Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Unlike athletes, writers hit their peak pretty late in life. This is partly thanks to practice, partly because life experience yields richer stories, and partly because they’ve had a chance to learn from their past work and past selves.
Yes, your former self is one of the best metrics – and inspirations – for future growth and development, so take advantage! Don’t just wait a decade and be pleasantly surprised that your work has improved; put previous projects and habits under the microscope to learn from the writer you used to be. Here are six practical ways to do just that.
1. Interrogate old habits
Compare old work with new to see if you are still practicing any of your childhood bad habits in your adult writing. And I really do mean childhood habits. If you started writing when you were a kid, pull out some of your earliest efforts and sit down for a read-through and a good laugh. Make a list of all the silly things you did as a child, teenager, or adult novice writer. The earlier writing you can find, the better, as the mistakes will be more glaringly obvious to you now.
Once you have your list, go through and see if you can discern what your younger, more naive self was trying to do. After all, you had the best intentions. At that time, you thought you were writing well. What was the good intention behind each choice?
Sometimes, the intention may be obvious. If, as an eleven-year-old, you used all caps, a bigger font, and six exclamation points in a row, clearly you were trying to use visual mechanisms to add emphasis. If you had characters’ voices or letters to each other rendered in different fonts, it would seem you were trying to give them their own voice, their own handwriting.
Sometimes, the intention may be less obvious. If you went through a phase where you spelled gray ‘grey’ despite being a 10th-generation Denver native, why were you doing that? Assuming you weren’t writing British characters, were you still looking for your own voice? Emulating a style that’s literally not your own because you admire it?
On a larger scale, were you copying somebody else’s plot or characters because you enjoyed them? Or did you tend to use the same adjectives over and over again? Did you write about things that you had no experience in, and that’s what made certain sections childishly comical?
There was likely a reason for every choice. Emulating someone else’s work is partially inevitable, since there is little new under the sun; this is how every artist begins. Musicians pick up some other musicians’ chords and rhythms. Painters borrow techniques from the masters. Writers typically write because they love to read, and so much of what they read will feed into their writing – not only in the beginning, but throughout their careers. Finding the line between inspiration and infringement is a journey.
When we find words we like, we tend to overuse them. It’s human nature, like when you get a new sweater and wear it as often as you can get away with. So, too, is overusing words a natural tendency.
We also tend to write about things we don’t know very much about, because experience takes time and often money. If an author who grew up in and never left Alberta, Canada, was inspired to write a story about Haiti, their choice is between research and experience, the former of which will inevitably fall somewhat short.
Having analyzed the good intentions behind some of your less-than-awesome choices as a young writer, ask of your current or more recent projects: Am I still doing this, just in a more mature way? Instead of all caps and exclamation points, have I graduated to excessive italics? Though it may be less obvious, am I still borrowing somebody else’s voice because I like it better than my own? While I may have had more varied life experiences, does my reach still exceed my grasp when it comes to subject matter?
If we never stopped biting our nails as kids, chances are we still do it as adults when no one’s looking. Childhood habits have a way of carrying into adulthood, though they do evolve – sometimes to the point where we don’t recognize them for what they are. A close examination of your work may reveal that you still have some adolescent habits to kick.
2. Recapture the spirit of youth
Though perhaps less common, examining your childhood writing may also remind you of some things that you, as an uninhibited kid, got right.
The style and syntax may be totally juvenile, but what about your spontaneity? Your whimsy? Was your imagination stronger? Freer? Did you let your characters do whatever they wanted and see where it led you? Tapping into the fanciful mind of a child won’t give you better sentences, but it might make you more creative.
Take a good look at some childhood pieces and ask what’s playful about them. What makes you laugh? Can you use your juvenile scrawl to remember how much fun you had writing back then? Writing often feels like play to children and work to adults. That’s not our heritage; it’s our choice. Hard work though it may be, the wild-and-free mind of the child has nothing but fun along the way.
3. Interrogate new habits
Read through some more recent projects. Check for lingering childhood habits, but scrutinize for the adult tendencies that come with more complex stories: chronology issues, overuse of certain words or sentence structures, lazy writing, or shallow characters.
Root out the reason for the issue. Chronology issues might be a result of cutting and pasting, or changing your mind about something but forgetting all of the other passages that might be affected by that change.
Let’s say you started off with a six-year-old girl, but later realized that you need her to be a little more mature in order to facilitate her actions in chapter 10. Or, the better you get to know her, the more you realize you had pegged her as six, but she’s actually nine. Characters evolving as you go is a perfectly normal phenomenon. What’s trickier is this: realizing that this altered character was now alive for things you didn’t initially think they were around for; that the gap between them and their siblings is wider or narrower; that the way their room is decorated or the music they like is different. Making those updates can be a huge undertaking, since references to age or life events are myriad and far-flung. Often, things get overlooked. One solution is to keep a timeline next to you on paper as you self-edit, double-checking numbers and dates as you go.
