I think there are two ways to learn how to do something. The first is obvious: do it. No matter how much you read about something, there’s no substitute for actually doing it. In writing, you can read all of the “how to” books you want, but if you don’t put your rear in the chair and actually write, you’ll never be any good. I’ve read/heard several times that a writer should expect to write a million words before finding success. From my personal experience, that’s about right. Like any craft, constant practice is the key to competency and ultimately mastery.
The second way to learn how to do something is to teach it. If you can teach a skill, then you can probably do it. For writing, I’m not suggesting teaching a college course in creative writing; I’m talking about critiquing other writers’ stories and providing constructive feedback on what worked and didn’t work for you as both a reader and a writer.
I belong to two writing groups—Critters, which is open to everyone (see the link on my sidebar), and Hopefull Monsters, which is a personal group—in which I spend more time critiquing other writers than I spend getting critiqued. While having my stories critiqued has taught me specific things about my stories, and to some extent general things about my writing, I’ve learned more about writing by critiquing others. When I critique another story I’m forced to analyze and figure out why something didn’t work for me. Was it because I didn’t understand the character’s motivation? Maybe it was because the central conflict wasn’t clear or well-developed? Could it be that a scene sapped all of the tension? Being able to work through this thought process is valuable and the more I see the problems in other writers’ stories, the more easily I recognize—and hopefully correct them—in my writing.
I don’t restrict my critiquing to unpublished stories, either. I am nearly always in critique mode nowadays, whether I’m reading a published story by a writer unknown to me or a Hugo award-winning author. Published works allow me see stories that have made it through the publishing gauntlet and thus represent “successful” stories from the publishing perspective. I find published stories are particularly helpful, and I often dissect large pieces of them, looking for the underlying writing craft: the subtle way character is built through actions, the way sentence structure is used to control pacing, the way voice and point of view are used to set tone and reveal information, etc. For me, this critical reading is important and invaluable.
If you’re an aspiring writer like me, then my advice is to do and to teach, even if you never submit that story critique to the writer. Just the act of pulling a story apart and looking at how a published author did something is valuable. So keep writing, keep critiquing, and then write and critique some more. Good luck.
I’ve been saying this for ages!
Being critiqued only gets you specific comments and ‘fixes’ for your particular story, critting others forces you to THINK, and thus to discover general rules that can be used again and again.
If crit-groups were set up to represent the true value of the proceedure, then they’d charge you for critting the work of others, and you’d be expected to submit four stories a month for critting just to stay in the group!
My only difference of opinion is that I find little value in dissecting published works, myself. When something is good, it’s very hard to see why it’s good, but if it’s bad, the reasons scream out at you! Thus I find one can learn more, and learn more quickly, by finding faults in flawed work, rather than trying to decide what special alchemy makes a good story fly.
Thanks for stopping by and for subscribing, Colum. I hear what you’re saying about critting published stories, but I think the value comes not from learning what’s wrong, but from learning how things can be done well (potentially, I guess, depending on the published work). I find that dissecting published works provides me a good opportunity to see some of the finer points of the writing craft, especially those more subtle skills that a writer develops after getting a handle on how to develop characters, clear story arcs, etc. That’s where I see the value of critically reading published work.