Upping Your Game: Self Assessment for Writers

Each year since 2010, I’ve conducted a personal review looking at aspects of my life from my creative career to my lifestyle. Several months ago, I decided that I need to up my writing game, so I also dug deep into my writing’s strengths and weaknesses. I think it’s worthwhile for writers to set aside a few hours to complete an honest, kind self-assessment of your writing to help you improve your writing.

Why bother with a self-assessment of your writing?

Gain awareness of your challenge areas

When you know what aspects of writing challenge you most, you can focus on improving them. Maybe it’s your wordcraft that needs work, maybe it’s your storytelling. Until you know where you need improvement, you’ll continue to make the same mistakes in your writing.

A common issue I’ve identified in my writing is ‘white room syndrome’: scenes that could take place anywhere. Now, when I’m preparing to write a scene, I force myself to consider where it’s happening. I also actively seek ways for my characters to interact with their environment.

Make editing easier

When you know your common challenges, it’s easier to spot them when you review your first drafts. You could make a checklist for yourself, or you might ask critiquers to keep those aspects in mind as they read your work.

See yourself as a professional and others will see you as a professional

Professionals know that they are not their work. By completing a self-assessment of your writing, you practice applying an impartial eye to your own work so you learn not to take criticism personally. It’s natural for your feelings to be hurt when someone dislikes your work, but you can learn to put that hurt and defensiveness aside and evaluate critiques rationally; some suggestions will improve your work, while other suggestions might detract from your style or intentions for the work. When people offer critique, they want to help you create a great product – learn to take their critique in the spirit it’s offered. When you act like a professional, people will treat you like a professional.

Improve your critique instinct

Once you’ve identified what you think are your strengths and weaknesses, you can compare your instincts with feedback you get from others. If others agree with your self-assessment, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to review your own work; and if they don’t agree with the strengths and weaknesses you’ve identified, you can step back and evaluate both of your reasoning to see which assessment is more accurate. We’re often our own harshest critics, but we also have blind spots that others can help us uncover.

You are not your work, but you are responsible for your work

Diversity and representation dominated discussion in the genre writing world in 2015, highlighted by the No Award Hugos and replacement of the World Fantasy Award’s statue. Between debates about Syrian refugees and police killings of black people in questionable circumstances, race has been at the forefront of public consciousness. Consider how your work addresses gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, ability, age, etc. Are you comfortable with what you’ve written? Have you used stereotypes that, on second thought, might be hurtful or that you could avoid entirely? We’re all learning and improving, so even if you discover that you aren’t satisfied with how you wrote something in the past, you can use that recognition in your future writing.

I was writing a fantasy story about a young woman coming into magical powers, and originally planned for her to use them to save herself from a rapist. But I realized, re-reading my draft, that I didn’t want to have written a story that relied on rape for character growth. We all set our own boundaries, so you might make a different call in writing the same story – but what’s valuable is being intentional about the challenging characterization we choose.

Watch your progress

The best part of reviewing your work after a chunk of time has passed is realizing that you actually have gotten better :) Conduct a self-assessment this year to set a baseline for your writing abilities, then repeat the assessment year to year, or even every other year, to see how you’ve improved.

Guidelines for a writing self-critique

Convinced that a writing self-assessment is worthwhile? Follow these guidelines to complete your own writing self-evaluation.

1. Above all, be kind to yourself

This means forgiving yourself for your past mistakes. If you can’t complete a self-assessment of your work without being kind to yourself, skip the critique and work on being nice to yourself. It will make your life better.

Don’t think of your weaknesses as problems; think of them as challenges. You’re completing this critique to improve, not beat yourself up. Keep a positive outlook throughout the process.

2. It doesn’t matter what method you use

Mimic my simple writing self-critique that skips goal-setting to look only at accomplishments and challenge areas. Or adapt an annual review format designed for personal or work use, such as Chris Guillebeau’s version, which asks what went well and what didn’t go well in the past year. Use whatever format works for you – it’s the act of reflection that’s useful, not the specific tool you choose.

3. Look at both your craft and your practice.

Evaluate both what you’re writing and how you’re writing it. Maybe the practice of writing is your biggest hurdle – if so, take the opportunity to try out different writing practices and find one that fits you.

4. Don’t spend too much time

Pick just two pieces you’ve written in the past year to give a deep re-read: the piece you’re proudest of and the one that challenged you most. Doing a read-through will let you examine your wordcraft and storytelling closely. Look for trends, without judgment (for example, I noticed that I use alliteration way more often than I realized). Only spend a couple hours, not the whole weekend. Even though this is a helpful exercise, it’s still Not Writing!

I hope you feel inspired to take a critical look at your work – and hope it helps you become a better writer and accomplish your writing goals!

About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

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