Writers, how do you know what you write is any good?

A few things had me thinking about this. First, I have a website that deals with category romances. It’s full of misspellings and grammatical errors. It is not “brilliant” or “badly written . . . sour grapes”; it’s just amusing, IMHO. Yet I’ve received e-mails expressing both opinions.

I also write romances. I like writing them and I think my efforts are pretty good. They are nowhere near as good as many published romances, yet better than quite a few of them, again IMHO.

Now, I have participated in a few romance writing critique groups. The writing ranges from the “wow, why isn’t she published yet” to “Good Lord, does this person even know how to read?” When I get a chapter to critique that consists of ten pages of exposition and locale descriptions with dialog inserted in the middle of page long paragraphs, I wonder how can this person think this is any good?

And then I remember that I have just as much confidence in my writing-- what makes me think what I write is any good?

Well, really don’t know. Do you write? How do you know if what you write is good or not?

I write for fun and I’m trying to get published so I don’t know if my opinion is going to help.

I don’t think I write any particularly good stories, but as long as I enjoy it, I’m happy. As far as other people go, I can tell if something I’ve written is any good if the person who reads it is excited about it or interested beyond the normal level.

Dunno if this helps…

That’s the biggest question any beginning writer asks herself. The good news is that if you are asking, you’re on the right track. Really awful writers know their writing is great.

I’ve been writing for publication for coming up on 22 years. I knew I was writing decent stuff when editors started commenting on my work.

I was lucky – I started when George Scithers was editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction; George set the submission process as sort of a boot camp for writers and would tell you quite specifically what was wrong with your story. Very early on, George wrote me a rejection with the note “We would like to see more of your work.” (“My work”!!! No one had ever called it that before. :slight_smile: ). That was a pretty good sign that I was on the right track.

You won’t get that sort of response nowadays, but if the editor writes you a personal note of any kind, then you are better than most.

How do I know if my writing is good? I trust my instincts. If the writing isn’t good, it’s a slog to finish. If the story flows easily, then I know I’m on to something (some of my best stories were written in the shortest time). I also find myself returning to the story whenever I have a moment – thinking about it in my spare time, for instance, is always a good sign.

You also need to look at your work critically. If you read your own work and notice the good parts, you’re on the wrong track. It’s only when you read it and think “God, this paragraph sucks” that you’ll improve, since if you know it’s bad you can do something to fix it. Conversely, if you don’t notice the bad, then you won’t improve it. The worst writers are those who can never see anything wrong in their work (and will become defensive when it is pointed out).

I can never tell, and I’m always skeptical about what I write, even after getting positive feedback. I’m pretty shy about most of my writings, unless it’s humor, because I know I’m funny when I want to be.

I’m still shy enough that I haven’t sent Eutychus andyhting for Teemings, despite my promise to do so…

I know it’s OK if whoever read it told me so. I have re-read thing I wrote two years ago and decided to make changes I hadn’t thought of at the time because I figured it would read better.

While I write for a living (as you well know, Biggirl) it’s mostly news, so I have a tough time trying to express myself creatively at work, but I go as far as I can get away with to get more practice.

This is what I was going to say. Damnit, Chuck, whyja take my comment?:slight_smile:

Anyway. When I’ve written something in one go (or two, with a very light “edit for grammar and spelling/make sure things flow” brush), it’s usually been good enough that it does what I want it to: say what I feel and convey that feeling to each person who reads it. When it takes five or six tries, it often seems fragmented and divided to me, and consequently that’s part of the reaction I’ve gotten.

I’m not published to anywhere near the degree Chuck is, but I think that aspect of writing is fairly observable in my writing. Take a look at my GD post “I have a dream” in Poly’s Gay Teens thread (you’ll probably have to look for threads that had a response within the last two weeks) and my “Mortality; or, I Think I Just Grew Up” MPSIMS thread to read two recent examples of writing that just came out of me in one fell swoop (minus very light editing and the addition of a small explicatory paragraph in each). There is only one example I can think of where I wrote something in about ten edits and it turned out okay (my first response in Stoid’s “To all you Schmoes with fat dogs” thread in the Pit from a LONG time ago).

Conversely, if I read a piece and all I see are places where I messed up or need to do better or whatever, that’s a pretty good indicator to me that the piece isn’t all that good (though one of my biggest faults writing-wise is that, left to my own devices, I will edit and edit and edit a piece until it has seen more cutting than Michael Jackson’s nose).

I think a writer needs a bit of arrogance in order to write publishable work. After all, you have to think it’s good enough to try to convince someone to pay for it. Conversely, you have to have enough humility to realize that everything you write isn’t great, but editing it might make it so.

