A Writer’s Growth
It may seem strange, but I have a fascination with ‘before and after’ photos. These could be people tracking their weight-loss goals, or showing the effects of going to a gym, or demonstrating the power of a new acne cream; maybe they’re artists that are demonstrating that they didn’t simply fall out of the sky with their masterpieces but had in fact worked day and night for years to achieve them.
It’s a bit like playing spot-the-difference, but you’re cheering someone else on in the process. If you make your own, you’ll find the evidence of growth and development to be effective in keeping you on track.
Writers don’t really have this. Most writers I know—online or in person—chase word counts. Getting the first draft out is incredibly important; otherwise there’d be nothing to edit. Yet producing a first draft doesn’t necessarily reflect your growth as a writer. Quantity doesn’t equal quality, and at some point, in a writer’s career (I hope) they begin to turn their attention to the latter.
There are many different stages in a writer’s creative life. Some writers will skip a few—to their benefit or detriment (that’s for you to decide)—and some may end up having to repeat a step. Every writer’s journey is different.
For many writers, the start of their career begins not with a bang, but a simple daydream. The desire to write is a bit like an itch, but after a while, it blossoms into something real. A lot of the writers I know fell into writing. One or two got into it as a joke or from a Mary Shelley-esque storytelling dare. There are countless people across the board who began their writing dreams with fan-fiction or similar starting points.
At one point or another, however, most writers get a different desire: to be published.
Taking my writing journey into account: I began my writing career as a ‘hobbyist.’ I would write RPG stories on online forums, fan-fictions in my head, and whittle away at a 150-page manuscript while no one was paying attention. My parents, unlike most people I know, are very supportive of my work. “You need to get this published,” was a common phrase in my household whenever I mentioned my work, as opposed to, “You need to get a real job.”
My self-esteem being what it was, I decided that I would never be published and that I was quite happy writing for my family, online friends, and no one else. Until I wasn’t.
That 150-page manuscript was objectively terrible. I started writing it aged 11. I love every word of it (not enough to repeatedly read it though), as it led onto the story that has been my Moby Dick: the piece of work that I simply couldn’t let go of. The countless re-writes over the last decade have been gruelling and punishing, but without them, I wouldn’t have decided, “I am not good enough…yet.”
So, there’s the humility stage. Some writers don’t make it this far, and that’s fair enough. Some don’t add the, “…yet.” This was when beta-readers first hit my radar properly. For a long time, I decided I didn’t want to share my work for fear of rejection or humiliation, or the plagiarism that I’d heard so much about. Now I was serious, and I realised that sitting in my bubble wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
A whole host of growth comes from plucking up the courage to send your work out to be read. It is a skill, I’d say, to get others to read your work. That bravery needs to be hardened and fastened onto you for the day you send your manuscript out for publishing.
This is where the growing can get skewed. Finding the right beta-reader is a challenge all unto its own. At first, I stuck primarily in my comfort zone—friends and family—fully in the knowledge that the feedback they were going to give me may not be to the benefit of my work. I hadn’t quite harnessed the strength needed to really throw myself out there. Some writers stay here. Some convince themselves that this is all the advice they will ever need.
Some people find a good group of people on the internet, while others turn to writing groups for a regular dose of reality checks. There is a similar issue here, however, in that you don’t always know which help is legitimate or which is someone being unnecessarily nice or outright brutal. I’ve had a good source of, “Yeah, it’s alright,” and that’s when I decided to move on from that beta-reader pool.
I don’t want alright. Alright and perfection have the same kind of sting to them. I don’t want to hit my ceiling and be the best I’ll ever be in the same way that I don’t want to remain my average. That’s just me.
How does this relate to growth? Admittedly, I struggled to notice when I was growing as a writer. Looking back at my work, I honestly couldn’t tell anyone whether my work was objectively getting better; I needed someone else to tell me. Sometimes it would take me months to realise a nuanced piece of praise.
