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The Improvement Illusion

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching just recently about where I’m at as a writer. Over the last year, it has felt a bit like I’ve been treading water. I’ve stopped moving forwards. What I’m writing today is only as good as the stuff I was writing twelve months ago (or on bad days, I actually think I’ve got worse).

Some of this is down to the pandemic. I’ve also not been particularly well. These external factors are bound to affect our ability to get creative. Like a lot of writers, I feel starved of inspiration by dint of having barely left the house since last March. But in terms of writing craft, I still feel I should have improved and I’m not sure that’s the case.

Of the pieces I’ve written since the start of April 2020, just three have been accepted for publication. Those of you who know me well will maybe turn around at this point and yell in my direction that I’d have more acceptances if I made more submissions. This is a valid point. However, I can only compare like for like. From the previous twelve-month period, I had thirteen acceptances.

Does this mean I’ve gone backwards? Or am I looking at things from the wrong angle? How do we even go about measuring artistic success?

The green shoots of growth

The Qualitative Range

The first thing to bear in mind is that artists are not automatons. The quality of our work varies from day to day dependent on mood, energy levels, inspiration, distractions etc. We have a maximum level and a minimum level and most of our work will end up somewhere in between. This qualitative range will mean that our best story from twelve months ago is almost certainly going to be better than our worst story written today.

Spiky Profiles

Secondly, writing is not a single skill but several skills bundled together. When I was a languages teacher, I would talk a lot about students having spiky profiles. Some were good at reading but struggled with speaking. Others were better at writing or listening or translation. Generally, no language student is equally proficient at all skills. The same is true of writing. It encompasses a vast array of skills and sub-skills from world-building to creating three-dimensional characters to threading an emotional core through the narrative to the mechanics of writing itself. Every writer will be better at some skills than others. And to complicate things further, within each skill, we have a qualitative range, a best and a worst that will vary from day to day.


Thirdly, there is the issue of experimentation. If we approached every story in a tried and tested fashion, start at the very beginning (“a very good place to start” as Julie Andrews taught us in The Sound of Music) and let the story unfold bit by bit, two sentences maximum of backstory, one splash of character detail, a tonal shift after 300 words etc., then it would probably be much easier to chart our progress or lack thereof. However, most good writers, especially those within the flash fiction community, are constantly trying out new ways of telling their stories. This experimentation can lead us to wonderful new places but it can take a long time to get there. If you asked a portrait artist to craft something surrealist, I’m sure they wouldn’t get it right on the first attempt. So, as writers, we shouldn’t expect to make our new approaches work on the first try either.


The fourth and final thing to throw into the mix is subjectivity. I saw a competition judge last year suggesting they didn’t really believe in subjectivity, that the best story won simply because it was the best story. However, if you give a ten-strong shortlist from one of the big writing competitions to a hundred people and asked them to rank the entries from one to ten, I guarantee you'd end up with all ten entries picked as the winner by at least one person and all ten stories picked in tenth place. Subjectivity isn't something we can run away from. Different elements of writing are more or less important to each reader. Those spiky profiles, our particular weaknesses versus our particular strengths, are going to affect our chances with some readers in different ways than they will with others. Basically, we need to send our stories to the right places, to find the people who will cherish our writing rather than sending emails with a big, ego-bursting DECLINE in the subject line.

Where does this leave us?

The above, then, maybe helps explain why I feel like I’ve been going nowhere fast with my writing over the last twelve months. Because of external factors (pandemic, illness), I’ve perhaps been writing towards the bottom of my qualitative range. I’ve definitely written a few pieces that were a little experimental; there has perhaps been a shift to how I go about my story-craft; I have also moved my focus from short fiction to attempting a novel etc. I’ve perhaps not been sending stories to the right places. Perhaps the next twelve months might see an uptick in acceptances once again.

But what if I actively want to go about improving as a writer? Can I use the above to make sure that at this point in 2022, I’m looking back with a feeling that I am definitely better at this whole writing malarkey than I am right now?


Steps to becoming a better writer

As a languages teacher, the way I tried to teach was to look at each skill in isolation, to try and even out my students’ spiky profiles and to think about each point (top, bottom, middle) of their qualitative range. The same can be applied to writing:

  1. Improving the bottom end – this is the sort of improvement that comes from hard graft. It involves identifying your weaknesses and focusing on them. Take a story that hasn’t been as well received and compare with one of your best. What are the bad habits that creep in on your worst days? Simply knowing what these are and putting in place strategies to avoid them can do wonders.

