Let's talk about sports.
I've never been big into sports. You know that kid in every gym class? The one that gets hit in the face every week, be it with a basketball, a dodge ball, or even a hockey stick? That was totally me. And yes, the hockey stick incident very much hurt.
Yet, despite this disinclination, I was on a swim team.
The best part about swim team was not the fact that you were never sweaty. Or that your nasal cavities were permanently sanitized thanks to the constant inhalation of chlorine. Or even that swim team helped me letter in high school despite being a straight up nerd. No. The best part was how easy it was to mark my progress.
Let's be straight here. I was not the best person on swim team. I wasn't even close. But every second I could shave off of my lap time was a victory. It was child's play to memorize my fastest times and compare them to the instant results at swim meets. I knew when I had done my best. It was easy to see that I was getting better.
Writing, on the other hand, is not like that.
There are no numbers to tell you that you've improved--no empirical way to write a chapter and know that it's better than anything you've written before. Every sentence is different and fluid. Something that seemed wonderful a week ago might be terrible now. It doesn't help that your judgment is completely warped when writing and everything seems a thousand times better or worse than it really is.
There is, however, one way to tell. It's a bit more time consuming than comparing stats, but it definitely works. Go read your old work.
I recently finished a full-length manuscript and in the process of avoiding it, I've been piddling about with old writings. Some were better than expected. Most were far worse than remembered. The key thing they all share though: when I wrote/edited them, I thought they were awesome. Now they mostly make me cringe.
Where were my storytelling skills? How on earth did I think that word choice was good? What was I thinking when I re-wrote that entire section?
But looking back on something old is great because it reaffirms that I have been improving. It's not precise like comparing swim times, but I can tell that my writing has become more concise, more controlled than it used to be. Maybe it's not perfect, but I'm definitely not writing dialogue along the lines of "Yikes-o-wowie! It's dang dark in here!"* anymore.
So the next time you're feeling down about what you've written, go back and read something old. If you're like me, there will be rampant cliches and dialogue that'll make you wince. Then you'll definitely feel better about what you're writing now.
Have you done this recently? Does your old writing horrify you, or is some of it surprisingly salvageable? Or should we spend more time reading and absorbing how the masters wrote instead of reflecting on our old follies? Tell me what you think in the comments.
*This decade old line is by far the best thing I have ever written. Totally.