Self Criticism and how it can help you.

I don’t think any writer enjoys criticism, especially when it comes from within. I think most writers go through periods where we question our own ability to communicate our stories via the written word. We trash blocks of prose because they just don’t reach the level of meaning we want to achieve and so we consign them to the waste basket (real or electronic) in frustration and take the hit to our confidence that goes along with it. But, as I’ve said before, ‘bad’ words are better than no words and ‘bad’ words can become good ones with a bit of spit and polish.

Something that I am deeply aware of is that, as I’ve gone on with writing, the ease of transferring my thoughts to the page has improved and my style has evolved. I’m not ‘unhappy’ with Camelot 2050: Black Knight but, re-reading it over I have identified things I could have done better, the same is true of both Dragon Fire and Dark Magic (albeit to a lesser extent). This self criticism is part of how I grow and learn as a writer and how I hope to improve for future projects.

The key to self criticism or ‘self evaluation’ is to try to stay positive and, while it sounds contrived or patronizing (like those corporate style self-evaluations some workplaces employ), if you approach it right it can be very helpful. Your attitude is important, instead of telling yourself ‘This is bad’ because it’s writing you’ve invested time and love into and it just isn’t what you wanted it to be try to take a step back and think ‘This isn’t as good as I wanted it to be, how do I make it better?’

Like smiling as a physical act to promote a better mood, replacing ‘bad’ with ‘good’ in your chain of thought is an act of self encouragement and it’s that fundamental, conscious change in how you look at the perceived flaws in your own work that is the corner stone to staying on track. Rather than binning the section wholesale take a little time, put some distance between yourself and your initial ‘bin it’ impulse and then go back to the piece with a more objective view.

Sometimes a change to the structure and sequence of a section can help, maybe a quick trawl through the thesaurus for appropriate synonyms or antonyms can help. Switching up a few words for more evocative or visceral language can increase the depth of feeling, darken or lighten the tone of the piece to bring it in line with what you want it to communicate. Language (in this case English, for all I rail against it’s shortcomings) is an incredibly diverse tool and, as writers, we should broaden our command of its intricacies. The ultimate goal is to be able to communicate deep feeling with fewer, more meaningful words than labour over many to convey a simple concept.

For myself I have a few key failings that I’ve identified which I’m constantly working on in order to improve the material I write.

  • My command of language – As above, why use ten words when two will do? I like to think I have quite a broad vocabulary but there’s always room for expansion. I  inwardly cringe when I see myself using more common words (mostly for objects or emotions) repeatedly in the space of a paragraph. Sometimes it’s unavoidable but I try to keep a variety of language throughout short sections.
  • I over-indulge in exposition, especially when I’m world-building – If I’m not writing in a setting that’s ‘familiar’ to the audience, if it’s one of my own creation, I want the audience to know as much about the setting as I do. Of course I try to keep that exposition dynamic and engaging but, ultimately I’m not giving my audience the credit they deserve and, whether I space that exposition throughout the book or do away with some of it entirely, I have to recognise that not all of it is absolutely necessary.
  • Spending too much time in my characters heads – communicating the thoughts and feelings of the main cast is incredibly important to getting the audience to identify with them. If your audience can’t identify with the character then they won’t become invested in what happens to them. However, too much internal navel-gazing slows the pace and can ultimately put the reader off entirely. The one thing I can say that I’m not guilty of is self-insertion. My characters aren’t me, they might have personality traits or facets of my character as a means by which I engineer their reactions to the situations I put them in but I don’t write about myself, that is a trap which can lead to the kind of on-page introspection which will slow a story right down.

These three would be the ‘faults’ I see as most demanding my ongoing attention and they are also ones that I have picked up on most commonly in other self-pub authors works. The thing is, the more I improve my use of language the less ‘problematic’ the following two become as I will be able to communicate more concisely just what I want to while using less page-space and actual reading time to do it. It doesn’t matter if a section doesn’t take long to read as long as it actually conveys the imagery or emotional impact that the author intends.

So, use your self-critical tendencies. Develop the right attitude to self criticism and let it fuel your drive to improve your work and influence how you go about that. Assess the merit of external criticism by all means but don’t write by committee, it’s your work, own it and remember that you cannot and will not please everyone. If one person loves your work then you might not be able to call yourself ‘successful’ but you will be a success.

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