What does a “good” story look like?
You probably know the difference between a story of high professional quality and one that’s so-so at best. But you might not always be able to put into words exactly what those differences are. Is it the writing quality itself? The story? The emotional relatability? All of the above? Something else?
Yes, there are very specific guidelines that technically lay out all the things a “good” story should have. But sometimes even when a writer follows this outline point by point, a story can be good … but not good “enough”?
Here lies the dilemma we all face but don’t often consciously consider: Even if you end up writing a good story — and you know it checks off all the boxes — how do you know if it’s actually good enough to publish?
Every writer wants to be considered good at what they do. Even the writers who do most of their creative expression for fun (which is, for the record, totally fine and still counts as “real” writing!). When we love doing or making something, we also crave praise for it, even in the smallest sense of the term.
Sometimes all we want is a simple: “Good job, kid. Keep up the good work.”
The problem arises when you get to a point where you’re trying to figure out if you’re good enough at what you do to “make it.” This could mean getting stories published in a magazine or anthology, getting a book deal, becoming a full-time, fully financially supported blogger … these days, the possibilities for writers are pretty much limitless.
How do you know if what you’re doing is of the quality necessary to make you successful in whatever capacity that might mean for you specifically? Is it even possible to know? What if there are answers but no one is telling you what those answers are and so you’re left totally clueless and helpless and you’ll never reach your goals??
Anxiety. Self-doubt. Low confidence. Frustration. Discouragement. These are where all the “what ifs” reside. But not just the what ifs. Also the “why not mes.” The “Why haven’t Is.” The “I should have accomplished this thing by nows.”
We worry. It’s what we do. But sometimes we worry so much that writing becomes difficult, if not impossible. And it probably goes without saying at this point that you’ll never get anywhere close to where you want to be in your writing life if you, you know … don’t write.
It’s one thing to be concerned about your future as a writer enough to put together a plan for how you’re going to work harder (or smarter) and follow through with it. It’s another thing entirely to overthink every word you compose, to the point where you can barely even remember why you started trying to write at all.
What is “good enough”? It’s an imaginary destination that requires comparing ourselves to other writers, putting ourselves down for our mistakes, and wondering if every step forward we’re taking is even a step in the appropriate direction.
You can’t let yourself worry about your story being “good enough” when you don’t even know what “good enough” means. And here’s another puzzling question: What DOES “good enough” mean in the chaotic world of publishing? Is there a single definition, a metric?
Stories get rejected for too many reasons to count. Often it has nothing to do with the quality of the writing itself. As an editor, I’ve rejected some great pieces of writing that honestly just shouldn’t have been submitted to our specific publication — they didn’t fit. They were, technically, not “good enough” in the sense that they weren’t what we were looking for.
Sometimes it’s clear you’ve written something good, but that it wasn’t your best. Or — and this might be the most frustrating of them all — you wrote a masterpiece that is worthy of all the recognition and praise, but someone just happened to write something better, or more timely, or braver or bolder or more “in your face” than you.
That doesn’t mean you weren’t good enough. It just means another writer’s “good” just so happened to be better than whatever “good” you gave today.
It’s not always fair. It doesn’t always make sense. But it’s the weird way this industry works. Everyone is minding their own business going at their own pace, doing their own thing, and with everyone at different general levels of Awesome, sometimes even the best writers get left behind.
This is why a lot of success in writing depends on luck. Again, it’s not fair. It’s just one of those things you have to agree to deal with when you commit to this whole writing thing.
With every missed or failed opportunity should come a desire to continue writing in a way that is meaningful to you. Because at the end of the day, if you’ve written and/or published something you are proud of, then you did your best, and your best is always worthy.
Let’s stop striving for “good enough” and reach for something we can actually grab hold of. Don’t write a good story. Write a story that speaks a truth no one is saying, or that says it in a unique way. Don’t write a story that a publisher will want to buy. Write a story that allows readers to connect to its pages. Don’t write a story that is “as good as” [insert your favorite book, series or franchise here]. Write a story that means something to you, that changes the way you think, that has the potential to make a real difference.
Is good quality writing important? Of course it is. But if you let yourself get too caught up in trying to achieve an undefinable standard of “quality” you’re going to wear yourself out trying too hard.
For now, as you’re working your way through your first drafts and first blog posts and first proposals and first rejections (whatever your current first might be), focus on writing things that speak to you and move you and call to you in a way that makes you want to share them. That is how we make good things. We start with what we know and what we love and what matters to us. And in sharing those things we find people who also know and love and care about these same things. And we form a community around them.
And no matter how big or small that community becomes, it revolves around this thing you adore. As a writer, that counts as a success — as “good enough” — don’t you think?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.