If the issue is repetitive sentence structure, explore resources on varying sentence structure. If it’s laziness, be real with yourself and ask whether the project is worthy of your full efforts. If your characters are shallow, don’t fumble around in a blindfold wondering why. Run your characters through a personality test. Find someone who resembles each character and observe/interview them (no stalking allowed).
The advantage of using past projects for this analysis is that you are emotionally detached, so it’s easier to see what went wrong, but apply the data you gather to your current project and you’re likely to see similar patterns.
4. Reconsider historic feedback
This does not mean that you should try to remember a vague sense of the feedback people have given you on previous projects. It means digging into your archives and finding actual comments people have left on your work, whether in pen, in email, or in a word processor.
Writing has brought a lot of advantages to society, but one disadvantage is that once we’ve written something down, we think we have a pretty good idea of it and don’t need to look at it again. If you dig up old comments, though, you’ll be surprised at how much you had forgotten.
Use prior praise and criticism to form a new set of questions that you can ask of your current work. ‘This editor said I start too many sentences with a gerund phrase. Am I still doing that?’ ‘In this novella I wrote ten years ago, my writing partner said all my characters talk the same. Is that still an issue for me?’ ‘This beta reader said I used too many mini-flashbacks. Is that still true?’
Positive feedback can work in the same way. If you’ve gotten feedback from more than one source that a particular passage works well, spend some one-on-one time with that passage. Which particular words give it extra power? Does the syntax match the pacing of the plot? Do the characters get vulnerable?
Whether positive or negative, asking the relentless ‘why’ can drill vague impressions down to actionable principles. Begin by asking why a passage did or did not work well. If it’s because the characters connected well or failed to connect, ask again, ‘Why?’ Follow each why with a new question until you run out of questions.
Don’t give in to the temptation to let this happen too soon. If your answer is ‘I really don’t know,’ it’s too soon. Sometimes, it’s hard to be honest with these answers. The bottom-line answer might be, ‘This section didn’t work well because I got tired of working on it.’ Or, ‘The dialogue lacks depth here because I’ve never been through a divorce and didn’t want to drill anybody on what this conversation would really sound like.’ Ask honest questions, give honest answers, and you’ll root out the source of your problems and successes.
5. Troubleshoot your circumstances
Not all writing happens in the chair. You can learn from your past self by analyzing your writing, to be sure, but you’ll be cheating yourself out of a lesson if you don’t look at previous life habits and circumstances as well.
Wonder why you used to be able to churn out semi-decent poetry, but now the music is gone? Well, what was your life like when you were writing poetry in both quantity and quality? How is your life different now? Are you busier? Do you have a more stressful job? Did you used to make it a point to lie down in a field of sweet, uncontaminated grass with nothing but a notebook, a pen, and a thermos of hot tea?
For every writing project that turned out well, ask relentless questions about your life circumstances and writing habits at that time. Ask where you wrote and at what time of day. Ask whether you were using paper or computer, a favorite pen, or a favorite chair. Ask if you were mostly inside or outside. Ask if you ate or drank while you wrote. Ask how much exercise you were getting. Inquire into your research habits. Were you more diligent? Did you seek more real-life experiences? How did you spend your free time? Did you travel? Who were your friends, what were they like, and did they also write?
Leave no proverbial stone unturned. Under careful examination, your life and writing habits should yield a boatload of data on what works well for you as a writer, and probably as a person, too. The same applies to projects that flopped. It’s probably true that some projects were never meant to be, but if there’s one where you could never figure out why it didn’t work, don’t just examine the story for flaws, consider what in your own life may have prevented or diminished the story’s success.
6. Time travel
Look at something you wrote five years ago and ask, ‘How would I improve this if I were writing it today?’ Then look at something you’re writing now and ask, ‘How would I improve this if I were writing five years from now?’
The trick to this question is that it circumvents all of your present-day excuses. When you look back on a project from five years ago, it’s easy – from your detached vantage point – to say, ‘I was lazy. I knew that section needed more research, and I didn’t feel like putting in the legwork.’
Present shortcomings are much harder to admit. So, by projecting the questions in this article onto a future version of yourself, you can teleport your brain outside of the context of stress, writer’s block, brain drain, and other excuses – or genuine reasons – why a project may not be clicking. Another way to ask this question would be, ‘If no work or stress were required of me, what would I do differently?’
The answers to these questions will give you an honest foundation for determining what you need to do to move forward effectively. You can decide from here exactly what you want to do next, but it’s hard to make a good decision when the truth is cloudy. By asking the right questions, you dispel the clouds.
Growth is intentional
Just as a person can’t kick bad habits by hope alone, writers shouldn’t expect to grow simply by writing and never looking back. A critical eye and willingness to learn are crucial if you want to learn from the writer you used to be.
Which of these ideas will you try this week? This month? Let me know in the comments, and check out There Are Wolves In You! Now, How Can They Help You Write? and 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book for more tips on developing as a writer.