When we’re first starting to write, we often struggle with the learning curve. Human nature often leads us to assume we’re further along the curve than we really are, simply because we don’t know what all we don’t know.
That problem is a huge reason behind why I created the Writing Craft Master Lists of skills. I brainstormed a list for each phase of editing:
- content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues)
- line editing (fix scene and paragraph-level issues)
- copy editing (fix sentence, word, and grammar-level issues)
My hope is that with those lists, we’d have a better idea of where we are on the learning curve and know what skills to tackle next.
However, there’s more than just knowing skills that goes into what makes writing “good.” That gap between tangible skills and enjoyable stories means it’s always difficult to define what makes for good writing—especially when analyzing our own.
How Do We Define Good Writing?
Reviewers often point out typos, spelling, or grammar issues in books—and likewise mention when books are free of those types of errors—because those are relatively “easy” to list as evidence of a story’s quality one way or another.
Can we define “good” writing (and know whether ours is any good)? Click To TweetBut just as we know from self-editing or giving feedback on others’ writing, it’s not as easy to identify other writing elements, good or bad. We might be able say a character is compelling, but not point to what makes them so. We might feel a story is satisfying, but not know why. Etc., etc.
For this reason, we often talk about storytelling. The word storytelling is often used to cover all the indefinable elements that make for a page-turner, and phenomenal storytelling often comes down to elements we can’t quantify in others’ books—much less our own.
Does Storytelling Equal Good Writing?
How many of us have read books with so-so writing that we couldn’t put down? *raises hand* Many people point to Dan Brown’s novels or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books as examples of good storytelling and meh writing craft.
Good writing is about more than just the craft issues of avoiding typos or including sensory information or digging into deep point of view. Yet good writing is also more than just compelling storytelling.
What makes a story “good” is often all those elements—plus more—that add up to a story’s quality being more than the sum of its parts.
Can We Define Good Writing?
With all those indefinable elements, we might even decide it’s one of those “I know it when I see it” truisms. But that’s not quite true either.
We might be able to “know it when we see it” in others’ books, but most writers struggle to “know it” for their own books.
While some stories that are well-reviewed are easy to write, others are a touch-and-go nightmare, where we’re convinced it sucks the whole time. Or even if we like our story, we might be sick of it by publication time and thus have no distance to judge its merits.
In other words, we’re often the worst judges of our own work. So, for as difficult as it is to define good writing in general, the goal can become impossible when looking at our own writing. *smile*
Can We Even Tell Which Story Is Our Best?
Ask any author which story is their “best,” and they’re likely to stumble for an answer. Maybe they’ll quote reader opinions or instead answer the question of which was their favorite to write. Some might pick the book with the highest ratings on Amazon, and others might list their most current story in the hope they’re improving with each one.
Of course, subjectivity plays a role here too. Plenty of lists have been written debating which books are the best examples of a genre, and if we’re lucky, a few stories might show up fairly consistently. Or ask readers which Harry Potter book is “best,” and we’ll get several different answers. Best and good are both subjective.
Yet none of that stops us from wanting to know—beyond a shadow of a doubt—whether our writing is any good. We want to know how bad our worst story is and how good our best story is:
- Is our worst story still “good”?
- Is our best story still missing the mark?
Personal Tangent: Nope, I Can’t Tell Either…
I started thinking this past weekend about the blind spot we have for our writing when I got a phone call (yes, an actual phone call) from the Greater Detroit RWA chapter. Stone-Cold Heart is a finalist for the 2018 Booksellers’ Best Award, judged by librarians, and this is the story’s second final this year. Yay!
When I mentioned my final to my writing besties, they volunteered their opinions on Stone-Cold Heart:
“Congrats! I love all your books but I always felt like that was your best!”
“Congrats, Jami! I thought that was a great book. Your best!!”
My literal answer to their statements:
“Aww, thanks! I can’t tell anymore if they’re any good. LOL!”
Should I have known that not only was my story good enough to final in multiple contests but that it was my best yet? Ha!
Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad the story is resonating with readers and that I seem to be improving with experience!—but I don’t think I’ll ever have a good feel for my own writing quality. *smile*
Do We Need to Recognize Our Writing’s Quality?
Some might argue that it doesn’t matter what we think, only what readers think. But if we let our self-doubt and lack of recognition of our work’s quality stew and multiply together, we might hold ourselves back.
How can we tell if our writing is any good? Click To TweetIf we’re convinced our writing isn’t any good, we won’t query agents (much less our “dream” agent). We won’t submit our work to contests. We’ll be reticent to exchange work with critique partners or beta readers. We’ll struggle with the decision to self-publish. Etc., etc.
On the other hand, if we completely ignore the quality issue and send out work that’s not ready, we’ll query too early, waste money on contests, burn out beta readers or critique partners, or crash after self-publishing.
So yes, we do need to have a sense of our writing’s quality—both to prevent us from jumping the gun and to make sure we’re not holding ourselves back.
So How Can We Tell Whether We’re Any Good?
All that brings us back to the question of how we can tell if we’re any good. We might want a factual decision based on hard evidence to back up our hopes and dreams, but the most we can get is a sense of validation through feedback.
No matter the style of feedback we receive from beta readers, critique partners, contest judges, or agents or editors, we can learn a lot. We can get a fairly balanced picture of our writing if the feedback touches on both tangible craft issues and intangible storytelling issues.
- Does the feedback praise the lyrical quality of our writing but doesn’t mention our characters’ emotional journey?
- Does the feedback gush about our characters being so likable but not mention whether they felt personally connected to them through their voice, goals, or emotions/motivations?
- Does the feedback say they loved the story but were confused on a few plot twists?
- Does the feedback imply that they weren’t impressed by the writing, but they had to see how everything turned out anyway?
- Does the feedback give kudos for strong writing but confess they were bored by the story?
If we think about the tangible (lyrical writing, stated goals, plot twists, etc.) versus the intangible (how characters inspire through change, sense of connection to characters, urge to read on, etc.), we can probably think of dozens of examples along these lines. The point here is to take both aspects of writing “quality” into account when seeing how our skills add up.
There’s no such thing as hard factual proof when it comes to something so subjective. But with a balance of the type of feedback we pay attention to, we can get a good feel of whether we have a handle on both the writing craft skills and the storytelling skills. When we add those pieces together, we’re more likely to create stories better than their parts. *smile*
How do you define good writing? Does my explanation of craft and storytelling make sense and clarify or not? Do you have a sense of your writing quality, and if so, what creates that sense for you (internal feelings or external feedback or both)? If you don’t have a sense, does that affect how you approach your writing career? Do you have suggestions for how else we might get a feel for our writing quality?Pin It