Assessing Your Writing – How Do You Know When It’s Good?

As writers, we ask ourselves this question at one time or another: How can I tell if my work is good?

This is the wrong question. The right question is, “How can I tell if my work is good enough to accomplish my goal?” And that, of course, depends on what your goal is.

If your goal is to sell a novel to a Big Six publisher, you’re going to have a very different standard than if your goal is simply to entertain a small audience on the Internet, or even if your goal is simply to finish NaNoWriMo.

If you’re writing a novel with the goal of finding an established publisher, then the novel only has to be able to impress at least one editor enough that she is willing to give you a contract.

So how can you tell if it’s good enough for that to happen?

Submitting the novel to every publisher under the sun is one way, but that’s insanely time-consuming (typically publishers do not tolerate simultaneous submissions, that is, manuscripts sent to more than one publisher at a time). And just because twenty publishers rejected a manuscript doesn’t mean that the twenty-first won’t buy it; but it could also mean that no publisher on Earth would buy it.

The screenwriter Charles Pogue (The FlyD.O.A., Dragonheart) has said that a professional writer should be able to tell when his or her own work is up to a professional standard. That may be true for established writers (or at least, more likely for established writers), but newer writers simply don’t have the experience to know if they’re doing it right or not.

The best avenue for new writers—and it’s not a great one, because there is no easy path for new writers—is to get feedback from other writers who are in the same boat. That way, it’s an even exchange. You get your manuscript read and critiqued, and you do the same for someone else. This still isn’t perfect, because even established writers can’t always predict whether something is good enough to sell, and new writers have even less experience.

So what’s the answer?

Write. Gain experience. Get feedback from whoever you can. Even if it’s your sweet Aunt Martha, you still might get some useful feedback from her, when she says (for example) that the scene where the hero fights the Zorblaxian shadow monster was a little confusing.

It takes years to get good at any creative discipline; the most important thing is persistence. Some writers keep at it for years and still don’t get anywhere; but the writers who give up are guaranteed to fail.

So what do you do to make sure your work is as good as possible?

Benjamin Clayborne would find it splendid if you were to peruse his blog, or to check out his story Chalice and Knives on Amazon.

Benjamin Clayborne is an author of fantasy fiction (and occasionally science fiction) who lives in Los Angeles with his family. He enjoys reading, writing, long walks on the beach, arguing on the Internet, and referring to himself in the third person. He hopes you enjoy his writing, but his ego is strong enough to survive it if you don't.

17 Responses to Assessing Your Writing – How Do You Know When It’s Good?

  1. Hello Ciara:
    I know exactly what you mean when you have a good piece of writing and then someone else does not see how good that it is. I have had a lot of people read some of my stuff and the words great and awesome are right there all of the time , but once in awhile , someone is not impressed and then that confusion comes into play. But a great writer knows when his work is great as he can see it right there on the screen and it just has it all in place.
    My name is:  Ben King

  2. I don’t know that a writer ever really knows or accepts that his writing is good. We are our own worst enemies, especially when it comes to our creative products. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a work of fiction, a dance or a painting, we are our harshest critics.

  3. Well, as they say, practice makes perfect. I think just writing is one of the best things you can do to get started. After all, if you don’t write, you won’t gain the experience you need to advance to the next level. I think the idea of peer review is a good one too. After all, you won’t know if you’re any good at all until someone starts to give you critique. 

  4. Let some readers see your manuscript, those that read your genre for fun.  Those people will tell you if it’s good, if it kept their attention, or if it sucked them into the fictional world as it is supposed to do. 

  5. I have this story that i’m writing its based on my life now but when I’m in my home town it’s really good and i know it is but i don’t know if i can publish it like online to get people to read it and i really think they will like so far it’s 6 pages hand written. I would like some feed back help me please.

  6. It’s also important to note that your Alpha/Beta readers need to be above your writing level in order for you to benefit from their critiques/feedback. If they’re “in the same boat” (meaning they’re also uncertain of what makes publishable material), then how can you expect them to provide helpful insight? They won’t know any better than you. So find Beta readers who do know.

