The Cycle of Improvement
Every once in a while I’ll look back at something I wrote six months ago and think, “Hey, this is pretty darn good!” In that moment, I know I’m on the wrong track.
Writing is a craft. And as a craftsperson, I always want to be improving.
That doesn’t mean purposely hating your old work, it doesn’t mean adopting a mindset that treats backslides as failures, and it doesn’t mean being overly hard on yourself.
It simply means regularly checking the signposts to make sure you’re moving in the right direction.
While looking back at old work is a great way to get a glimpse of how far you’ve come, it won’t help you on the week-to-week level. So how do you check in on a more frequent basis, say biweekly or monthly, to ensure you’re moving the right direction and improving your craft?
I follow three imperatives: output, intake, and awareness.
The Three Imperatives
Define how much work you want to churn out on a regular basis. It might be a certain number of hours you aim to hit per week, a daily page goal, or a weekly word count.
Once you know what measurable metric you’re targeting, stick to it.
Tip: If you’re stuck on a project, you can always write something else. Journal. Freewrite. Type gibberish. Just hit your output goals. Writing, not writing well, is the key to improving.
Being a student of the craft means learning from the greats. On a regular basis, you should aim to both consume great works and to study under your betters.
If you’re a screenwriter, read great scripts and watch great movies every week. If you’re a novelist, read and re-read the novels you love. If you’re a games writer, constantly be downloading and playing new games. Whatever you choose to consume should inspire you – if it doesn’t, put it down and pick something else up.
Carve out time for weekly learning sessions. In an ideal world, this time would consist of studying under a working professional you admire. But even if that isn’t feasible, these sessions should involve active learning and note taking — this could mean an online course, a book about writing, or a weekly writer’s group.
Creative expression occurs exclusively within the present moment.
Yet many writers forget to be present while working, instead worrying about whether they’re working on the right thing, whether it’s any good, whether they’ll miss their deadline…
A mindfulness practice is just that: practice. It’s a moment out of your day when you practice awareness so your brain can get better at being aware in other circumstances (like when you’re writing).
Pick any method that appeals to you: meditation, yoga, Pranayama, mindful walking, or something else. Anything that helps remind you of who and what you really are: conscious awareness.
Then do that practice daily. Know that if you face resistance, that only means the practice is working. Your mind will always resist the present moment – that’s what the mind does.
Thank the mind for its service, then move beyond it. Give yourself the time and space to practice being aware.
Check in regularly
Every two weeks I ask myself: did I meet my imperatives over these past fourteen days?
If I didn’t meet all three imperatives for at least one of those two weeks, I know I need to make adjustments.
Forgive yourself when you fail – it’s part of the process – but don’t slip into self-delusion. If your process isn’t working, something needs to change. Oftentimes failure means that your expectations are too high or your habits are too loose.
Commit to these three imperatives and the work will improve.