2021 Update: A revised version of this article now appears in My Life as an Armadillo: Essays on Workshopping and Writing.
Do you want the good news or the bad news first? The bad news: I’ve made every single amateur writing mistake that can be made. The good news? Thanks to local workshops and critique groups, I’ve improved. Now that I know to check for my shortcomings in the revision stage, I hardly ever hear about them when workshopping new material. But invariably, when I’m having problems with a scene and take it to workshop, a few things I constantly struggle with pop up.
Why is it so hard to see flaws in our own writing? As writers, we feel about our words on the page as we would feel about our babies. We love them, we work hard for them, and they come from within us. We’re emotionally attached to our creations, even the flawed ones. Being objectively critical about them is tough, even though that’s exactly what we need to do if we want to take our writing to a higher level.
If you’ve ever attended one of my workshops, you know I mark up pages maybe more than anyone else in the city of Phoenix, and I have strong opinions on what works and what doesn’t. But you may not realize I am harder on my own material than I am on anyone else’s. My own markups of my first, second, third, and fourth drafts are absolutely ruthless. Even brutal. Two years of workshopping have made me look at my drafts and anticipate what my fellow authors would say about them, and mark them accordingly.
I take every bit of feedback about my work completely seriously. I will go back and revise something I wrote five years ago if I realize it suffers from problems uncovered in a workshop on a current piece. I write down every snippet of verbal feedback people give me. I learn from it, work to clarify and perfect my prose, and apply it to future works. In workshops, I’m not on a mission to have my ego stroked about how nice my writing is. I’m on a mission to root out everything keeping it from being awesome, and relentlessly exterminate all those things.
Maybe people in my groups wish I wasn’t so hard on their manuscripts. But I’m only doing what I wish someone had done for me twenty-seven years ago when I started out. It would have eliminated years of struggle. Then again, maybe seventeen-year-old me would have thought current me was an overbearing, hypercritical jerk, and struggled anyway.
It’s hard to say. When I was twenty-three, an editor of a local music magazine asked me to rewrite a band review I submitted. I responded with a scathing letter about how he didn’t understand music, art, writing, or anything else. See? I told you I’ve made every amateur mistake, didn’t I? Never do this to an editor. I realize now he was right, and the piece I submitted would have been greatly improved had I taken his advice.
While my academic writing is consistently graded at 95–100% by my professors, poetry and fiction are areas of perpetual growth for me. Hell, before I publish my academic works, I still go back and edit them for things my professors and I missed. Yes, I am that intense.
Fiction has been especially difficult, because I have long been the worst storyteller on the planet. Having only started fiction in July 2014, I have had more struggles than you would believe, and I still go back to my earlier works to revise them maybe once or twice a month. I mentioned I was intense about this, right?
Maybe it’s because I see perfection not as a noun, but a verb. No perfect state of being exists, but we constantly work to perfect our art. Perfection is a process, not a final state. I think of it like sharpening a blade: a continual effort to achieve the perfect cutting edge. The process is how we learn, grow, and improve.
I promised you a list of mistakes I’ve made which have been uncovered and vastly improved by workshopping, so here it is.
1. I turned action scenes into bullet lists. In my earliest fiction, I used short, declarative sentences to communicate the immediacy of action scenes. While this is essentially correct, I screwed it up by using the same subject for sentence after sentence. “She did this. She did that. She did something else. She did more stuff.” I learned I needed to vary my subjects and be more descriptive so action would not read like a soul-crushingly dull bullet list.
2. I overused the word “then” to the point where it was dull and amateurish. “Then this happened, then this, then some other stuff.” I learned most sequential action doesn’t need this word to be clear.
3. My “then” problem is symptomatic of a larger problem: overusing transitional words, mostly conjunctions such as “and” and “but”. It most likely results from a common author problem of thinking aloud about what comes next in the first draft, and failing to fully exterminate that mental chatter during revision. Once the story is on the page, the reader doesn’t need all these cues that events transpire.
4. No matter how much research I’ve done on weapons and space technology, it doesn’t prevent me from getting factual and scientific details wrong. Unlike deleting “then”, this one is tougher. Fixing this requires researching stuff I don’t realize I need to research! Fortunately, I have people in workshops who helpfully point out obviously wrong facts.
5. I often summarize or explain events that previously happened, whether prior to the story or just prior to the action described in a sentence. When I do this, I add “had” to my verbs so often it pulls readers out of the flow. Usually, using a simpler verb form communicates just as much information; for example, “destroyed” as opposed to “had destroyed” usually works. (Yes, other verb tenses have meaningful uses. But simpler is usually better and more exciting to read.)
6. My earliest fiction over-relied on verbal shortcuts for things I had not clearly visualized. Usually, they manifested in vague descriptions of action I didn’t have a clue how to show the reader. Feedback made me look for these in the revision stage, to decide if I took a shortcut because the narrator did not have a clue, as opposed to summarizing because the details were mundane or unnecessary. I internalized the feedback question, “What does that look like?” I also experimented with non-specific descriptions. For example, “His IQ was 27” conveys specific information, but “He was dumber than a box of rocks” conveys the meaning more entertainingly. The former is good for academic writing, but I prefer the latter in fiction.
7. Seeing my repetitive phrases or words is remarkably difficult, even when I read and revise my drafts half a dozen times. All writers have pet words they overuse without realizing it, and I’m no exception.
8. In fiction, my current mission is to exterminate useless words to achieve maximally crisp language. Some people love stories so much they don’t mind if the prose style kind of sucks, so long as they like the plot and characters. But I can’t get into a story at all if the prose is dull, amateurish, overly verbose, or lost in a fog of passive verbs. So, even when I’m writing about ridiculous characters, I’m on a mission to make the prose style absolutely ripping. But no matter how tight I think I’ve made the prose on a scene I take to workshop, people always find words, phrases, and whole sentences I could cut. Sometimes entire paragraphs.
9. I skimped on setting. Real estate workers have a saying: “location, location, location.” In my earliest fiction, I focused on action at the expense of describing location. My scenes were like comic book panels with figures but no backgrounds. By observing how my fellow authors approached scene construction, I learned the importance of what filmmakers call the “establishing shot”. This made me think more deeply about how locations influence action, and the resulting rewrites more effectively brought characters to life by showing how they interacted with their environments. I also realized the value of drawing a map of a location to fix in my mind the space where events happen. It doesn’t need to be brilliant cartography; even a simple sketch will do.
Before I started workshopping locally and built a new workshop from the ashes of another group which died off, I thought I was pretty awesome at writing. But two years of workshopping revealed to me just how far I had to go, and instructed me on how to improve. I understand how critique can be disheartening to novice writers who don’t realize how much room they have to grow, because I was one of them. In many ways, I still am. We must always consider that criticism without encouragement amounts to tearing people down instead of building them up.
Fortunately, my workshop group consists of people who genuinely care about each other’s progress. Our core members share a vision of helping each other produce the best works we possibly can. I’ve learned a lot from them, and their feedback has been inexpressibly valuable to my growth as a writer.
Two years ago, I felt something was holding me back from achieving the artistic level I wanted to as a writer. By connecting with other authors and being completely open to everything they told me, I grew at a pace that would have been impossible on my own. My only regret is that I did not start sooner. But to paraphrase an old proverb, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”
A huge thank you goes to the local workshop groups without whom I would have never achieved the quality of writing I aimed at for many years. Your support, encouragement, and honest critique has made a world of difference.