    I’d also add that agents are a good reference to judge the quality of your work. Agents are, essentially, the middle men who sift through what would have been a publisher’s “slush pile” of manuscripts. They know what publishers want, (and they do, actually, solicit multiple publishers at once and hold auctions…selling to the highest bidder. So I don’t agree with the advice not to solicit multiple publishers). 

    If the agent returns a rejection slip with a note encouraging you to edit the story…then you know it’s almost ready by publication standards. If the rejection slip comes back with a curt reply (or no reply), then you have your work cut out for you because it’s not ready.

    Another way to tell if your story is good enough is to put it away for a month or longer after you finished writing it. The goal is to forget even the smallest details of your story so that when you go back to re-read it, you’ll read it with a fresh eye. If you’re not impressed with your writing at this point, then you can assume it’s not ready for publishing.

    Comparing it to published works in the same genre will also set a benchmark in terms of quality that you need to at least meet.

    Sorry so verbose but I wanted to add some things that readers find useful. Good luck.

  7. This was very helpful and I am just getting started looking into writing a book of my own. I want to start with something more fantasy before I try writing about my own life.

  8. I have two writer’s groups, a bunch of beta readers and an editor friend. The editor friend gives me the best feedback, but of course one doesn’t like to presume all the time. Beta readers and  critique groups can be good, but of course you are left with the dilemma of what to do when they disagree – writer A thinks it’s crap and writer B thinks it’s awesome. This can leave a writer feeling more confused than anything. Also, the membership can vary, and writers of a lower standard may offer less helpful feedback, as do writers with different subjective preferences. There is also the risk of having other members try to edit out your own voice or suggest rewrites that fit their voice.

  9. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. How do you know when your writing is up to snuff? Read other books in your genre. Then read your book. If reading your own book is like dragging your nails along a chalk board, you’re not ready. If you find yourself editing as you read, it’s not ready. If you cringe repeatedly at the things your characters say or do, it’s not ready. You should know when it is and isn’t ready and the best way for a writer to do that without having to ask for feedback from others, is by comparison. 

    • There’s a problem with this, though: Writers tend to be so close to their own material that it’s difficult to judge it objectively. Even if you put it in the (metaphorical) drawer for a few weeks, it’s still yours when all is said and done.

      Giving yourself some distance certainly helps (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reread something I wrote and realized it makes no sense), but seeking outside perspectives can much more easily make obvious the flaws in our writing.

      • Hi Benjamin. I disagree. I wrote a book and even queried it and then sat it aside and wrote two other books and when I pulled out the book I had queried, Oh my gosh! Now I’m going back through it and doing some editing. I’m not rewriting because the story is there, it’s just that I have learned so much since I first wrote it. 

    •  Except sometimes I do this with published woks as well…. Getting published isn’t always an objective standard of good. The Sara Douglass book I’ve been reading all year is an example. OK, it’s hard to say I’m reading it anymore, it just still has a bookmark in it…

  10. This is something that I’ve struggled with personally. In my field the right answer is that your writing is good when it pays. Then again, I am an advertising copywriter. I think all too often that writers get hung up on ideas instead of actually writing. That in many cases will make your writing good enough in time. Writers write.

    That’s my humble opinion in any case. I’m definitely a member of the church of persistence.

  11. I believe reading other stories with similar plotlines and finding the flaws in there can be highly helpful as well. I’ve recently read a book and was quite bored by the way, they’ve handeled certain things. And then I’ve realisted that I’ve done exactly the same…

  12. After a certain point, I’ve found critiquing others to be more useful to me than having my work critiqued.  Explaining the problems in someone else’s work gives me a platform for understanding the problems in my own.  And it helps in learning to trust your own opinion more, especially since most of the time the people you show your work to won’t care enough to actively engage your material, or else will often do so poorly.  But that’s critiquing.  I’ll take a good editor any day.

  13. In my opinion, one of the best places to get good input on your work is critique groups. There are some really good ones out that that can help new and established authors polish their skills and get ready for publication. I know the ones I’m involved in have helped me immensely


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