Using Your Past Writing For Improvement
It’s important to admit when you were wrong about something.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t merit in sticking to your guns and standing by something you believe to be true, but there are times when you also have to hold up your hands and say “you know what, on reflection I don’t think I was in the right here”. Which is why, looking back at a post I wrote some months back about dealing with the internal critic, I have to disagree with some of what was said.
“Focus your attention on the future instead of the past. Reflect more on what you’re going to do, rather than what you’ve done. Instead of freaking yourself out over the flaws in something you wrote last week, you’re far better considering things you might work on next.”
In the past I’ve been pretty loathe to look back upon the stuff I’ve written. It’s a painful experience: you get to see all the cliches you used to roll with, all the poor phrasing and bad characterisation that you could totally do better now. I walk away from it feeling embarrassed, wondering how the hell I ever thought such work was deserving of being put up online in front of other people’s eyeballs. My internal critic and I come to the same consensus, that what I wrote was complete and utter pish and garbage.
Yet there’s an opportunity in looking back that I’ve been overlooking way too much.
Sure it might be total pish and garbage that I’ve written.
But why is it that I think it’s pish and garbage? And what could I do better in the future?
‘Measure your worth by your past self, not by the worth of others’ is me paraphrasing an idea I stumbled across whilst reading through another swathe of self-help books lately, and it’s one that’s resonated with me. Any aspiring writer is inevitably going to compare themselves to their literary heroes, even when we don’t necessarily realise we’re doing it. These are the people who inspire us to try our hand at writing, after all. They are the gold standard that we seek to achieve ourselves.
And yet, crucially, they’re also very different people to us. They’ve led different lives.
The opportunities that your favourite authors have had will have been (and might yet be) different to your own. The same can be said for backgrounds, upbringing, and a range of other factors: add them all together and you really cannot make that serious a comparison between yourself and an author you admire. There may be some similarities, yes, and lessons that can be learned from them, but I’ve spoken to far too many people who define their success or failure as a writer by the achievements of those they look up to. “Oh, my favourite author was published and successful by 25 and I’m pushing on towards 30, I’ll never make it big at this rate”. Sure, they were published by 25. Perhaps because they had the right connections. Perhaps because they got lucky. I’ve no idea and neither do you, because their circumstances are not ours.
Stop defining your achievements as a writer by them.
Better instead to define them by the writer you were previously.
Your old work seems so cliched and cringeworthy now because you’ve grown and developed as a writer since. You’ve honed your craft, found better methods of telling stories, discovered more about the world and been able to process that into the worlds you create. Far from being something to avoid, re-reading and reviewing your old work can actually be a confidence boost if you consider it through the right lens. It’s also an opportunity to take stock, to note the areas of your writing that still could use some work. Every day is a school day when it comes to creating stories, after all, whether you’re an aspiring amateur or a well-grizzled and accomplished professional: we all have room to get better at what we do.
Let me put it another way. Think of developing as a writer as attempting to climb a hill. It’s all too easy to look up at the folks ahead of you, the people who made you want to start climbing in the first place, and think you’ll never get to the level they are at. But you’re not recognising that they’re on different paths from you entirely, or else that they started climbing at different points.
Sometimes it’s important to turn around and look behind you. To take in the view and see how far you’ve come.
A little personal perspective can go a long way.
Originally published at DAVE vs BRAIN.