As the year draws to a close, it’s time for writers to do some self-examination.
You probably already have a sense whether this was a banner year for you or a real stinker, but you need to think about WHY.
What made this a horrible year for writing or your most successful year ever? And how can you continue your streak or even do better next year?
It’s good to be reflective about our writing life because it’s easy to fall into ruts. I know. I’ve fallen into many ruts over the course of my writing career:
- Writing the same genre for too long.
- Focused on seeking approval from academia.
- Not writing enough.
By answering the 12 questions below, you’ll be able to diagnosis your writing roadblocks, and figure out how to break out of ruts (or how to keep your streak going).
These questions will help you score your writing life for the year.
1. What was the best risk you took as a writer last year?
There are two errors on this spectrum: one would be never taking any risk as a writer (writing safe, commercially friendly material, for instance), and the opposite would be taking too much risk (quitting your job to write full time — although maybe that could be the right path for some people).
Overall, though, when I counsel writers, I often find they’re not taking enough risk.
By risk I’m talking about attempting a book which might be currently beyond your abilities as a writer, or striking out into a new genre, or joining a new writing group, or attempting to read double the amount of books as last year, or starting a book club, or writing an open letter to an author you despise or adore.
Identity what risks you took last year, and then look forward — how you can be even riskier in the new year?
2. What was the best dollar you spent on writing this year?
Did you go to a conference? Pony up for an editor? Hire a nanny? Maybe you did something that didn’t require very much money at all, but it was the best money you’ve ever spent on writing (carpal-tunnel wrist protector).
So how can you use money more effectively next year to become a better writer? Come up with a list of three ideas.
And … if you didn’t spend any money at all on writing, maybe you have to ask yourself whether it’s really a priority in your life.
3. When did you spend your time wisely this past year?
Was there a particular month when you got a lot of writing done? What did you do differently that month? Can you replicate that?
You can also think of the opposite of this question: when did you squander your time this year? Did you get too addicted to video games or social media or a television series? How did that hamstring your writing?
4. How did you develop friendships with other writers last year?
If you aren’t actively developing friendships with fellow writers, your writing life will end up in shambles.
Name any new writing friendships you’ve started. And name writing friendships you’ve deepened.
Now: write them an email right now to tell them that you love them and appreciate them and they’re a freaking genius-level writer and you would end up a hack if it wasn’t for their wisdom and encouragement.
And figure out how to connect with more writing friends next year.
5. What did you do last year that you need to stop?
Every writer needs to stop something.
Maybe you need to stop comparing yourself to others. Maybe you need to stop being so jealous of the six-figure advance a writing friend received. Maybe you need to stop surfing the internet during your writing time.
Maybe you need to stop the voice inside your head that tells you that you’re a terrible writer.
Whatever is it, name the thing that you did last year as a writer that you need to quit, right now. Name it and swear that you’re going to put a dollar in the Mistake Jar every time you do it next year.
6. What was the best advice you received about writing this year?
Maybe you read a book, or heard a quote, and it’s really stuck with you this year. If so, make sure to trumpet it on social media and post it above your workspace.
Even more important, ask whether you’ve truly incorporated that advice into your life, or whether it’s still a cerebral thing. Knowledge alone doesn’t help you become a better writer; you’ve got to have action.
7. What was your biggest writing success?
Take a moment and write down your biggest writing success — or better yet, your top three or top five successes. The discipline of steady writing? Setting up a writing workshop of friends? A big publication?
Do you want to have the same kind of writing success next year, or are you looking to excel in a different way? Sometimes it can be too easy to keep focusing on your strengths rather than attempting to improve your weaknesses. To challenge yourself, seek success in a new area for the new year.
8. What was your biggest writing failure?
Where did you fail as a writer, and why? What will you change for the next year to make sure that doesn’t happen again? Do you want to keep plugging away at the same mission, or should you pivot and try another genre or a different approach?
Acknowledging your writing failures goes a long way toward figuring out how to beat them. Every writer fails. Hell, we fail a lot. But make your failures count by learning from them. You can’t learn from them if you don’t think about what made them happen and come up with a new approach for next time.
9. What was your most pleasurable reading experience this year?
Was it very similar to what you write or very different? If it was very different, do you want to change tack and try writing in that new genre?
What can you learn from your most pleasurable reading experience? How did the author accomplish that magic?
Here’s a trick: when you’re finding it difficult to summon up energy to write, lie back for a second and remember the emotions you felt during that pleasurable reading experience. Think about what happened to you. Now think about how you want to do that to others with your book. Now go — write!
10. Your worst reading experience this year?
It’s very important to read bad books. I do so regularly. Most of the time, it’s not on purpose. But bad books are very instructive — if you know exactly what makes them bad, you can learn from their errors.
Name the book that made you grimace, howl, and shake your head. For me it was a Billy Collins collection of poetry. I was astonished at how bad it was, like someone trying to imitate all the worst poetic cliches. But I’m still grateful for the experience of learning and articulating exactly what I love and hate about the art of language.
11. When did you have the most fun as a writer this year?
If you thought of sitting alone at your desk, wonderful! Or if you thought of a conference or receiving an acceptance letter, that’s great too.
It’s important to identify how you experience joy as a writer so you can structure your writing life to have more experiences like those.
After all, you can’t create a writing life on the shaky foundation of misery and putting your head down and barreling through. This is art! It’s supposed to be fun! Don’t buy into the myth of the depressed writer — the joyful writer will produce more and better work.
12. What did you learn about yourself as a writer last year?
Self-knowledge is so critical in the writing life. For instance, I learned that even though I love to read poetry, I am by no means a poet. I’m going to stick with writing fiction.
It’s important to know your strengths, right?
And if you keep a list of what you’re learning about yourself as a writer, your strengths and weaknesses, your superpowers and Kryptonite, you’ll be able to look back years later and see a ladder of how you were refining your writing to take fullest advantage of your strengths.
Please comment below with the answers to one or two questions (or if you want to be an over-achiever, all 12 questions!)
I hope that was a helpful way to review your Writing Life this year! May you have a clearer vision of what you did well last year and what you can improve on for next year.