Anyone with a passion to write wants that writing to be the best it can be. I’ll raise my hand with this bunch. The proactive ones among us go out and scour the web and authoritative sounding books on how to write better. A lot of this advice tells you to “Write. And then write some more. The only way to improve your writing is to write, write, write.”
Write is wrong. Or to put it a better way, “just write” is flawed.
Let’s liken writing to playing a musical instrument, easy enough to do since both are acts of creation, expressing oneself, and if done right both are undeniably art. A person playing that instrument will never rise above a certain level of skill if they play in a vacuum, which is essentially what they’d be doing if they just played, played, played.
You’ll only get to a certain level just writing. In order to ascend that plateau, that same mind that’s an idea factory and fountain of creativity needs to become a shrine to critical thinking.
Critical thinking is a term that says a lot without saying much at all… it’s reached buzzword proportions like the word “paradigm” or “singularity”. Taking the buzz out of the words, critical thinking in terms of your writing just means you’ve got to understand in depth what you wrote, your strengths and weaknesses, and apply all that understanding to the mechanics of language and prose.
I would love to be able to tell you the universal key to critical thinking. But different minds think differently. What I can do is give you the road map to how I improved, with the hope that many of you find that this same map will either get you to that destination beyond the plateau or at least in the general vicinity.
1. Shelve the ego.
If you’re the type that writes someone off as a moron when they give you a flat expression after reading your story, I may be talking to you. If you’re the type to read something that others think rock and begrudgingly concede that it was all right but you could do better if you wanted to, I’m definitely talking to you.
Shelve the ego. Granted, some genius writers did go through life scorned and unappreciated, like Edgar Allan Poe. But until you put that dream of world changing grandeur aside, at least for awhile, you won’t be able to holistically look at your work and make an impartial determination whether or not what you have is in fact genius.
2. Seek peer review.
This isn’t just about people looking at your work and telling you what’s right and wrong with it. Granted, that does help in understanding how others see what you’ve written. Equally important is YOU reviewing your peers. Looking at the works of other writers can’t help but be an impartial process… you didn’t invest any energy or emotion in writing the work. But you know after reading it whether you liked it or not. Being able to adequately tell someone else why their work was good or why it was bad develops your critical thinking skills. You’re translating your feelings of pleasure or displeasure into quantifiable and qualifiable reasons. These same reasons can be turned onto your own work, like x-ray vision. Then you’ll be seeing things you’ve never even noticed before. That is, provided you were man or woman enough to follow rule 1 and check yourself beforehand.
3. Appreciate the words of others.
Just like any great musician didn’t sit around playing and listening to their own tracks all day, you shouldn’t just be writing and reading your own stuff all day. Go out and read masters in the field. The top story magazines and zines if you’re a story writer. Bestselling novels if you’re a novelists, jaw-dropping poets if you’re a poet. Then mix it up and go outside your niche to see how the other guys are doing it.
This is different than peer review. While you’re naturally going to assess their work, that was essentially the same thing you were doing back when you simply liked something or didn’t. The point of reading the works of current greats is to take note. Whether it’s descriptive language, dialogue, world building, you name it… looking at the big names in the field (and other fields) teaches you new ways to go about the same thing you’re doing now. It’s very much akin to seeing a musician rift notes or a rapper rhyme words in a way you never thought possible.
4. Apply that critical thinking
You are now a more humble artist (see #1). You have learned how to look at prose and see behind it to what makes it succeed or fail (see #2). You’ve looked at masters at work and seen them employ various nifty tricks that make their stories rock (see #3). What now?
Go back and look at your own writing. Without hubris screaming “Genius!” in your ears, you’re free to look at it with more impartiality. And now that you see it for what it is, you have the skillset to define why some things don’t work as well as you wanted them to. And because you’ve learned a few tricks along the way watching some top pros, you can refine what didn’t work until it does.
The Big Picture
Like I said, I don’t expect my guide to help everyone. I stand by it because it developed both the mindset and the skillset I needed to improve my previous level of skill. The key you should take from all this is that you need both the mindset and the skillset. Without the mindset you’ll never see your work the way you need to. And without the skillset, even if you see what needs work, you’ll be inept to change it in an impactful manner.
Whether you ascribe to my method or find your own way, I wish you the best of luck in ascending to a greater level of writing.