For example, when I first went to a Thanet Writers meeting, I brought my aforementioned Moby Dick story; a sci-fi piece that I had loved but yearned to perfect for a decade. I knew the reviews were going to be scathing (I hoped they would, because I’d written some of it when I was 15), and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that despite bracing for the feedback, it still stung a bit. The next week, instead of bringing in edits and bore them to death, I decided to bring in a piece that I’d only started writing a month before. Lo and behold, this got a lot more attention and excitement. Why? Because I’d grown in the ten years since I’d written that piece. I just hadn’t been able to tell.
Every piece that I brought in after this got similar interest, except the ones that I had started before joining the group. Old work was often faced with, “C’mon, you can write better than this.” It hurt when I first heard it, but it took a moment to remember something: this wasn’t true when I wrote it, but it was true now. I needed to up my game.
This was my version of a ‘before and after’ photo.
Unlike a lot of writers, I took this a step further and pushed myself academically with a MA in Creative Writing. (Don’t feel compelled to do something this unless you genuinely want to! You won’t be turned down from publishing if your CV lacks a qualification.) It was here that I was given new beta-readers: students all pursuing the degree for their own reasons, as well as tutors. These published authors were able to give me a bit of insight that I hadn’t been expecting, by telling me that my work didn’t need beta-writers, but editors.
How did I miss that?
Again, most writers won’t have a tutor pointing out that the work requires next level proofreading. The growth here isn’t in the quality in work, but in the introspection required to admit that beta-reading isn’t doing what it used to.
The revelation came to me after discussing with my tutor about the frustrations of the feedback I was getting for my work. The single thing that was holding me back, according to my tutor, was the idea that beta-readers were what I needed. I thought it was a requirement. It hadn’t occurred to me that an editor was an option.
So, when do you know that you’re ready for an editor? (Assuming you want one; if not, you can skip this bit—though I highly recommend them.) Well, there’s no tried and true method, but for me it was when my beta-readers began offering staggeringly different critiques, but not about technical skill or storytelling. The work wasn’t being ripped apart as much as it was before, and all the feedback was subjective suggestions on modifications to the story. Not in a way that would make the story better, actually, but more of how they themselves would write it. These were stylistic edits that if I had taken on board would have muted my own voice in favour for another’s.
This is when a professional editor needs to be contacted. They’re there to sharpen your voice, not swap it for their own.
The issue here is that it can be difficult to realise that this is what is happening with feedback. It’s also worth noting that first drafts are rarely ready for an editor. Some editors state that a piece can be ready after the second draft, but many writers prefer to go through beta-reading first and subsequent drafts and edits and revisions before paying for that kind of revision.
Realising that your work is ready for this is another avenue of growth.
I know many writers that have been put off editors because they submitted a first draft and were shocked by the response (and the fact that they, the author, were the ones that had to go and fix it with recommendations). That kind of reaction comes from inexperience, a touch of ego (don’t get offended at this—all authors have them), and a splash of over-enthusiasm.
This leads to another stage: realising that writing isn’t just a free-flow of words. Writing requires tightening up, subsequent drafts, and you as the writer being the professional that the manuscript needs. This means that yes, there is the euphoria of finishing the first draft, but that’s the easy part. The hard part is being able to dissect your work, weed out inconsistencies, kill some darlings, and strap a corset on the whole thing.
You may do this anyway, but you’d be surprised to hear the number of writers who do none of this before seeking publication.
The end result is a published writer (traditional, self-published, journalism, blogging—it’s all valid). People take different routes to all of this, and many continue to grow even after they’ve become a bestseller, but this list is a few simple examples I’ve used as my ‘before and after’ photos. In many instances it may feel like the writing is never-ending with seemingly no reward, but you may find it is simply because you are too close to the words to see how they’ve changed, and too close to yourself to measure the growth. Some of these may miss you, or may hit you without you realising, and some you may not be able to achieve until you knock the door down, but it is all important in the journey of writing.
Feel proud when you hit a milestone, no matter how small, and remind yourself that you are a writer.
© 2019 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.