On Being Honest with Yourself
In my perfect world, I would be able to hire an on-call editor to critique every draft of everything I write. However, I can’t afford an editor, and I haven’t yet found someone I trust enough as a reader. A handful of my friends and my mom read my work, but they aren’t trained to push me in the direction that I want to be pushed as a writer. So, for now, I only have myself.
Most unpublished writers must rely on themselves throughout the revision process. That means a writer must be able to wear many hats: proofreading, recognizing structural flaws, knowing when to add/delete, and (most importantly) being honest with yourself.
If you can sit down with your piece of writing, admit to yourself that it is or isn’t working, and then know exactly how to improve the parts that aren’t working, then you will one day become a capable writer, even if you don’t have any natural talent.
First, you must be able to recognize good writing in general. In the very least, you must be able to pinpoint what you think is good writing and then understand why you think the writing is good. For writers, reading a diverse selection of work is just as important as practicing writing itself.
Once you understand the elements found in good writing, then you must be able to read your own work as a reader rather than as the writer. Sometimes, you will need to distance yourself from your writing – put it aside for a few months and work on something else. The closer you are to the writing, the harder it will be for you to recognize its flaws.
Of course, you will never be able to read your own work the same way that a first-time reader will read your work, but you must try your best to replicate the experience.
When you feel ready to read your work, you will need to maintain a certain attitude. Above all, always allow for the element of surprise. No one knows your writing better than you do, but your goal is to allow yourself to be surprised by it.
Assume that your first drafts will be terrible. Assume the worst about them but also feel deeply confident in the revision process. Believe that revising will eventually get your writing to the place you want it to be.
At the same time, don’t make excuses for yourself. Never approach your manuscript with fear or with a defensive attitude. Don’t ever say to yourself, “This is only the third draft so it’s going to suck” or “This would be much better if I could just get someone to help me”. You must maintain a delicate balance between skepticism and confidence.
As you’re reading, pay close to attention to how you feel. You will want to note any and all visceral reactions. For me, the most important emotion to note is boredom. I never want my readers to feel bored. So if I’m feeling boredom, that’s not a good sign. I mark the pages where I feel most engaged and then try my best to bring those moments to the forefront when I revise.
Being honest with yourself can also help you revise. Just this past weekend, I read a story of mine that I truly thought was horrible. I couldn’t believe I had let this story slip through the cracks, especially since all the other stories before and after it are much more carefully developed.
I was so bothered by this fact that I had to work on the story right away. I was only able to do this because I maintained the perfect balance: I knew the story was terrible, but I also had complete confidence in the revision process. I had to prove to myself that I was better than the story I had written.
Otherwise, I would have been crippled by the fact that my writing is more often terrible than it is awesome. “Awesome” takes work, a certain faith, and a relentless desire to tell a story. I have yet to meet someone who is able to constantly sustain all three of those things at once. So we take advantage of the combination when we can.
(Photo by nerissa’s ring)