Brace yourself, friend — I’ve got some strong opinions on this topic.
I believe all writers want to know the answer to this question: is my writing any good? And how would I know?
The truth is, of course, that art is subjective and one person’s brilliant literature is another person’s impenetrable doorstop. However, when I think about what I’ve learned over the years from my own mentors, as well as what I’ve learned from working with my students, I can absolutely see a few obvious ways to tell if a writer’s work is going to be any good, even before I open the file and read it.
Yep, it’s true: these factors are that important.
And of course we all deal with a mixed reality. Some days we have faith in our writing, and some days not. Doubt creeps in and whispers in our ear and we tend to feel like we’re being bombarded by too many voices — voices that get in the way of being able to stand up for our own work.
But I also believe that anyone who truly wants to write well, absolutely can. Here are 6 tips to help you understand how to tell if your writing is (or can be) really good.
Is My Writing Any Good? 6 Tips To Help You Answer This Question
Tip #1: You Read
I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t also a reader, but I hear it’s a thing out in writing workshop land. The excuse used by writers who don’t/won’t read is that they want to keep their voice “pure” and not be influenced by the work of others.
Friend, that won’t work. When we don’t read, we lose touch with what’s happening in contemporary writing. And it’s contemporary writing that our work needs to be in conversation with…I love Jane Austen and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as much as the next writer, but sadly they’re not going to be publishing new books any time soon.
In my First Book Finish course, I recommend that writers prepare a project reading list — a list of books you can look to specifically for inspiration on aspects of craft that are important in your current work-in-progress.
If you’re not reading the work of contemporary writers in your genre(s), you’re not part of the ongoing conversation about literature and your writing is happening in a vacuum.
But mostly, I worry that writers who don’t read are too self-absorbed to be able to have the observational skills required to be good writers. Harsh? Possibly. But if you’re not reading, where are you getting inspiration? How are you developing an understanding of what’s now possible in writing that wasn’t possible just a few years ago? And why would you even want to bother creating a story to live in a world you don’t pay any attention to?
You can try and talk me out of this, but I’ll always believe that reading is an essential part of writing. If you tell me you’re not reading, I know the odds are really high that your own writing is not stretching
Tip #2: You’re Cliché-Aware
The first draft of anything is rife with clichés. I think we have to clear out the clutter from the culture we swim in before we can get to anything fresh, so I don’t expect a first draft to be anything but a completely cliché-ridden mess. (I have to remind myself of that pretty much every single time I sit down to write, but it’s true.)
Clichés happen. The trick is to identify them so you can clear them out in your later drafts. If you can recognize a cliché when you write one, you’re definitely able to write well now, and you can get even better from here.
Tip #3: You Love Images
The more specific you can be in your descriptions, the better. Help your readers picture the world of your story (or poem) clearly so they don’t have to guess what’s really happening and can feel fully engaged.
Even a poem or essay that waxes philosophical needs the clarity of specific images to get its point across and have an emotional impact. (Mary Oliver is my best teacher here, with her poem Wild Geese — she's making an existential point about the nature of human life, but roots her point in the image of wild geese so our minds have a clear image to grasp.)
Tip #4: Your Verbs Crunch
Verbs kick writing into overdrive. (Wait, is that a cliché? Let me try again…) Verbs jolt life into language and help your readers feel the full kick of your sentences.
There's a time and place to do this, but when you're at this stage in your revision, I advise going line-by-line to check if your verbs are alive and active and doing the job they're intended to do.
Tip #5: You’re Open to Feedback
You can’t improve your writing without feedback. If you’re not willing to expose yourself to feedback during the revision process, how are you going to feel when your work is published and out there in the world for everyone to read?
Good writing isn’t possible until after the messy first draft is finished, but then we rely on feedback to know where to tweak, fix or [ahem] completely rewrite our draft to get to the good.
Tip #6: You’re Willing to Learn
Of course, once you have feedback, you have to be willing to listen. If you’re shuttered up tight against criticism, you can’t hear what someone is saying about how your writing can be even better. And you’ll miss out on the exhilaration that comes from growing as an artist, and as a human being. If you want your writing to be good, constantly learning about the writing craft is what it takes.
At some level, I believe that if you've read all the way to the end of a blog post entitled “Is My Writing Any Good? How to Tell” then there's a good chance your writing is good OR that you have the interest and commitment to make it better.
It's a complete fallacy — but a common one — that all the talented writers turn out amazing first drafts. We all start with a messy first draft and then get better from there. The real question isn't if your writing is any good, it's whether you're willing to do what it takes to make it better.