How do you know if you are a “good” writer or not?
I used to ask myself this question a lot, much more so in the months leading up to my first full-time writing job offer when I was getting rejected and talked down to so often that I almost gave up and started looking for a “real” job.
I even asked a few people I trusted if they thought I was “good at writing” or not, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing “wrong” and needed some kind of external validation that I wasn’t completely out of line in believing someone might actually hire me to write words on their behalf at some point.
But there is a reason no one ever had a decent answer for me — at the very least, I understand, in full, the error of my ways many years later and won’t make a similar mistake again.
What does it mean to be “good” at something? You could ask a room full of people this question and get different answers from just about every single one of them. But the reason we are so bad at judging our own skill and worth is because we’re just universally bad at judging ourselves. You almost always aim either too high or too low in either direction, and well, that’s not helpful at all, is it?
Even less helpful is the expectation that “good enough” — as in, will I ever be good enough at writing to get published? — actually means something, or that it means something simple. It doesn’t. Not really.
A co-worker recently shared an article in our team chat and said something along the lines of: “This is a great article, everyone should read it.” Others began to chime in with their responses: “It’s so well-written!” “This writer is so good!” “I had such a great time reading this!”
And that made me wonder: What is it that makes a writer and their work “good enough” to reach that level of universal goodness among an audience? So I read the article. And without actually understanding exactly WHY it was so good, I, too, understood that it very much was.
There really is no standard criteria that makes a piece of writing “good” — at least in the sense that something must check a specific number of boxes before it can qualify for such a category.
When you look at and read a piece of writing, you know whether or not it’s good. But you don’t necessarily know exactly what qualifies it was “good” or “not good.” At least, not at first. With enough careful study, you can figure out what clicks or what doesn’t.
But you still don’t know if that one piece of writing defines the author’s work as a whole. Everyone has hits and misses, even the Kings and Rowlings of the world. Just because one piece falls flat doesn’t mean the writer’s entire body of work will merit the same exact result.
There’s another issue, too: The matter of opinion. The reason it’s often tough to judge something as “good” or “bad” is because opinions exist, and opinions — contrary to what the most toxic corners of the internet seem to think — are neither right nor wrong. They are simply varied. Your favorite book, the one you believe is the best written of its time and kind, might be — to someone else — the most poorly executed story that has ever come to be.
So when we ask ourselves if we and our writing are “good enough,” what answers are we really searching for? It’s likely that what we want more than anything else is to be in the right place at the right time, to find the one agent or editor or representative who believes our work is good, and so they give it the chance it needs to grow.
Because what makes a “good” story is a combination of many different ingredients. This is why you can’t just set something you write in front of someone and ask them to tell you if it’s good or not. Well, you can, but you can’t expect a solid answer with such a vague request.
What kind of critique are you specifically looking for? Some might ask: What are the possible weaknesses you want pointed out (assuming you are aware of these things)?
The best writers are mostly good at every element that qualifies a piece of writing as “good.” They have strong, believable dialogue. Dynamic characters that walk on and off the pages. Emotional connections that cause real-time reactions. Sentences that flow smoothly from one to the other, with structures that vary to create prose that reads the way prose is supposed to read.
As a writer — ESPECIALLY as an aspiring writer who is, in the grand scheme of things, still figuring out the basics — you aren’t going to do everything well. It’s impossible. No one is born knowing the craft of a master storyteller. You have to learn. And along the way you have to learn what you’re naturally good at (there may be one or two things you just pick up quickly, like dialogue) and what you’ve come to improve upon, as well as what you’re still not great at. You have to be aware of all these things so that you know what to focus on in order to take otherwise mediocre stories and make them better.
In a nutshell? “Good enough” is going to mean something different for every single writer and their work depending on what they are writing, who they are writing it for, and the purpose or intent of publishing it. What you’re really wanting to know is if you have what it takes to GET good enough. And that answer depends entirely on whether or not you are willing or able to put in the work to get the results you really want.
To be good enough is to be as skilled and dedicated and comitted as you need to be in order to get exactly where you want to go. So really, no one else can answer this question on your behalf. An expert in your industry might be able to hand you a list of general qualifications. And we can make bullet point lists of what makes a story a good story that go on and on basically forever.
But at the end of the day, it’s up to you to define what things like “good” and “success” mean to you as well as how you are going to achieve these specific things. People don’t like answers like this because finding their own answers is more challenging and less certain. Ha! Welcome to the writing life, where nothing is ever certain and challenges are here to greet you at every turn.
Those who have the courage and drive to face these kinds of challenges and uncertainties are the ones who will define and find their own versions of success. Will you be one of them?
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.