Why We’re So Bad at Knowing If Our Own Work Is Good Or Not

Are you a good writer? How do you know?

Are you a good writer?

You probably don’t feel like you know the answer to this question, at least from your own point of view. Maybe a few people here and there have said so. Maybe some of your published work has even confirmed it. But how do you, you know … KNOW?

There’s a reason we have such a hard time believing people when they say we’re good at what we do (or believing we’re good when no one says anything at all — which is a much more common dilemma). Well, there are multiple reasons. Including the fact that we just keep trying to compare our writing to everyone else’s all the time.

We’re constantly making unfair writing comparisons. You’ve done it before, and you will likely do it again. You read a book by your favorite author, for example, and before you’ve even fully processed the work as a whole you sit back and think, “Wow. That was so well-written. Why can’t I write anything as good as that?”

When you do this, you’re more often than not forgetting that the book you’ve just read has spent years — yes, YEARS — in various stages of development. It started out as a first draft on the writer’s computer. It likely went through multiple rounds of revisions before an agent or publisher got a hold of it. More revisions, rewrites, edits. Chances are, in many ways, it’s nothing like what it once was.

Let’s say you’re currently working on your own novel. Why doesn’t it seem like any of the paragraphs you write are “as good as” the ones you’re reading in books? Much of that comes from the simple fact that your writing, though it might be fundamentally well constructed, is raw and unpolished. It doesn’t feel like the final copy of a bestselling novel because it isn’t. It’s still a clumsy, confused toddler. It hasn’t grown up yet. It doesn’t know how to be anything other than a complete mess.

The truth? You can’t write good content as a beginner no matter how naturally writing might come to you. This doesn’t mean you can’t improve, that you can’t learn and grow and reach a professional skill level with years of practice. It simply means you can’t start out as a writer expecting to immediately excel. You won’t write as well as your favorite authors for a while, if at all. Comparing your work to theirs isn’t doing you any favors.

We rarely get the volume of feedback we think we need. You see it all the time. As soon as you put something you’ve written out in the world — whether it’s a novel or a simple series of blog posts only a few people have read — aspiring writers always seem to gravitate toward you almost instantly. “I’m working on this thing — would love if you could take a look at it.”

In other words: “Give me feedback. Please?”

I get it — and I don’t look down on writers who brave the uncertain terrors of the internet to reach out to fellow writers for help. I really only have one major issue with this practice, and it’s that writers — especially unpublished beginners — rely way too much on the assumption that they need feedback in order to advance their skills.

Don’t get me wrong: Feedback is extremely beneficial, and everyone needs some direction at some point. But you can’t rely on other people’s criticism or praise to judge whether or not your writing is improving. You have to do most if not all of that heavy lifting for yourself, especially in the beginning.

Why? Because the more time you spend waiting for people to tell you where to go from here, the less time you spend writing. And writing — actively sitting down and forcing words onto a page — is the most valuable way to learn. And honestly, probably the fastest, too.

We’re way too hard on ourselves. Writers are under a lot of pressure — this is the case with all creative professions. But it’s not just the external pressures that cloud the minds of the artfully ambitious. It’s also the pressures they force upon themselves.

Even when we aren’t actively pushing ourselves to exceed our own expectations, we talk ourselves down for not doing that — so often, in fact, that for many of us it’s almost considered normal at this point. We’ve somehow come to believe that the harder we work, the more successful we will be. And while that might be true in the long-term, so many of us take an unrealistic short-term approach and somehow expect it to work out in our favor. It often does not.

We can’t push ourselves so hard toward a goal of being a “good” writer that we take shortcuts, sacrifice our well-being, and expect unrealistic results to always appear at the finish line. It’s more than setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s priming you for burnout and, in the most extreme cases, setting you up to potentially walk away from the writing life forever.

If you don’t feel like you’re a “good enough” writer, you really need to sit down and ask yourself what “good enough” specifically means. It’s very possible the root of your frustration is that you’re not seeing the progress you want to see. Which is normal … because marking improvements in writing isn’t easy. You can look at a series of drawings and visually see that an artist has advanced in skill with each one. You can listen to a song played over a series of months and hear that a violinist has improved their technique from where they started.

You can’t easily read your own work and say, “Oh yeah. This is so much better than before.” You can to a point, I suppose. It’s time-consuming and not all too pleasant of an experience for many writers — many just choose not to read their own work. Do you have to? Not necessarily. Should you? Maybe every now and then, for the sole purpose of reflecting on how you’ve grown as a creator.

Be kind to yourself.

If you like what you’re working on, then keep liking it. Keep writing it. If it makes you feel fulfilled, there’s no reason to deprive yourself of that.

If you don’t like what you’re working on? Figure out why. Figure out how to change that. And then change it.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.

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4 thoughts on “Why We’re So Bad at Knowing If Our Own Work Is Good Or Not

  1. You’re very right in your advice not to compare our work to our favorite published authors because we don’t see the work that went into it. Take Jane Eyre, for example. An amazing book. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. Bronte’s first attempt at a novel was called The Professor and you should read it if you feel bad about your writing. Her writing improved dramatically by Jane Eyre. The greatest writers had to start from somewhere, and that starting point is usually not their masterpiece.

  2. I think writing is more of an art rather than something you are or are not “good enough” for. Obviously everyone can improve, and obviously as a beginner I would have miles to go. However if anyone wants to begin writing, they should go for it and work on improving.

  3. Thank you so much for the amazing advice! I’ve been creative writing for many years now and I still often compare myself to more experienced authors and their polished drafts! Thank you for the amazing blog post!

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