Friday, 19 December 2014

How Am I Doing? Every writer wants an answer to that one


How am I doing? Almost all my students ask me that. Some ask me very regularly, some only at the beginning or end of their time with me. In fact, I think every writer wants an answer to that question, but not every writer has a tutor, or mentor who can help them. 

And in fact, you don't need someone to tell you the answer – you can easily find it out for yourself. In fact you can keep an eye on your progress as a writer as much as you like.

Jean Burnette, author of Who Needs Mr Darcy and
A Brazilian Affair, ready at her writing desk
I recommend that my students and writing buddies buy a notebook. Actually, I recommend they buy several – loads of notebooks – but just one of these will become the key to monitoring your own writing progress. I suggest that you call this your 'Progress Notebook'. (Open College of the Arts students have a different name for it, which they already know, of course.) This notebook will be where you actually write about your own writing. I recommend that you do this at least once a week - more frequently if you write every day or most days. This sort of analysis is very like the 'reflective practice' you may be asked to undergo in your paid employment, but it shouldn't be such an onerous task! 

Reflecting on the progress of your ‘writing life’ in this way will increase your ‘learning curve’ considerably – amazingly.  Even though it’s possible you may think you have no ‘progress’ to record at the moment – even though you're hardly writing more than a shopping list – thinking about your own writing in this way can be massively beneficial.

Your Progress Notebook can help you talk through your writing. It’s important to help yourself to make sense how it works for you – how your thought processes relate to your growing battery of skills and understanding. When you put all this down in words it begins to be understood on an intellectual level…whereas, when writing, you may be learning more on an intuitive level. It’s like ‘synergy’ in medicine – the idea that two separate things work okay separately, but together they work really well – more than twice as well. 

This is writing about the writing process, that is, the mental and practical activities that make the most logical progression towards a completed piece of work. It is the full process that takes the writer from nothing – not even the glimmer of an idea – to the completed manuscript, ready for printing. 

Even a small project or exercise has its writing process, shunting it steadily from conception to final proof-read. Your Progress Notebook can be of enormous help, recording how, why and when you…think about what you’ll write; draft it out; read and polish until you’re happy with it. 


You don't have to write realms. A hundred words or less can help you clarify problems and address them. Even so, at first, even bearing in mind all the above, you might find it hard to know what to put down in a Progress Notebook. Sectionalizing your analysis may help your understanding. Try writing about:
  • What works for you as a writer, and what you find difficult
  • Why you’re choosing certain genres and ways of writing…or thinking of doing so 
  • What you think about your abilities – track their improvement
  • Commentaries on the books you have read and how they inspired your writing
  • The pitfalls and joys of the writer’s life
If you can't think how to begin, try commenting on some specific piece, such as some writing exercises. You can find these all over the internet, including sites which offer a 'trigger' on a daily basis. I've included one below, so that you can start straight away. Complete the exercise, read it through, think about it and write down those thoughts, whatever they may be. 

As the first weeks of owning and using a Progress Notebook move on, you'll be able to be a bit more specific about the things you're noting. You'll be able to talk to yourself about  ‘parts’ of your writing, for instance; your thoughts and your preferences on:
      • Reporting actions
      • Voicing opinions
      • Creating dialogue 
      • Description
      • Narrative lines and 'arcs'
      • Characterization
      • Structure and plot
      • Your understanding and clarification of concepts such as Show, don’t Tell
      • Problems of drafting, redrafting, tightening 
It has been said that writers are ‘born not made’, but they don’t come fully-formed from an egg – they have to practise their skills to hone them. Like musicians, writers do have to practise ‘over and over’, and it really does get better as you do that. Recording the slow improvements you make will help you see real progress. 

However, we’re all different, and will want to record our thoughts on progress and the writing process individually. You might prefer A4 sheets of lined paper rather than a small notebook. Or you might not get on with writing by hand at all, and prefer store your thoughts in an electronic file, reading them on the screen or printing them out to clip into a plastic file. Some writers find it better  to keep reflections in a ‘mind file’, where the cogitation on the writing process started in the first place. However, I do recommend physically making these notes and keeping them for reference – if only to aid any reflective summary you might be asked to submit to a tutor or mentor. And don't forget that a separate notebook helps will get your thoughts down in a more ‘private’ environment. 

Here is a writing exercise that will get you going.

Chose any one of the autobiographical subjects from the list below.

THE WARMTH OF A  KISS
TOO DIRTY FOR A BATH
A FOOL AND HIS MONEY
BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE
ACROSS A CROWDED ROOM
A FRESH START
DRUNK AND DISORDERLY
BLAST FROM THE PAST
A TRAGEDY FULL OF JOY 
DARE TO CONFRONT YOUR FEARS
LAZY HAZY DAYS
THROW AWAY THOSE L PLATES 
DON’T SEND IT TO THE CHARITY SHOP

Now write a short account of a memory from your past life within the context of one of these titles. Remember…this is a fun exercise …try not to let it get on top of you don’t worry about the standard of the writing – you needn’t show anyone. 

Make a few notes below, then start in earnest on the next page.

Now record your thoughts and reflections – the opening entry in your new Progress Notebook. 

Just play with this…how you feel about enjoying your writing. Write freely, putting your thoughts down one paper as they come into your mind. Try to express why you want to write, and in what way(s) you enjoy the process


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