Better Writing by Studying the W.I.P. of Others

W.I.P. — Works In Progress

If the name of this site sounds remotely familiar — I’m not kidding myself, I’d be pleasantly surprised if it does — that’s because used to be about pitching my story coaching and consultation service (still available here, by the way).  Over the course of three years I had the privilege of reading and analyzing dozens of raw manuscripts whose authors felt were ready for submission, with a view toward applying my Six Core Competencies developmental model to see how things might be improved.

It was one of the most useful and illuminating experiences of my writing life.  And, I  discovered, not always entirely pleasant from a relational standpoint — turns out a lot of people asking for feedback were really seeking validation.  Sort of like when my wife asks me how she looks before we go out.  Believe me, I don’t lay a developmental model on her when that happens.

Unless you belong to critique group, chances are the only fiction you read has already been published.  Which means, multiple drafts went into what you’re reading and several professional editors with New York zip codes sweated bullets to make it as good as it can possibly be.  Not so much with most works in progress (even if the author thinks it’s ready).  Now, reading this stuff cold would mostly likely quickly turn into work, sort of like listening to someone describe their health problems.  But if you’re a doctor, then listening to that same litany of aches and pains becomes fascinating, something to which you can add value.

Once you understand the infrastructure of storytelling — the architecture of structure, the poetry of theme, the engineered arc of character, the symmetry of elegantly rendered prose — then reading an unpublished manuscript becomes a learning experience.  You instantly recognize why the story isn’t working as well as it should.  Do this enough and you return to your own work with an elevated learning curve and a reinforced standard of storytelling excellence.

So how do you benefit from this technique?  First, you need to immerse yourself in the craft of storytelling to the extent that you completely understand the criteria for excellence across all of the requisite core competencies (that’s a tall order, by the way, perhaps a lifetime quest).  Armed with that, join critique groups and solicit readings of works in progress from other writers.  You’ll be amazed at what you see that you’d never notice before, and equally amazed at your own depth of knowledge.  And when you go back to your own work, you’ll be that much further along on the learning curve and able to avoid the pitfalls you just witnessed.

Of course, that same grounding in the fundamentals will also enhance your reading of published work, at least from an analytical point of view.  You’ll see the basics of storytelling excellence in play — or not, it’s always subjective, even in New York — and, along with your reading pleasure, you’ll be schooled in how it’s done.

Stay tuned for more about the Six Core Competencies.  It’s the key to everything about writing a killer story!

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