Some days I think I’m a wonderful writer. Other days I wonder who would ever bother to read the crap I write. What could they possible see in this that’s worth paying for? Usually both emotions happen on the same book. Several times.

I took a writing class in which one of the members, who didn’t even like to read, decided she could write a better young adult novel than what’s currently out there. She couldn’t. She was probably the worst writer I’ve ever had the misfortune to listen to. A writer’s workshop I was in had a woman who had published a cookbook or two and decided to write fiction. I’ve never heard anyone so completely deaf to good dialogue.

You need to have a pretty good sized ego just to decide to be a writer, but after a point you need what Chuck says: a editor paying you compliments or, better yet, money. (That’s known as a “zeugma,” kids. Don’t try that at home.)

Once you get the money or the compliments, I find, they tend to last. I haven’t published a story in over a decade (I’ve published two books in that time) but I have no doubt that the stories I’ve sent around the last couple of months will be taken by some magazine, the dozens of rejections I’ve gotten notwithstanding. Likewise, I’ve been trying to market a children’s book series that I think is absolutely brilliant, but which editors have taken great pains to assure me is not. Nonetheless, because I’ve had some success, I can go around thinking “These guys are flat-out wrong. I’ll keep trying.” Without the previous success, I’d be doubting myself around now.

I know that I have talent and that I can write, but I also know that everything I write requires a great deal of work - because I want it to be perfect. I’m primarily a screenwriter, have taken screenwriting classes, and was told by one teacher that I have a ‘flawless gift for dialogue’. Yeah, it’s pretty damn easy to let that go to my head, but I realize while dialogue comes easily to me, I MUST work on technique - plot, theme, etc. I know my weak spots because I read not only my own work, but the work of others, which allows me to look at my own stuff with a more objective eye.

I began writing a young adult novel last year that seems to be moving along sharply. While I can’t particularly judge how good it is simply because it’s outside of my normal genre, it feels good to me. But again, I also know that it needs a lot of work - I think that’s the mark of any good writer - to realize what needs work and to take the time and energy to do that work.


Yet another professional writer checking in, with about 20 years of professional experience. But unlike what most posters here seem to be, I write a lot of technical instructions, corporate stuff, and generally just things that never get any name (much less mine) on them.

How do I know I’m writing well? When my work gets accepted quickly. My clients know I can write and have been published–I had to show them a portfolio of work when I applied for the job–but they may not be sure that I can write their material. And most clients seem to think that their field is somehow unique or special or has some other quality that prevents anybody but an insider to write accurately and faithfully about it.

But if I can take their material and turn it into what they wanted quickly, then I’ve done my job. I’m a good writer, in their eyes.

It doesn’t always happen. I can think of one or two clients right now who would be happy to hear that I have given up writing and gone to work as a fry cook at McDonald’s. But they are outweighed by the many more clients who are happy to give me references, or (even better) who become repeat business.

In my opinion, when you can take something that nobody has been able to express before; and from it, create something that is accepted easily and quickly by those who commission it (and even better, causes their customers to compliment it as well), then you’ve written well. If it takes a lot of iterations and/or rejections, then perhaps it’s not what you think it is.

I think for me it was when the nice editor told me that he was sending a cheque.

There’s a process after that where you send letters explaining that the cheque hasn’t arrived yet, or this month, or the month after, nor has your contributor’s copy despite the fact that you’ve purchased the magazine with your piece in it at the newsstand already, and you’re seriously considering some form of legal action, but by then you’re pretty sure that it was a good piece.

Ask yourself, “If somebody else had written this, would I want to read it?”

Writing for money…this is a strange concept to me…I write to avoid reality.

I write because I like to and I’ll always write, whether it’s good or not. I would not mind it one little tiny bit if someone paid me to write., but if I never get published I’d still do it.

But I’d hate it if what I wrote was as cringe inducing as some of the things I’ve read. How would I know? I was just wondering how other writers self-assess.

I’m not a professional writer, I just write fan fiction… but I can tell you right off that self-assessment isn’t the way to go. You can never be really objective about your own work.

Writing-critique communities aren’t always the best option either-- you’re likely to run into people who won’t give you an honest opinion, either because they’re just in it to be mean, or to suck up to people.

If you have a friend who’s also a writer, and you trust each other enough to be honest with each other when it comes to constructive criticism, exchange stories and critique for each other. In fan fiction circles it’s called ‘beta-reading’ (like beta-testing for software) – having someone pre-read and de-bug the story so that you can make revisions before posting or publishing it.

Romances, huh? Hmmm… (want an extra male critical reviewer, by any chance?)

I haven’t written fiction since I was in my 20s, and haven’t written good fiction since I was in my teens. Being ponderously serious for the most part, I’m a lot better at nonfiction.

