction and apply our knowledge. This is what we are doing when we analyse scenes with Story Grid, seeing how our favourite stories work and why we gravitate towards them.
For more on analysing scenes, please see this article by Story Grid Editors Leslie Watts and Valerie Francis.
As we change as people and flex our different writing muscles, our perspectives change. They say it’s impossible to re-read a book and feel the same way about it, because you are a different person for subsequent readings.
IT GETS EASIER
I want to tell my clients that writing gets easier, but I don’t, because it doesn’t. There will likely always be challenges you have to face with each one of your projects. What does help, however, is having good habits, and not breaking them. That’s the only thing I know of that can make any writing endeavour easier—allocating time, and doing the work.
Being part of a writing group over a long period of time can also serve as a good indicator of improvement based on what others say about your writing. Having a group of, trustworthy like-minded beta and sympathy readers is important for all writers at any stage of their career.
As an editor, I read many books on the craft and one thing that I see recommended is the forming of groups to write together. These differ from discussion groups because they’re more about support and accountability.
The group you form could be any combination of discussion, analysis, and sprint. Try different things and see what works for you.
PRODUCTIVITY CHARTS / HABIT TRACKING
Any Story Gridder knows the glory of a completed Story Grid Spreadsheet. Build yourself a spreadsheet where you can track your WIPs, the good habits that make the days better, and the bad ones you want to exclude.
You could have any columns and rows you want. A good one might be: how long does it take to write 1000 words? In the above example, I am able to track the fact that don’t feel right on days I didn’t write my morning pages, and that coffee makes my brain go too fast. So I learn—and chastise—myself based on what I know about my habits and make the changes I need to in order to be at my best.
If I notice that my aim is to do three morning pages and more than half the time, I do them at night, then I know that the habits I try to form need some readjusting based on my life and needs.
BUT WHAT AM I DOING?
I am guessing that, like me, people ask themselves what they are doing with their lives, what mark will they put on the planet, and how many people will care about it. Are they doing something good for people, healing them, teaching them, saving their homes from fire?
As a writer I suppose I ask myself these types of questions more frequently than I ought. But really, by spending my time writing, how am I serving anyone else other than myself? Am I perpetuating selfishness of the worst sort?
During quarantine, it’s a bit more obvious that entertainment sustains us on a daily basis. Books, film, TV, music, these things have writers behind them all. And so I feel it’s my duty to tell you to keep writing, keep creating, keep doing what it is you’re supposed to be doing. Don’t give up your passion for writing to become a nurse to prepare for the next pandemic, as it crossed my mind to do. Maybe you’re not saving people in the ER, but you’re saving people at home, and I hope there’s comfort in that.
At the same time, one simply can’t just write anything, in any which way. Time is precious, and it’s likely that only a select few want to read your diary entries. That does not mean that you can’t—or don’t inadvertently—get yourself on the page in the nooks and crannies of your writing, but it does mean that you have to respect your reader’s time.
INTEGRITY AND RESEARCH
Perhaps more important than any of the points made above about being able to judge if you are improving as a writer is your personal willingness and devotion to continue studying your craft. It’s not a profession where your knowledge will ever be complete, but you can and should find ways that you can honour this craft in your way and on your terms while being respectful of your subject matter.
WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW
I am very much at odds with this idea of only being permitted to write what we know. If everyone followed this rule, we would be without so many fine pieces of writing. In 1928, Virginia Woolf published Orlando, a book whose main character switches gender part of the way through. In 1954/55 Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings. Do you think he was able to interview Elves and Dwarves as part of his research?
If we could only write about what we know, there would be very little in the way of sci-fi and fantasy at all, and that my friends, is a sad, sad world.
Furthermore, representation is crucial, and not everyone has the patience or even the desire to write. So please write about people that are different than you are, and that have had different life experiences. All voices need to be heard.
We all know that good stories can change us and the world around us. Good writing and the right research allows these stories passage into the world. And we need them. You have to be sure that your story can only function with the inclusion of these elements, and that they come from a place of respect, and with the hope of healing.
Don’t be scared to write what you don’t know, but do your best to know enough to do your subject proud.
It means doing research on subjects that probably and rightfully make you uncomfortable, and digging deep into yourself and The Other. When you have a good base of knowledge and feel like you can have conversations with people on those subjects, that’s when you know it’s time to reach out.
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