Q: Is my writing good? How can I tell?
A: You can’t.
There are many answers to this question, and I’ll get to them in a minute. But the best news is you’re asking it, which means you’ve written. So hooray for you!
Too many people get hung up about even starting to write. The pens and office supplies need to be arrayed just so, the room soundproofed, the children—just to be on the safe side—muzzled in their rooms. Ridiculous!
So you’ve written. Congratulations! And if you’d like to develop the discipline of writing every day, please check out this little end-of-year challenge I’ve put together to benefit charity.
But is your writing good? How can you tell? The answer depends on when you’re asking.
If you’re re-reading something immediately after you’ve written it, then see my answer above. You can’t tell if it’s any good because you’re too close to it.
When I’m writing for clients I always try to arrange deadlines so I can write, go away and live my life for a while (maybe even sleep on it), and then come back to review and tinker.
When you’re writing for yourself, you’re more wrapped up in the material. I know it’s so hard to wait. You’re like a little kid who can’t wait for her birthday cake to cool enough to put the frosting on. You put in all those yummy ingredients; you want to taste (or read) the finished product.
If you judge your work too soon, you’ll invariably get it wrong. You’ll rework perfectly good sentences and turn them into dreck. You’ll decide that the call-to-action sounds annoyingly enthusiastic and really has to go. No! You’re just tired of working on this piece. Take a walk, take a break. The cake will be so much better later.
How long a break you need depends on how long you’ve been working on the piece. A novel you’ve been wrestling with for a year requires a little more distance than that op-ed you’ve been working on all day. For the former, take a vacation; for the latter, take a night off. The newsletter you banged out in an hour? Take a walk.
Good writing emerges on reflection
Putting some time and space between you and your writing will help you get some perspective on your work. But it’s still just you and the words. If you have a way to share your work with a trusted colleague or a writer whose work you think is better than yours, you might want to do that. Maybe you can find a writer’s group to join.
The best advice I ever got about critiquing other people’s work came from my college Playwrighting teacher, the inimitable Len Berkman. On the first day of class, Len reminded us that we weren’t there to talk about the play we would have written, given the characters and scene we were reviewing. Our job was to talk about the play before us, the play our classmate had written.
If the person you ask for advice doesn’t understand the distinction, say “thank you very much” and move on. Life is too short to have people tromp on your creativity.
That said, be open to constructive criticism. If someone says, “I think you might grab the reader’s attention faster if you open with a discussion of the program at work, rather than starting with how you designed the program,” that’s a thoughtful critique. Something for you to consider.
If you’re aiming to self-publish your work, absolutely run it by a professional writer or editor, who can tell you if the structure of the book makes sense and help you tighten up the writing. And when it’s closer to publication, a copy-editor (someone who checks for grammatical errors and typos).
Most people use self-published books as a calling card to get in the door for opportunities. Or they’ll sell the books after speaking engagements. You wouldn’t show up to a speaking engagement with coffee all over your shirt—but you’ll make an equally bad impression by showing up with a book full of typos and poor writing.
Is your writing good? If you feel it is, that’s half the battle. And—again—it’s awesome that you’re even writing to begin with! But share it with a trusted colleague or a professional advisor and be willing to accept constructive criticism. Your writing may be good—but I bet it could be even better.