Documenting writing progress

Writing as a hobby is both Zen and frustrating to participate in, both for the same reason.

There’s always somewhere you could improve. There’s always something you didn’t quite get right in that last piece, or something that you didn’t even understand when you wrote it and months or years later when you look at it the piece is utter crap and you’re embarrassed you let people see it1I have public fanfiction I refuse to re-read… or take down. It’s my key reference point for reminding myself that I can improve!.

It’s sort of the joy and struggle of any art. You’re trying to express something – an idea or a feeling or a concept – in some sort of predetermined form, and how well you can convert it comes down to your skill as an artist. But there’s never a true, complete expression of the idea. It’s never exactly how it looked in your mind when you had the idea of it. It might be close, people might react to it in the way you wanted them to, or understand what you’re trying to express, and really enjoy experiencing the thing you have made. But it’s never quite done. There’s always something more to tweak, or do, or re-do.

There’s a Zen to it, that knowing you’re never going to achieve perfection. It frees you to do it anyway – if everything you’re going to do is going to be inadequate, you may as well try, right?

But it’s also frustrating, because we don’t want to suck at what we do. We got inspired by something – probably an instance of writing we loved – and we want to create something as good. We want to see if we can do that magic, too. But sometimes it’s hard to see progress. We expect to suck at the start, but how do you tell if you’re getting better?

Progress in art isn’t linear and it isn’t obvious. How do you convince yourself you don’t suck if you’re getting little to no feedback that all your work is getting you anywhere close to what you’re trying to achieve? How the hell do you know if you’re in a deep, weird rut of using terrible dialogue when you’re in it? How do you spot when what you think is progress isn’t? How do you know when you’re progressing at all?

There’s a frustrating lack of information on this topic, too. A lot of it boils down to either telling you to just keep going2Which is fair, it is the only way you’re going to make any progress – good or bad – at all. or clickbait titles about how to get better instantly or the top 10 things you’re doing wrong. These things don’t help us see improvements in the long-term.

So what do we use for benchmarks for progress in our writing?

I used to think if I got something published it’d mean I was “getting better” and I guess that’s one way of looking at it, but I don’t really like it anymore. It’s subjective – whether one person likes a piece or doesn’t isn’t much help in telling me much about whether my writing is getting better… it just means they liked it, or it suited what they were putting together. Or didn’t. There’s usually no feedback, and even if there was it’s not like there’s a big report card somewhere showing objective progress over time.

“Pacing is improving but characterisation could still use improvement.”

“Kiera is showing strong command of the ideas of ‘show don’t tell’ compared to her last piece.”

You could sign up for a writing course – they’ve got assessments and nice neat feedback against set criteria, but what happens once you leave? You’ve got the certificate but is that going to last? “Welp, I’m good at this, the certificate says so… so why don’t I like this piece?”

You could regularly go to a writing group and get feedback from the same people or a range of people and really push for honest feedback. People saying “it’s good” whenever I present something doesn’t help. It does help to provide a balanced view, though. You’re never going to be able to be completely objective about your own work and having external views helps with that. But that’s still subjective feedback and doesn’t tell you much about your progress or improvement. It just tells you where you might want to look to improve.

Some people set writing goals with things like #WriteChain or Twitter Writing Challenge or Nanowrimo to keep motivated. It takes the emphasis off the quality of work and refocuses on doing the work at all. Doing the work anyway, regardless of if it sucks. This is a really important thing to have in your writing headspace and support arsenal, too, but that quantitative approach isn’t useful if you’re looking to see signs of qualitative progress.

Answer? I think the answer is looking back on your writing to date and spotting the progress in that. Seeing the trends in your own history.

“Oh! That’s when I started thinking about perspective. God it was rough, but I can see it starting there…”

“Why was I using front tagging in dialogue?”

“That is the biggest, most embarrassingly flat character I’ve ever seen.”

“Ooh! My description there was quite good!”

I think it’s the only way to do it. By doing a lot of work you’re going to be progressing, but whether you can see it while you’re making the progress is questionable. You might be two months into a hellish revision and not even sure you’re not going to have to go right back to the start and do it again when you’re done. You might be struggling to worldbuild or feeling like you’ll never have an idea again. You wonder if you’re ever going to be any good at all or if you’re just writing lots of crap and going to die on top of it3… just me? Awkward.. Plateaus happen. Sometimes breakthroughs are slow. We have to do the work anyway, but it’s nice to be able to see signs of our ability to make progress generally in our writing, even if we can’t see the progress we’re making right now. Even if it all feels bullshit.

I think I’m going to make a list of my evidence of progress, of things that I used to suck at and now don’t suck quite as much. In a decent sized font. I’m going to print out lots of copies of it. I’m going to keep one in my diary, and in my dropbox, and in the Scrivener file for my novel. Whenever I wonder why the hell I’m trying and it all sucks and I’m not any good anyway I’m going to look at the list, because it’s proof that I can make progress in the direction I want. I might not be able to see the proof in what I’m creating now, or what I’m getting out of this revision, or what I’m learning and demonstrating and starting to get better at while I’m in it, but I can believe it’s happening. Because I’ve got proof it’s happened before while I wasn’t watching.

What do you guys use to show progress in your writing? What do you look back on and say “man I used to suck at that!”, but which you’ve now gotten better at?

Notes   [ + ]

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