The problem with entering stories into competitions, or submitting them to magazines, is that most editors lack either the time or the inclination to enlighten the unsuccessful writer as to where she’s going wrong. If the rejections keep rolling in there comes a point when, clearly, she needs to know.
When I found myself in this situation, a search of the web led me to YouWriteOn, a peer review site for writers. Members can upload a short story, or the opening chapters of a novel, and receive one critique in return for each they write, with assignments allocated by the system at random. It’s an excellent way to improve your writing, not only because people highlight the weak points in your work, but also because you learn from seeing the weak points in theirs, which can often be the same. To be a good writer you need to be an avid reader, but high quality novels are written by experienced authors and have been edited several times before publication. They make writing look easy. So it’s extremely useful to also read the work of aspiring authors, where problems with plot, pace, characterisation, clichés, similes, overused adjectives and adverbs abound, because if these things are sabotaging your own manuscript, you’ll be primed to root them out.
Inevitably some critiques are less valuable than others, usually because the writer is keener to receive a review than produce one, but by the time you’ve amassed ten or so, valid criticisms start to recur. In the case of my stories, these were of dialogue that didn’t sound realistic, and a lack of description that prevented the reader from being fully drawn into the story. I was told that one character was too much of a caricature, and that another behaved in a way that seemed inconsistent with his nature. There were also some positive reviews that made me feel good but ultimately left me no wiser, and others that simply disliked the plot, but what could I do about that except write a completely different story? No writer can please everyone. It was the hardest reviews to read that were usually the most useful, and once the dejection started to wear off, I could see that the criticisms were valid. In fact, not only were they valid, I’d actually been aware of them myself but had chosen to ignore them.
I realised that the main reason for this was I hadn’t always trusted my instincts when I was editing. A devilish voice had persuaded me to spare those clichés that caused a twinge in my gut the instant I reread them, insisting they really were sentences of poetic beauty. Not trusting my instincts prevented me from cutting out words that I’d spent hours writing, and from investing even more time knocking others into shape. It was only when reviewers confirmed my suspicions, and after I’d seen similar mistakes in others’ work, that I learnt to stop listening to that fiendish voice. Reading the stories aloud proved to be a great help in doing this. Any problems with the flow of the prose quickly became apparent, and unrealistic dialogue in particular was impossible to ignore.
It’s sometimes hard to see what’s going wrong with a story when you’re so involved in it. Only an outsider can tell you if it’s really working the way you want it to. Other writers helped me face up to aspects of my writing that I needed to work on; I wasn’t going to get away with not putting more effort into it. I began to examine my writing with a more critical eye, to be on the lookout for common mistakes, and to edit it more ruthlessly before being satisfied. Because it didn’t matter how much time I’d invested in it up until then, if I didn’t really believe it was perfect, why would anyone else?