You must appraise your work. Appraising isn’t cold-hearted criticism. It is the effort you make to turn your raw ideas into elaborated beauty. Appraising is your duty.
Appraising our work is an uncomfortable phase of the creation cycle, but it is a vital one in order to improve and grow as a writer. Here are ten steps to help you navigate this process.
1. Get some time away.It is almost impossible to look at our work with even a smidgen of objectivity immediately after the initial creation. When yours is a book-length manuscript, you may have worked for months or years on the project, so you must step away for a while. The longer the piece and the longer you worked on it, the longer you may need separation. Go start your next book or story. Simply relax, or do art or some other form of creativity for a bit. But free your mind from concerns about this piece for a predetermined length of time. Resist all temptations to touch it. If you do have an inspiration or tug related to the piece, jot it down in a separate notebook that you can revisit when you start your revisions.
2. Create a list of your strengths and weaknesses.Apart from the particular piece you intend to appraise, make a list of your writing strengths and weaknesses. What has historically been troublesome for you? If you have been writing for a while, but you don’t know what your strengths and weaknesses are, it’s probably time to start showing your work to others, another uncomfortable but critical stage in your improvement as a writer (read more about that here). If you are new to writing, your list might be short. That’s okay. For now, you’ll move on to Step 3 and use it to become more self-aware.
3. Make a separate list of expectations of the genre.If you haven’t already, study the elements that make a piece in your genre strong. Plenty of writing books and online articles are available to point you in the right direction. Read in your genre. It’s likely that you do that already, which may be why you were attracted to write in the genre in the first place. If you have only read those books from the viewpoint of a reader, pick them up again and read them as a writer. Study what your favorite writers in the genre have done well.
4. Compare the lists.Put your list of strengths and weaknesses side-by-side with the genre expectations list. What is on your weaknesses list that needs to be strengthened based on the expectations list? Are there matching elements between the strengths and the expectations? Note the overlaps or gaps that will inform what you need to focus on during your revisions.
5. Return to your work, but don’t do it all at once.Remember that you can’t eat an entire elephant in one bite. When you pick your project up again, plan to go through it slowly. Allow plenty of time for the next two steps. Look at your other obligations and set a schedule for these steps. It may be shortened or extended as you see what work you need to do, but have a plan.
6. Review the genre expectations list.Review the list of the basic components that make a writing piece in your genre strong. With these top of mind, gradually go through your work. Note-take, highlight, and comment but try not to heavily revise at this point. Just notice and mark the highs and lows. If it helps to provide objectivity, approach the manuscript as if it is the work of a trusted writer friend rather than your own. Be kind and respectful, as you would for another author.
7. Move to the strengths and weaknesses list.Repeat this process with your strengths and weaknesses list in hand. You will likely begin to see repetition and patterns in the ways you handle certain aspects of the writing. Be aware of these. This is almost like creating a task list. Make suggestions to yourself and mark up the manuscript with notes and comments, but don’t dive deeply into extensive revisions yet. This is worth repeating: be kind and respectful, as you would for another writer. Use reverent language in the notes to yourself, as you would if you were doing this exercise for someone else. Now is also the time to pull out the notebook you used to jot down your thoughts during Step 1. See where they apply in the manuscript and decide what you will do about them.
8. Now revise.Go back to the beginning of the manuscript and start to incorporate new ideas, change, smooth out, refine what is needed to improve the piece. This is your duty to your future readers. Break the work down into manageable chunks based on the manuscript’s length and how much time you can devote to it each day. Remember the elephant? Focus on learning your craft and strength-building.
9. Repeat.After you have gone through the manuscript once, resistance will stand up and say, “Okay! That’s it. I’ve had enough. We’re done.” But no, you aren’t. If you want an agent or a publisher to accept your work or you want to present your best work directly to readers so they return to you again and again as their favorite writer, then you aren’t finished quite yet. I suggest that the first pass focus on overall clarity of your message or story. The grammar, punctuation, and spelling come later. Take a deep breath and start the process again.
10. Stop and release your work into the world.How many passes have you done through your manuscript? How many times have you looped back through the steps above? At least two? Hopefully, more. At some point, though, it’s time to listen to the voice telling you to stop. That doesn’t mean hit the publish button and you are done forever. It does mean it’s time to take your writing to the next level, which is either to an editor that you hire or submission via query to an agent or publisher. Be aware that it is easy to get stuck in the revision process. Don’t go from assessing to obsessing. When you began writing, you likely had the intention of having readers someday! The only way to do that is to release. Let it go. Having never seen your work and not knowing how much writing experience you have, it isn’t for me to say whether you need to go through this process twice, or ten or more times. But what I know is that the authors willing to loop back and repeat these steps are the ones who experience fewer rejection letters, more repeat readers, and more self-satisfaction with their writing. There is a direct relationship between the number of times a writer is willing to productively and efficiently repeat this process and the personal success they have as an author. Each pass improves the piece. This is the duty and the obligation to yourself.
Inspired by The 97 Best Creativity Tips Ever! (2011) by Dr. Eric Maisel and used with his permission.
Gina Edwards is a retreat leader, a certified creativity coach, and a book editor. She is also a writer, so she’s intimately familiar with the challenges and elation that come with being one.
She supports all writers—published and aspiring—who want to write as an act of courageous and necessary self-expression.
Walking the writer’s path hand-in-hand with her clients and students, she helps them establish a writing practice and define a creative life on their own terms.