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May 15, 2018

Recognizing Quality Writing: Can We Tell If We’re Any Good?

Stucco crumbling off brick wall with text: Is Our Writing Any Good?

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:

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?

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Bran Ayres

I definitely struggle with this. Intellectually, I know I am a good writer (except for setting, I suck at setting and commas). I also know I’m good at creating well-rounded characters. This doesn’t stop me from feeling like my stories are lacking.

As for good writing, it’s anything that keeps me invested in the characters. I’ve read plenty of really questionable writing that still kept my rapt attention because they were able to make me really care about what happened to the characters.

One way I tell if my writing is decent is, do I enjoy going back and re-reading it? Do I get lost in the story and characters again or do skip around and cringe at it? I write these stories for me first, if I can’t enjoy them, then why would anyone else?

Sieran Lane

Hey Jami, Oh, I don’t really see my work as “good” or “bad” anymore. Instead, I would see that my story is better on some aspects, and not so good on others. I can also rate things on scales. For example, from a scale of 0 to 10, how much am I enjoying this couple’s romance? For R and K (the first letters of my characters’ names), I’m giving it a 7 out of 10, since I find it intriguing for the most part, frustrating (why is K so stubborn?), but also a bit addictive. I knocked off some points because there are some things about the couple that are less ideal…not as ideal as you would expect a couple in the romance genre to be. Okay, for my other main couple, T and P, my enjoyment of their romance is currently 3-4 out of 10. They are sweet, cute, but I find them a bit boring. However, some mystery/ unhappiness is starting to emerge, so my rating on the scale is moving up for them. Different people may rate the same skill differently. For instance, I adore the writing in one of my stories, because it’s (imo) lyrical and full of metaphors. Yet, a reader of mine thinks the writing is too heavy; she prefers the much simpler writing style in most of my other stories. As another example, I wasn’t happy with how little setting description I had in one of my books. But interestingly, all of the…  — Read More »

Deborah Makarios

I think my standard for good writing is that it enriches the story without distracting from it by drawing attention to its own amazingness. But possibly this is because my tastes do not lean to the literary end of the spectrum. I’m looking for a compelling story, not exquisite word art.

Roland R Clarke

I hesitate from sending my work out to even beta readers as I feel that there are things missing/wrong/unclear when I read through each draft. So much so that I’ve resorted to writing backstory short stories – that may never be read. One published book with mixed reviews has weighed on me.

Elizabeth Randolph

I think this is a good question. For some reason, I do know how good my stories are. They are in the right ballpark but could get better. I just know. When I started they were only medium. I went out and found advice for improving them. And, I did improve them.

When I tried to be an artist, I had no idea if anything was any good or whether I was even done. I was totally dependent on others telling me what they thought. Doing art drove me up the wall.

When I’m doing art, I’m the crazy artist, happy one moment, in the depth of despair the next. When I’m writing stories, I’m the calm and happy author, having a good time. Guess what I prefer doing? (I still do some art, but it’s not central to my life.)

I tend to look at this question as related to knowing what is written on one’s soul. It’s not always easy to know.

McKenna Dean

This is a huge problem for me at the moment. I used to think of myself as a decent storyteller, but I keep setting the bar higher and higher. Now it feels like I’ve lost the threads of how to spin a good yarn. I’m convinced everything I’m turning out is utter crap, even though my critique group assures me otherwise. The fear that I’ve ‘lost it’ is pervasive, when the truth of the matter is like anything else: each level you attain is progressively (sometimes exponentially) harder than the last. It’s one thing to know this intellectually, and another to accept it, however. Especially when you read a really fabulous story and you know you’re not in the same league at all.

Elizabeth Randolph

I understand. Not all the advice out there is good for you. Some can actually destroy your joy in writing. Beware! Jami has a few good blogs on this. A couple of her blogs rescued me when I was sure I could not write since I did not write like the advice I was reading. It’s OK. We don’t all write the same way. We don’t all have the same talents. For instance, I will never be able to do smart repartee. I have other things I can do– some much better than what I read from others. But, mostly, go back to basics. Do you enjoy writing? If so, you cannot help but get better over time. Being able to write a story is the most important part. Then, learning how to present it is simply learning the mechanics. You can do it.

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[…] William Kenower shows how re-evaluating your writing goals can help you achieve success, Drew Chial writes on writer’s block and maladaptive daydreaming, and Jami Gold asks: how can you tell if your own writing is any good? […]

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