Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post Mortem for a Writing Project

What went right? What went wrong?

In the lab and later in consulting, I was taught the value of looking over a project when I completed it. Asking a series of specific questions after finishing a work of prose (novel, short story, article, script, speech) can also be valuable, and it is a great way to gain efficiencies that will help you be more productive.

When you do a post mortem presents interesting choices. I like to do them after I've sent a manuscript into the world, when there is potential for a check coming back. But you can do a post mortem just before you submit it to a critique group or when you decide to shelve it or when you decide it should be shredded.

A good post mortem starts with the question at the top of this post. Begin with the positive, so you don't fall into a guilt spiral. Even the most disastrous work has some successes, and it is easy to forget them unless you intentionally call them out. On the other hand, what went wrong may be driven by the actions of someone else, but you can always look to yourself for a deeper understanding of where you may have let the wrong person in too soon, pressed the wrong button, or signed up to work with the wrong people.

Beyond these general questions, here are the specific ones I use when I do a post mortem.
  • Was this project worth my time? Did I make the right choice in taking it on? I have at times become enamored with a second rate idea. At other times, I've accepted an assignment that was a drudgery. Bad choices in both cases (except the time I did a tedious assignment at ten times my normal rate).
  • Did I succeed in what I intended to do? Did I explain something, illustrate a theme, create an emotion, or bring a fascinating character to life?
  • Did I succeed in bringing the ten things I love most to my audience? (I always list the things that make me passionate about a project before I begin it, and often as a step along the way. I'll write more about this in a future post.)
  • Did I find a practice I should adopt or did I vary a current practice in an interesting way? This is often where my process book gets a new entry or a reliable process gets retuned so it becomes more effective. It was a post mortem that added text to speech as a part of my regular proofing process.
  • Did I learn a new skill? Did I try something new? You don't get better if you don't put into practice what you learn and find opportunities to stretch. One of the hardest things I did was write a novel from a single point of view. All the energy I got from switching between different characters and leaving them in cliffhanger situation was gone and I had to find new ways to build tension -- ways that have served me well since.
  • Did I go off course? Sometimes a yes here means I wasted time -- time I might save in the future. Sometimes going off course is a good thing.
  • Did I leave something undone or underdone? No poem is finished, it's abandoned, right? If I had more time, what would I work on and why?
  • Was I the right person to do this project? A tough but necessary question. There are many works I admire that I would make a hash of.
  • Is there an aspect that I'm not ready to do yet? On the other hand, if I keep at this writing thing, I may be able to write scenes and arguments that are currently beyond my grasp. I met a writer who, every year or so, wrote from the point of view of a black man. (He is white.) These attempts ended up in a drawer. Then I read a story where he pulled it off brilliantly. He had developed empathy and knowledge because of many years of trying.
  • Did I improve as a writer? I hope the answer is always yes. Truthfully, it isn't. But I keep asking.
These questions represent a mix that leads to positive and negative answers, and answers that probe the art, the craft, and the professional processes. Together, they encourage me to grow and learn. I write the answers, and I take a hard look at what I've written. This work doesn't count as my writing for the day, but it is essential to my productivity.

Have you ever done a post mortem of a writing project? Has it helped? Do you use different questions?


  1. The unfortunate reality with Project Post Mortem (also called Project Debriefing or Lessons Learnt) is that everyone thinks they are a great idea, but they rarely ever get done. I would say the main reason for this is because upper management generally doesn’t think its worth the commitment of resources.

  2. Agreed. Even firms that have trained people in how to review a project and list the action in the official process will often skip it or do it in a trivial way. The good news for writers is they don't answer directly to finance people. They can take on a post mortem to the extent they find value in it themselves.