Starting With Caveats. How Typical.
Yes, yes, yes– of course, you have to have something written first (or at least a sizable portion of it). I recommend the words of Neil Gaiman as a source for this brand of inspiration.
“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”
― Neil Gaiman
This advice is even more relevant to me in the face of the experience report I’m about to offer. Trust me, my friends, I’ve written a glorious failure or two in my time. My draft folder is full of them. I have unfinished things too. It’s all part of the experience.
Thoughts, Reasons, and Ugh– Programmers.
I’m going to bring my experience programming computers into the frame. Why? Because as a group of people, programmers are perhaps the only individuals who can compare with writers in terms of being introverted, shy, and generally unwilling to work with others.
Let’s face it, we’re all just nerds of one variety or another. Yes, I made a broad generalization about almost everyone in my social circles.
My ostracisation is imminent.
A new programmer/coder/developer (or whatever you’d like to call us), straight out of college or someone going the DIY route, is green. When I was new, I’d finish an application, and it was not good enough. It was so obvious. I’d look at what I’d written a year, a month, or often only a day later, and I’d start to see the weaknesses.
The fastest way on earth for a programmer to level-up is to finish successful projects. You work and fight and research and scour the web and ask friends and eventually– you complete a fluffernutter. And it feels GOOD. Then, you give the fluffernutter you’ve built to someone who uses it.
What do they do? They break it.
They abuse your glorious fluffernutter.
They don’t use it in the ways you intended. It hurts. You created this fantastic fluffernutter so people could fluff nets with it, and they didn’t use it right. They didn’t understand. All because you didn’t know the best way to build it.
Sound familiar yet, writers?
Being a new programmer with the cloud or a mobile app store to deploy code to, is equivalent an indie author who publishes the first thing they write without any professional editing.
We’ve established that finishing is essential. Finishing helps us get to a state where real feedback is possible but isn’t there a way to improve quickly? There is for programmers. They engage in behaviors meant to amplify the cycle time of their learning.
Get Guidance From A More Experienced Person.
For coders, this can happen through pairing (sitting side-by-side writing the same thing together with only one person at the keyboard), code reviews, quick work cycles with smaller pieces of work, regular sessions with a mentor, or spending time in an apprenticeship.
Corporate America has all the incentive in the world to get programmers up to speed quickly. Coders are in short supply, they usually work at a company with peers, and hence, the development and use of all the methods described above.
Wait, You Just Said A Bunch Of Stuff About Computer Programming.
Is This A Trick?
In writing, we’re often an even more solitary crowd than coders, so what can writers do that maps most closely to code reviews and pair-programming and apprenticeships? Writers don’t usually have the benefit of working with a host of other writers unless they are working for some large publication or a school or a writers room for a TV production or some such thing. If you’re writing prose– hm.
There are a couple of options at your disposal:
- Join a writing critique group. If you’re lucky like me, the group will be an unending delight, but limited in their time to continually review your amateur work. **
- Pay for a professional critique by a writing coach, published author, freelance editor, etc.
**There are so many other reasons to join a writing group, but that’s a different blog post.
Gah! You Finally Mentioned Paying For Critiques.
Here’s the deal. As absolutely fantastic and essential a writing group is, those folks need time to write as well, and of course, you’ll want to reciprocate critiques/reviews. I’ve likely passed the halfway point in my life, and time is the only asset that really matters beyond having enough money to meet basic needs. We can never get more time, and it is always ticking away. It is unfair of me to demand more of it from my writer and editor friends than I have available to give to them. I also can’t rely on my family, because they are too close to me and don’t want to hurt my feelings.
Once I made these determinations, I decided if time was my limiting factor, then money was not going to be the thing holding me back as a writer. I’ve been writing plenty, but I have to wait interminably to go back and look at my own work before I can get past the “I JUST WROTE THIS AND IT IS AMAZING” glow and really learning anything from my mistakes. So, I started looking into paid critiques.
I might have been inspired by some anthologies and writing projects from Kickstarter initially. They had rewards like: “Back our book project for $100, and we’ll also do a professional edit on the first 20k words of your manuscript”. I researched some of the authors offering this service and found one (who shall not be named) who had an impressive resume of dealing with many of the hurdles I was trying to overcome in my WIP at the time, The Galaxy and All Her Charms. The Kickstarter method eventually paid off in spades, but it took a LONG TIME. It was about nine months later when I received extremely detailed, thoughtful, and beyond helpful notes and line edits.
Great. In Nine Months I Can Get Good Feedback?
Yes and no. You are indeed welcome to wait the requisite amount of time to gestate a human, but there are better, more direct ways to get this kind of feedback. During my 9-month wait, I ended up hiring another author/editor to do a detailed critique of the first 2500 words of Rue From Ruin. I received notes almost as long as the excerpt I sent for review, and it cost me $55.
So you can go this route, and you can also hire a writing coach (I recommend a couple folks I know: Lauren Sapala and Angie Fenimore. Look ’em up. They’re on the Googles.)
Hiring someone directly can be scary. If you aren’t sure you’re going to like the type of feedback you’ll get, ask them to review a sample for you before you pay. Most folks will agree.
Tightening the feedback loop and getting an earlier view on the kinds of mistakes I’m making in my writing is an immense help. It flattens out my learning curve, and I get over dumb mistakes far earlier. The only trick is having a bit of thick skin (a skill writers need anyway). My critiques have been professional, and even kind, and they also speak their mind.
Take it from a guy who almost always has to learn things the hard way, paying for professional eyes early in your writing process is worth it.