  2. Improving the top end – this is the sort of bravura fine-tuning that allows us, on our best days, to produce work that is better than anything we've produced before. It is the ability to add layers to a story or to conjure something truly unique. Normally, we make this sort of improvement through exploration, through reading work that we admire and dissecting what makes it so good, through seeking feedback and asking difficult questions of ourselves.

  3. Improving consistency – we will always have a qualitative range but the more times we can be above average the better. Consistency can often be improved by putting in place routines, writing regularly, plotting in a certain way, developing resource banks of prompts and character traits, leaving our writing to rest for a certain period of time so we can edit it with fresh eyes.

Five (and a bit) things to try

1. Keep a list near your writing space of things you are working on. This might be cutting down on adverbs or adding more sensory details to your stories. Every time you get feedback add something to the list. Keep it to hand and read it before you sit down to write.

2. Take a skill and work on that in isolation.

  • If you want to make your characters feel more real, set about creating a character that you build gradually over a period of time. Create a social media profile for them that lists what they look like, what makes them happy, sad, afraid etc. – the minutiae of their life. Add five new details every day for a month. Draft messages in their voice. Build a backstory, hopes, dreams etc.

  • If you want to improve the rhythm of your writing, write a micro every morning about what you watched on TV the night before (i.e. take the need to think about story / character out of the equation). Focus purely on rhythm, pairing long sentences with shorter ones, changing up the way you construct sentences by adding introductory phrases, interrupting phrases, sentence fragments etc.

  • If you want to improve the creativity of your imagery, make a list of a hundred adjectives (small, happy, confident etc.). Each day, pick one and write twenty similes for that adjective then look them up on Google to see how many results they give – the smaller the better!

3. Read widely.

  • For pieces that you love in terms of story, write a synopsis of exactly what happens and how much space within the narrative is dedicated to each element.

  • For pieces that you love in terms of their emotional pull, print them out and highlight the emotional shifts within the story in different colours.

  • For pieces that you love in terms of the writing, read them aloud and see how they feel on your lips. Copy them out by hand.

  • For pieces that you don’t enjoy, ask yourself what it is that others might have seen in them – is there anything you can take away for your own writing?

4. Get feedback. Mostly, we send pieces out into the world, we get a yes / no answer – accept or decline. But in reality, all of our pieces fall somewhere on a scale – nothing is worthless, nothing is perfect. To get away from the yes / no of it all, find people you trust to give you feedback.

  • Get critique partners, other writers who you swap stories with.

  • Alternatively, use a critique service. There are lots of journals that offer one of these and some nice freelance people (like myself) offer these too.

  • Use this feedback to add to your list of things to work on. Turn each comment of the feedback into a question that needs answering. If one thing cropped up multiple times in the feedback, send another piece a few weeks later where you see if you can get away with no comments on this particular aspect.

5. Set routines.

  • Routines might be in terms of when or where you do your writing. You might give yourself a target of writing a certain amount of words every day. You might always write in the half hour you have before breakfast. You might always write on a bench in the park. You might identify that your best routine is not to have a routine – I don’t write well when I force myself to write so I am definitely in this group. But I think it’s important to find a way of getting into the right headspace before you sit down to write.

  • Routines might be what you do when you actually put pen to paper – if you sometimes come up with wibbly-wobbly plots that don’t make it from your brain to the page, put in place a routine where you plan out your story properly in advance. If your stories don’t always hit home emotionally, force yourself to map the emotional journey beforehand and to write ten ways in which you are going to show your characters’ emotions. Perhaps tone is something you struggle with - in which case, create a word bank that you can refer to as you are writing.

  • Routines might be connected with the various stages of editing. I am a big proponent of lock-the-piece-away-for-at-least-a-month-after-writing to create distance between yourself and the piece. If you struggle with concision, have a reference list of key words / phrases to look for when fine-tooth-combing your piece.

At the end of the day

There are hopefully some ideas in the above if you, like me, feel like your writing has stagnated in the last year or so. Different techniques will work for different people. Even just trying something new can often feel like a step in the right direction. If you try one of the ideas, feel free to get in touch and let me know how it goes.

But at the end of the day, I think it’s also important that we aren’t too hard on ourselves. The past year has been tough and our creative halves have suffered as a consequence. Anyone who has managed any writing whatsoever has done so while swimming against the tide of depressing news, isolation and ever-changing lockdown constraints.

If you have managed to do some writing then the probability is that the direction of travel will have been positive. You will have improved. Even I, who started out this blog post bemoaning my artistically-stagnating state, will have improved in some areas of writing craft. It may not always be obvious but I guarantee that improvements will exist. And that feels like a hopeful note on which to end.

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