What is the best way to improve as a writer?
Many writers feel hopeless. They can’t seem to complete a work, and whenever they look back on what they’ve done they become frustrated with how it falls short of their intentions. Many writers read books by talented authors and feel as though they will never get there.
If you have these same feelings, then it’s a good sign, as in my personal experience, it is exactly what it feels like to be a good writer. When brilliant writers discuss writing, it’s often in terms of frustration and disappointment with their work. It’s in not being able to properly convey their vision. Think of all of the famous examples of legendary authors who wanted their work destroyed after they died simply because they believed it wasn’t good enough. Often I’m inclined to feel the same towards whatever it is I’m writing. I’m the midst of my own endeavor – a screenplay -- and I find myself thinking: “what’s the point?” It’s a far cry from Shakespeare, and it’s no F. Scott Fitzgerald. I can guarantee there are better scripts out there, some of which have already been made into very impressive films. And then I remind myself: that is how every good writer operates, and it is the very same thought that compels them to become good writers.
Imagine two writers compose a script. When both are finished, one thinks: “this is truly a masterpiece”, while the other thinks: “this script isn’t anywhere near good enough!” Now, which of them do you suppose will try to improve on their work? The one who tells themselves that they need to. What makes you a good writer is that little nagging voice saying you aren’t one yet.
If you have this feeling, it will never go away, and it shouldn’t ever go away. It will forever be with you as the thing that drives you, urging you onward, ensuring you don’t churn out something bad. And once we recognize the permanence of this, we have to realize we can’t use it to tell us when we’re finally done. No work can ever be as perfect as we imagine it to be. We will always think of how it can be better. Things can always be better. If we allow this feeling to rule over us, then we will never produce anything. There needs to be a rational balance.
Give into the feeling when it improves a work, and ignore it when it makes completion of a work impossible. Put another way: use a healthy sense of self-doubt. How do you attain that? It comes only through experience.
There are those writers who have never known the feeling, and never will because they don’t have that little voice telling them to make adjustments, to focus and refine at every step. They are convinced they are great and don’t have any desire to develop their writing skills to be better.
The point is not to create something destined to be famous. Nor is it the point to create the best novel or the best screenplay or the best poem ever made. It is to create the best thing you are currently capable of making. If you look at your work and consider that, though it could be better, you honestly don’t know how to make it better, then that is a good place to stop. If finishing something will require you to change yourself, that is also a good place to stop. If you change yourself, you will be a different person, and will end up wanting to make something completely different anyway.
It’s a big thing to finish a work of art. It’s scary to put it out there for consumption and critique. It’s easier to never show anyone. It’s easier to never finish. If we never finish, it means we can hold on to an unrealized thing forever. But sometimes, one of the bravest and most beautiful things we can do is to unleash an imperfect thing out into this imperfect world. It will always be better than a perfect ideal that doesn’t exist.