Improve your writing via a retrospective

Have you ever caught yourself thinking you could be a better writer? Having a healthy amount of humility in one’s own work is of course, normal. Doing a simple retrospective, or ‘retro’ for short, on your writing projects can help you save time, money and ultimately a lot of self-doubt through your writing career.

The Japanese have a term, ‘Kaizen’, which means to improve oneself through incremental changes. It’s a business philosophy that’s been adopted by many practicing agile teams. In SCRUM, an agile development methodology, a team adopts a practice called a retrospective, more colloquially called ‘Retro’, every couple weeks to discuss 1) how well a particular time period of work went, 2) what went poorly and 3) what could be improved for the next period of work. More and more companies around the world have adopted it to improve their productivity.

retrospective on writingA retrospective for a writing project

A retrospective for a writing project can bear similar fruit for your own writing. It can help you identify what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are and whether it’s worth expending time, energy and money to improve your writing. It also gives you an opportunity for reflection and introspection, improving your own self-awareness along with your craft. And it’s time efficient. You can take as much (or as little) time as you want to do a retrospective with nothing but some quiet space and a writing tool.

If you’re at any of these stages of writing a project, then doing a retrospective will be helpful for you:

  • You’ve finished a draft of a writing project.
  • You’ve revised it one or more times.
  • You’re about to submit or share your work.
  • You have submitted or shared your work and gotten less than stellar feedback.
  • You’ve finished a large portion of a particularly lengthy or complex project and are about to take a break or a pause before continuing.

Take a piece of paper, an online document, a whiteboard or a spreadsheet. Draw 3 columns or section headers and label them:

  • ‘What went well (+)’
  • ‘What went poorly (-)’
  • ‘What could I do better (Δ)’

(For those unfamiliar with the delta symbol, it commonly refers to change.)

1. What went well.

Ask yourself, what went well during my last writing project or writing session? Think about all aspects of writing. To help break that down, here are some questions to think through:

  • How was your tone?
  • How was your writing style?
  • How was your point of view narrative consistency
  • How was your grammar?
  • What did you think of your pace?
  • If you’re writing in characters, how was your development, your arc, your storytelling?
  • Perhaps your writing project has a message or a moral–how well did you get your intention across?
  • Perhaps you were writing an argument or a paper–did you prove your thesis?
  • Did you receive positive feedback? Or validation about what you’re writing?
  • Did you stick to your intention?

The important thing to remember for this section is to stick to the positive things. Use the space to reinforce your love for writing and your intention for doing it in the first place. Identify and articulate your strengths.

Maybe your list looks something like…

  • Impeccable grammar
  • Really like Priya’s character development
  • That action scene is awesome
  • Maria told me she loved the ending
  • Research on 20th century economics is spot on

Retrospective tip #1: Lists are better. You can freewrite a retrospective, but lists allow your retro to feel more actionable, to fluidly let you switch between the good and the bad for each topic, and for you to spend more time thinking and producing thoughts on paper rather than worrying about sentences and grammar.

2. What went poorly.

As you’re thinking through all the above aspects of writing, this is the section where you can be honest with yourself. Perhaps you’re a grammar queen, but you’re terrible at writing concise dialogue. Maybe you did well with certain characters, but poorly with the development of some other characters.

Perhaps you received negative feedback or constructive criticism. Write it all out in this section. Remember, you don’t have to share a retro. It’s a safe space to be honest about your writing and to really identify areas that you think could have been better.

Maybe there were circumstantial issues. Like not making enough time or space for your project. Perhaps life got in the way. All of this is game for what goes in the ‘bad’ column.

Maybe your list looks like…

  • I used the word ‘basically’ basically a million times
  • Micah and Eli got confused when reading chapter 4
  • I don’t do a good job with descriptions/settings
  • Took me way too long–holiday break
  • I think my voice changed midway through..not good

Retro tip #2: Write things under the first two columns simultaneously. Avoid adding things to the last column until the end. This may mean making sure you leave enough room under your columns!

3. What could I do better?

After you’ve written a breakdown of all the things that went well and poorly, go through each one. Congratulate yourself on doing something well. Is there an insight there on playing to your strengths or doing more of a good thing? Break down the problems and issues you see in the ‘bad’ column. Are there actionable steps you can take to do better the next revision, the next time you write something, etc?

You don’t have to come up with solutions for everything. But by identifying your weaknesses and analyzing the problem, you can decide for yourself what steps you take the next time you sit down to write.

It’s common that solutions involve areas in…

  • Self-learning (getting a book, taking a course, joining a workshop, hiring a coach)
  • Self-involvement (getting more feedback, joining a community, going to a conference)
  • Self-awareness (playing to your strengths in a particular writing craft or genre, honing a natural talent, doing writing exercises).
  • Or something else entirely!

Whatever it is, the things that go into this third column define the ‘kaizen’ part of a retrospective. Remember to be honest with yourself and treat it like a solution brainstorm–there are no bad ideas!

Maybe your list looks like…

  • Join a couple writing communities to make it easier to reach out for feedback
  • Strike the word ‘basically’ from my writing vocabulary as a challenge to myself
  • Do a creative writing exercise that forces me to use concise language
  • Take more breaks to be more balanced during my writing session

Retrospective tip #3: Keep things under column 3 actionable. Whether they’re ideas or solutions, try to keep them actionable so that you’re more likely to go through with them and follow through on kaizen.

Doing this simple exercise for a writing project can help you improve leaps and bounds the next time you sit down to write. And if you keep doing it, you may just see upward momentum in your writing career and craft. Keep calm and retro on.

I hope this retro guide is helpful to you. If it is, let us know! Reply here in the comments or tweet at us @TheRightMargin.


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1 Comment

  1. Lena Ramfelt

    Great blog!

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