But I think that, either way, you just know. The Class A pieces are like gemstones, beautiful from a variety of different angles, independently, and the facets themselves interact to make a beautiful shape. (e.g., the metaphors you’ve been using all work and all revolve around a common chord or theme; the emotional tone of their relationship to the main text, whether semi-cynically making fun of yourself or flirting with the audience with double entendres or making grandiose gestures that echo our culture’s most powerful myths, are consistent, build upon each other, and conclude along with the plot or conclusion; the syntax and formatting and the formality or informality of the footnotes or ‘author’s interruptions’ or little vignettes fit well with the overall tone; etc) The Class B efforts may not have quite that rare feeling of perfection about them, but they succeed in doing what you set out to do in the main theme or plot while maintaining a consistent tone that meshes nicely with the point or plot premise in establishing the reader’s mood, without jarring distractions or elements that don’t play nicely with the others.

Then there are the ones that just don’t quite make it. Maybe they say everything you meant to say and make your points well; or develop the plot and resolve all the unanswered questions and reconcile all the characters’ motivational conflicts by the end of the book, but perhaps there are levels on which it started to work but which stop making sense and sort of fade out unsatisfyingly in mid-stream; or maybe you started out to skewer a perspective and have some nice tongue-in-cheek anecdotes embedded but the overall tone is strident and frantic and fervent, so you end up with humourous little stories ensconced in an otherwise humorless diatribe. Or you’ve reconciled a plot element by having a character suddenly exhibit a new personality that doesn’t fit or contradicts the implicit subtle character development you did before you decided to have the character do this thing to reconcile the plot. Whatever.

In each case, I think that unless you’re a little too close what you are writing about to see past your intentions to see the book, you know if it’s an A or a B or a C, if not when you’ve just finished the last page then at least within a few weeks.

I write for a living, but I’m really pretty bad at fiction. For years I was a reporter and now I write for educational television. But I’ll never forget a moment I had the first year out of college when I wrote for a business newspaper. The Moment had come when it was just me and the story. I’d thought about what I wanted to say a lot, how I thought the story should proceed. (It was about an old guy who worked for an airline and had been there for years; he remembered the days before World War II when he sold tickets, checked baggage and even held the lights for the pilot to see when the plane took off.) Anyway, as I sat down to write, the story just flowed. As Iampunha alluded to, it was almost like it was unconscious. My subconscious had been busy behind the scenes, assembling the components and all I did was let them flow out of my fingers and into the terminal.

That was almost 20 years ago, and it hasn’t always been that easy. Nowdays I have refined what I do much more; when you write for television I’ve found that you need to convey more in a few simple, well-chosen words. Wordiness when it’s spoken is more more apparent than when your work is read. I like it because I always liked headline-writing. You have to give the essense of the story is a few well-chosen, active words.

I have no idea if this is helpful at all. The main way I can tell if what I write is any good is if it pleases me, does what I meant it to do and people understand it and learn from it. Feedback from coworkers is also essential. I no longer have an editor as such, but I do live for the days when I’m told that what I write amazes people. Mainly I aim for clarity; wowin’ 'em is just gravy. :slight_smile:

While I won’t pretend to know all the ingredients that make up a good writer, I tend to think one of the cornerstones of good writing is a certain kind of implicit faith in the reader; you have to write for the people you know will get you, and you have to trust in the fact that those people are out there. You also have to realize that there are and always will be detractors, and worrying about them is counter-productive and rather pointless.

Giving yourself the liberty to turn a phrase on its head, twisting a sentence into a pun every now and then and generally playing around with your form of narration are great methods for stimulating your imagination and formulating a personal style. I’ve only recently started giving myself this freedom, and while I wouldn’t be quick to label myself an accomplished writer, I at least feel like I’m on the right path – more so, in any case, than I would were I still sitting on my thumbs writing flat descriptive prose, shivering at the thought of reaching out and being slapped on the wrist (or smacked upside the head, or whatever).

So yeah, going out there and really letting yourself be creative, for better or for worse. If you’re doing that (and you can always tell if you are), at least you’re on the right track.

"No one but … "

No, I suppose it’d be better if you look up the Samuel Johnson quote yourself. :wink:

I know I’m a good writer because I’m overly critical of my work :wink:

Of course, what I write isn’t exactly fiction, but it has to be well-written to work. If not, there will be problems.

While sometimes I can write something up quickly (in the sense that the first draft is quickly completed), I rewrite and edit repeatedly before I get to the final draft. By the time I am finished, the content of the final draft will usually not be too different from the first draft, but the form of the final draft will often be very different from the first draft.

My problem is rarely about getting the right idea on paper; it’s more about wording it correctly. However, through repeated revision I have become skilled at clarity of communication and maximizing readability.

…too bad I rarely use the skill when posting on message boards :stuck_out_tongue: