Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How Do You Know?

I'm waxing philosophical today. Lots of people write. Like, tons. And there are so many people out there who think they are publishable. As we all saw on Nathan Brandsford's blog, most writers think they are above the curve. And even if they don't, they still write. Lots of people also talk about why they write—the drive, that's who they are, they love it, they want to be published, etc. But I have a different question, though it seems to be in a similar vein.

How do you know you have writing skills?

Really, with so many styles and genres and so-called tastes out there, how do any of us know if we are good writers or not? We all think we're capable of writing a good book. What's the measuring stick you use on yourself?

Do you base your skill level on other people's opinions? Like, since your critique group or family like your work, you have faith that you have some talent. Or do those four stars on Amazon deem you as a four star writer?

Is this why we all seek publication? Is that was finally deems you as a skilled writer? But then so many people complain that published work is "sub par." Seems a tad contradictory.

Or do you base your level of skill on how accurate your punctuation and grammar is? The better you are at the technical stuff, the better the book? I'm not so sure.

Maybe it's something less tangible? Like the ability to observe life, to imagine, to make sense of all the nonsense and put it in words that makes a good writer. The ability to entertain, perhaps?

I personally claim to have some skill in writing, but I have no idea why I think that. All I know is that I love to write and I get better everyday. Maybe someday I'll figure out why I think I'm any good.


  1. It makes me feel hopeful when I get positive comments from blog readers or on AW. That's what makes me feel like I have promise.

    On NB's survey, I actually put that I don't think I'm better than most writers. I know I have a crapload to learn. But I also think that's what makes me promising. The fact that I know I DON'T know everything, but I'm willing to learn and grow.

  2. Hmmm! That's the $64,000 question isn't it? The best stuff I've read hasn't been the cleverest or the most technically correct, it's the writing that's made an emotional connection with me.

    Good writing should feel smooth. Even when it's scary and horrifying I want the imagery and the story to flow. When writers try to be too clever it just interferes with (to borrow from Whirl) the movie reel.

    Whether I'm capable of this or not, I simply don't know. In the end that's for others to judge.

  3. Big ditto to Janey's comments. To me, good writing means writing that evokes emotion from the reader. This is actually a theory I have been developing for a while.

    Have you noticed that some writing can be totally spot on technically, and even include nice language, metaphor, and stuff, and yet you feel nothing? I think the ability to make the reader feel is the dividing line between good and just okay.

    In fact, I am going to go out on a limb and say that the ability to evoke emotion in a reader is one of those things that you kind of either have or don't. Sure, you can learn to write well with practice, but that extra something, that ability to evoke emotion, is ever elusive.

    Now, do I think I have that skill, and am therefore a good writer? Alas, I don't know. I genuinely don't. I'd love to think that I do, but I really can't say for sure. I mean, every writer feels emotion when they write. I get way into the emotions of my story. But, do I have the skill to make those come through to the reader? Don't know.

  4. One of the happiest moments I've experienced as a writer was when one of my friends read my trilogy and cried. That moment validated me so much I still think on it with a smile even though I now consider that trilogy to be rather, um, "below par." Emotion is definitely a big part of it.

    But I think it comes down to your gut -- you just KNOW when you you're a good writer. You can feel when you've written something truly breathtaking or when you've written something revolting. And you can feel, after you've finished a novel, if that novel is truly good or still needs tweaking. We're an intuitive lot (generally speaking, of course).

  5. Jill, I feel the exact same way. I'm not great, but I sure work hard.

    And to all you awesome people. Emotion—duh. I'm blind. That makes great sense. Books I love are ones that make me feel something. How do you do that? Who knows, but that is definitely a mark of good writing.

  6. I think someone could write a whole book on this question (but then they's have to query and try and get an agent who'd then have to try and find a publisher...). This really is a tough question because it is so subjective. I personally feel like a good writer when I can create something that someone else will enjoy, even if it's just my sisters. As far as getting published goes, well that's a bit tougher. I think a decent writer will eventually get a least one book published if they are super persistent. But it may take years.

  7. I agree with Janey and others. The writing has to make some sort of connection with me. Emotion...

    I love a cleverly turned phrase though. Especially when if flows in seamlessly with the whole. Now that takes great skill.

    I still have a long way to go, but I'm learning and editing.

  8. To answer your original question: How do I know whether I'm a good writer?

    I think I do base it on other's opinions, primarily because I don't trust my own opinion of my work. Every once in a while, I read something I wrote and say, "Wow, that's good! Did I write that?" But most of the time I'm just telling a story and I have to wait to see how people react to it.

    With more experience, I'm sure I'll know what's good and bad, even in my own work. Until then, I think when I get published, then I'll be able to believe I'm a good writer.

    Or at least decent.

  9. I'm feeling succinct this evening and will just say that I've asked myself the same question a billion times and come to the conclusion that if I can sit down with my book and enjoy it from start to finish, I'm good to go. I'm a very picky reader.

  10. I can't do emotion to save my life. Maybe I'm a cyborg too.

  11. Positive comments are helpful, the more so when the commenter is basing his or her opinions on criteria similar to those I would use.

  12. I'm new to fiction writing, so it's safe to say that I'm really terrible at the moment... not good at all.

    But my work-related writing (mostly grant writing for nonprofits) solicited many compliments from professionals I respected... especially about the client stories I used to evoke emotion in potential funders.... Those complements gave me the confidence to keep writing, though the one skill may not translate to fiction writing.

    So I dido emotion, and complements from people whose opinion I respect (love my sister but she would like anything I put in front of her)...

  13. Natalie,

    From what I've seen, you are a good writer. But, as Nathan points out, good writers don't always get published.

    I think most of us want to get published as a form of validation. There's a larger need,too, and that's just to connect with someone in some meaningful way. We have feelings, emotions, frustrations and joy in our lives. As writers, we have a medium to express all of those things, to get it all out. It's cathardic.

    Let's not lose sight of the fact that writing is a form of art and it is subjective to a large degree. Peoples likes and dislikes vary greatly. To many, John Updike was a brilliant writer. To others he was a hack. It's that way for every writer.

    I'd also like to point out that one can be a competent writer in one form and incompetent in another. I worked as a print news reporter for many years. I am good at journalistic style writing. I, however, am not yet a good writer of fiction.

  14. i wonder the same thing, natalie. and i've yet to come upon a satisfactory answer. i guess if my book sells well, i'd know. (even then, i can call it a fluke!) but i had to believe deep down to finish writing, to query, to go on submission...it's a challenge every step of the way.

    i do know for certain that we keep improving the more we write, so you are doing everything right!

  15. Ditto to your last paragraph.

    As John August (noted screenwriter) says, though, writing is not a zero-sum profession. There can be lots of good writers and (for the most part) they won't prevent other good writers from succeeding. There are infinite stories to write, and a lot of readers to read them. So we don't need to compete with anyone else; we can just compete with ourselves to constantly get better.