The Process of Self-Reflection
No matter the profession or craft, doing good work means engaging in ongoing reflective practice. It’s a process where a practitioner critically self-reflects on how they work, the challenges they face, what they learn, and how they want to develop their craft.
It’s more than “just” a writing routine and maximizing productivity and daily word counts.
These are also important parts of the writerly life, but reflective practice means digging deeper into how you work, what you believe about writing, and how you can improve in all facets of your writing life. It’s a robust process embedded in professional development in many fields, such as in education, law, public service, corporate, etc.
All writers can and should set up some kind of reflective practice to purposefully develop their own expertise in the craft. In fact, a big part of what separates the beginners from the pros is this purposeful and self-critical engagement with one’s own work.
Reflective practice for writers isn’t exactly about how good you are at grammar or whether your book checks off all the criteria in some grid of requirements. Technical aspects of craft and style are of course important, but reflective practice also challenges writers to confront some of the obstacles they set in their own way, things like lack of confidence, writer’s block and overwhelm, inability to work with critical feedback, overinflated ego, among many others.
Here are two generalized and exaggerated examples to illustrate:
Confidence Hurdle: A writer who has a wonderful and beautiful way with words and who wants to write a book. The writer has been keeping diaries and letters and poems for many years, having lived a life full of danger and heartbreak and yet also somehow of joy. But the writer has no confidence in their own work. They think they are a poor writer and haven’t shared any of their writing with anyone. They really want to write that book, but just can’t get past the confidence hurdle.
Ego Hurdle: A writer who has been obsessively working on the same manuscript for years and years. They are enthralled by their own story and of their own creations to the point that the work can never be completed. And even if they say they want to finish the work, secretly they don’t. So singularly have they focused on one object of obsession that even as they have been writing for years and years, they haven’t even learned the basics of the craft.
There are hundreds of other kinds of blockages like these that writers set in their own way, or that are set in their way by the context of their own lived experience.
Other examples might be someone who believes that writing has to be hard and that artists “starve”; or that everything has already been said before; or that they’re not creative enough or “good” enough in some nebulous way that only practice can bring.
Any professional writer can attest that overcoming such hurdles is a major turning point in their work in the craft. It’s a never-ending process: there’s always more to discover and reflect on 🙂
In this sense, a self-critical and self-reflective mindset goes hand-in-hand with developing the technical and stylistic side of writing.
How to Become More Self-Reflective
Unfortunately, an approach to reflective practice isn’t something writers encounter when they’re setting out. New writers are told to focus on subject matter and word count, and considerations beyond that are deemed a waste of time. The more likely a writer is to say that maintaining an ongoing reflective practice is a waste of time, the more that writer can likely benefit from it.
So how do writers go about setting up a reflective practice? It’s going to take more than a single blog post to tell you.
But for now, here’s a simple activity you can do in five minutes to get things going…
Reflective Practice Activity: Your Writing Foundation Story
This activity has two steps, and it is important that you follow the steps in order and don’t look ahead at Step 2!!
Step 1: What is you writer’s “Foundation Story”?
Imagine someone asked you, “Why are you a writer?” or “How did you become a writer?” You’ve probably answered these questions for people many times already.
Just write one or two short paragraphs. Jot down whatever comes to mind. Some examples of foundation stories we hear all the time from writers are about teachers or mentors who encouraged a budding writer, or about life-changing events that compelled writers to tell their story.
What you’re looking for in this first step is the crystalized and concise expression of why or how you became a writer.
Here is a sample Foundation Story:
When I was in grade 8 I had an English teacher who encouraged me to be a writer. I wrote a short story for class and got an A. The teacher made comments on how creative and well-written the story was, and compared it to a famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber. I went to the library and got a book with the story. From then on, I told people I wanted to be a writer.
Once you’ve completed Step 1, scroll down for Step 2…
Step 2: Now, take a self-reflective look at your Foundation Story.
In this step, you will think about and analyze what your Foundation Story means. What does your Foundation Story say about you as a writer and about your motivation to write?
This self-reflective and self-critical step is sometimes a lot more difficult than the first step because it means looking at oneself from a more objective or detached point-of-view. It may involve asking difficult questions or troubling taken-for-granted assumptions.
Jot down your reflections alongside or after your Foundation Story. The point of this step isn’t necessarily to end up with simple answers, but rather to unpack any baggage the Foundation Story contains.
Here is a sample reflective practice that engages with the sample Foundation Story above:
There were many people who encouraged me to do many things. And I got good grades in other classes. What was it about writing? Is it possible that it was an identity that I latched onto because I was at a new school and didn’t know many people? Was I drawn in by a romanticized view of being a writer, the edgy and counter-culture cliché of the beautiful and unique writer’s soul? Was becoming a writer one way I tried to cope with insecurity and an uncertain future? What was authentic about the “choice” to become a writer?
In this sample, the analysis troubles the Foundation Story by investigating whether becoming a writer was something that happened innocently or whether it had a deeper source. The analysis asks if being a writer is linked with insecurities or an inability to fit in.
In this second step, the Foundation Story itself should drive the analysis, so every engagement with this self-reflective practice will be unique for a writer.
More on Reflective Practice for Writers
Developing a reflective practice and engaging in self-critical analysis of the writerly life isn’t easy.
Even this basic reflective activity above will be difficult for many writers. The best way to cultivate reflective practice is with small steps and with an attitude of patience and generosity. In some sense, reflective practice for writers is more about developing a critical mindset toward one’s own work in writing craft, and this takes a bit of practice.
In our next post we will begin to outline a process to help writers engage reflective practice in their work and their day-to-day routines.
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Self-reflection goes hand-in-hand with a general writing practice.
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