How do you know if you’re a good writer?

Last month, there was an article in the online Huffington Post by Brook Warner, with the subtitle: “3 Ways to Get Validation of Your Writing’.  I agree with most of what she says:

“Writing stands out to me as the craft that people most easily dismiss and judge.  Because of its accessibility – anyone can do it and everyone seems to be doing it – writing is to the arts what running is to sports.  There are elites and there are hobbyists.  Unlike music, art and film, there’s a low barrier to entry.  You don’t need an instrument other than your hand, a canvas other than a piece of paper; not do you need a team, a budget, or outsider talent to practice your craft.  Everyone thinks they can do it, and the truth is that a lot of people do it well.  One of the great difficulties publishing faces right now is that there are many, many good books worthy of being published, but rather than finding ways to celebrate hobbyists and emerging talent (which is what’s happening in film), the industry has instead turned its back and turned up its nose at the very people who make possible what they do for a living: aspiring authors.

“So how, given this climate where the odds for success are stacked against you, the industry itself has no vested interest in you until you prove yourself a talent, and everyone thinks they can write, how are you supposed to know whether what you’re writing is worthwhile?”

She mentions three places to start:

1. Get a professional opinion

“You have to pay for this, but it’s worthwhile to get your work assessed at some point in your writing process, sooner rather than later.  This is a high level opinion from someone who knows good writing.  People who read for a living are qualified to pick apart your work and tell you what’s working and not working. . . . Your family and friends are not good readers for your work.  While all readers are subjective, family and friends are the most subjective. . . .”

She mentions that her company She Writes Press offers an assessment of 25 pages of an author’s work.  But apparently, this is part of an expensive co-operative-publishing package.  I think it can be money well invested if one selects a real professional reviewer.

2. Submit your work to contests and at conferences

“Judges of literary of literary contests are selected because they are readers.  They love good books and good writing, and they have wisdom and expertise to impart.  Contests are valuable not just for the accolades you might get, but for the feedback. It’s a cheap way to see what a stranger thinks of your work. . . .”

In my experience, one doesn’t get good quality feedback from most contests.  There tends to be cursory and superficial, or non-existent feedback.  What I have found to be useful is the ‘batting average’ one gets from submitting a particular work to multiple contests.  I have entered Sable Shadow & The Presence in about ten contests.  It has won eight awards ranging from honourable mention (2) to runner up (2) to winner (4) of the fiction category.  I must be doing something right, and this is consistent with my own view that Sable Shadows is a serious, quality piece of work.

3. Submit your work to an agent or publisher

“Many writers I know are so eager to pitch agents and editors that they go out too early, before their books or proposals are fully cooked.  But if you’re suffering from a need to know whether there’s any merit to your project, I believe (though some may disagree with me) that it doesn’t hurt to send to  a handful of agents or editors (not both at the same time) to test the waters. . . .”

I have done this with all six of my published books, but I’m still using my original publisher.  The amount of feedback I have received has been is essentially zero.  It should be said, however, that there is a skill in approaching an agent, as I have learned from reading the 2015 Guide to  Literary Agents.  A considerable amount of effort is required to produce a winning proposal.

Ms Warner poses another question at the close of her blog: “How do I know if I’m done?”  Her point is that if you’re a serious writer, you’re never done.  You keep on learning and writing with greater skill.  I agree completely.

I think I would be inclined to add a fourth item: Read and Write Book Reviews.  I find that reading good quality, recommended books, exposes me to the diverse techniques and skills of other authors.  And when I require myself to write a review of the book, I force myself to identify what I admired about the writing and what I felt didn’t work.

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