Chip MacGregor

September 5, 2012

How can I improve my writing?


Years ago, in another life, I made my living doing dopey magic tricks and telling jokes. (Really.) I played some nice places (the Comedy & Magic Club of Hermosa Beach was one), and I played some awful places (insert the name of any smoky bar on the west coast where the customers are more interested in Budweisers, Camels, and the opposite sex). One thing I noticed about the venues: Even if the place was a dive, there were lessons to be learned. Being in front of a living, breathing audience forces you to change your act. You have to work really hard to get people to laugh. All the rehearsal in the world wasn’t going to cause me to perfect my act — for that, I had to be bad in front of people.

There’s a lesson for writers… A lot of potential authors are simply too sensitive. As a writer, you need a place to bad, so that you can learn to be good. So if your ego is too fragile to allow someone else to read your work, it’s time to learn this lesson. Allow yourself to be bad. Give somebody else (preferably not your mom, your spouse, or your best friend) the permission to be honest with you about your writing.

Yes, this takes courage. And it means you’re going to have to find a couple people you trust. If you get into a large crit group, chances are you’re going to have one person you don’t like, who always hammers you for something. Learn to live with it. Paste a smile on your face, say “thanks very much,” and move on to somebody whose opinion you actually care about. BUT somewhere, in the midst of all that fake niceness, be willing to at least hear what that individual has to say about your writing. A fresh set of eyes is exactly why you joined the group, so at least listen to the criticisms others have, even if you think they’re all morons and you’re above this sort of thing.

I remember there was this one magician I couldn’t stand. He was a twerp, made biting comments, and acted like a know-it-all. One day he mentioned something to me about my act — he said I mumbled on stage, and made wisecracks to the side that nobody heard. I hated what he said. I rolled my eyes. And then, as I thought about it, I realized he was completely right. Dang.

Scottish people have a saying: Learn to unpack a rebuke. In other words, don’t reject a criticism out of hand. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree with it. But give it a little time. Take it out and play with it. Be willing to at least examine the criticism and see if, just maybe, there’s an ounce of truth in it.

Of course, sometimes you’ll get a rebuke that’s wrong. Somebody will tell you “that idea will never sell” or “you shouldn’t do that novel in first person,” and your only response is to smile, say thanks, and ignore the dipstick. That’s okay. At least you got another perspective. But you gain an immense amount of wisdom when you allow other people you respect to look at your words.

So I want to suggest that handing around a bad first draft for people to read is EXACTLY the thing to be doing. Let others see what you’re writing and offer some direction. You may not agree with all of it, but the point is that you’re getting another set of eyes to review your work. I’ve seen thousands of pages of paper wasted on under-written book proposals. Sometimes these were good ideas, they just needed more work. But I rarely see an over-written book proposal — one the author simply over-designed, over-thought, and over-wrote. So my sense is that you probably need to spend more time on your project.

Having a critique group can help you move forward. Besides, having writing friends gives you somebody to share your success and failure with. When those rejections come in, they’ll pat you on the back and tell you that, yes, you’re a fine writer, you just need to stick with it. Maybe they’ll buy you a Guinness. (Another reason to like critique groups.)

By the way, if you want to really make this work, send the writings out one week  and talk about them the next week. That keeps you from simply getting off-the-cuff reactions. And by all means ask people to WRITE their comments. It’s too easy to weasel out of a tough criticism when we’re all sitting around the living room, drinking tea and commenting on Daphne’s stupid prairie romance. (“Um…I don’t know…but since this is set in the 1830’s, maybe you shouldn’t have your heroine eaten by intergallactic space aliens.”) Instead, ask people to write their criticisms onto the page, then you can talk through them, before puling out (1) a kleenex to wipe your eyes, and (2) the number of a good suicide prevention counselor.

Look, don’t think about trying to make it perfect. Seeking perfection in writing is what freezes people and keeps them from writing (or even from participating). Look for progress, not perfection. You aren’t going to make it perfect. So try to make it “better than last week.”

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  • Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks for saying what needs to be said. We have to let our work go if we want to improve as writers. And, no, it’s not easy. When my brand new agent told me the beginning of my story was great but that I had to delete the final 75,000 words and start over, it hurt. I’d already rewritten twice. But rewrite it again I did. In the process, I learned a great deal. I ended up with a far better story, one my agent sold. Listening to constructive criticism, unpacking it, and using it to improve can really pay off.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Oh, thanks. I needed to read this.

  • Dana McNeely says:

    Love the “unpacking a rebuke” proverb. My Scottish grandpa was always sharing Celtic words of wisdom with me, like “Beware the English” and “Always look after your pennies”. The latter is a song. Anyway, I belong to a tough critique group of secular readers. The diversity of critiques I receive is wonderful.

  • Rick Barry says:

    My thoughts on feedback: 1. Don’t tell me what I want to hear; tell me what I need to hear. 2. Don’t tell you like what I wrote; tell me what might make it better!

    If readers/critiquers pull their punches for fear they’ll hurt my feelings, then I need to find new readers.

  • Ruth Taylor says:

    I stopped editing my 1st novel after 12 drafts, knowing there was nothing more I could do with it. The many flaws would have to be handled by an editor!

  • Critique groups are most important to a writer. I know I
    sometimes assume the reader “gets” what I’m saying, because of course in my
    head it makes perfect sense. But then again I know the entire story and even
    the backstory that won’t make the page. It’s important to get a glimpse of what
    the fresh reader receives from the manuscript. Very enlightening.

    My critique partners don’t pull punches. Sometimes this
    requires Kleenex—and a dart game with their picture on it (juuuuuussst
    kidding!)—before I give in and make changes. But I am sooooo grateful to have
    them. They’ve made all the difference.

    And about your former profession … Wow! You are a man that
    does not fit neatly in a box :o). Cool!

  • Melissa Tagg says:

    Learn to unpack a rebuke. I love that. (Which is probably the MacTaggart roots I like to assume I have speaking. 🙂 )

    I especially love that last paragraph, though, about not seeking perfection…it’s a futile pursuit, yeah? But we can always, always get better…and that’s what I love about an awesome crit group…they can spur you on to that next level of “better.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Perfection is probably futile… but we keep trying, right? Glad you like the shared Scottish wisdom, Melissa.

  • maegan beaumont says:

    Finding a good crit group is hard… but absolutely necessary. Too many of us rely on our friends and family to tell
    us the truth about our writing and we shouldn’t. They love us—if we stink, why would they want to tell us that? Also, as non-writers, they can tell you “sure, I like it…” or “I thought it was horrible…” but not many of them can tell you specifically what’s wrong with your work and suggest how to fix it. Only another writer-type can do that for you.
    I happen to belong to the best crit group on the planet—some of the most supportive, honest, talented folks I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and I’m beyond lucky to have them!
    Thanks for sharing, Chip!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Exactly, Maegan — friends can tell us they liked it, or they didnt, but not WHY. Writer friends are really valuable to have in your life. (And for those who don’t know, Maegan just got a deal to do her debut novel at Llewellyn! Congrats, Maegan!)

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