Thursday, July 19, 2012

How Do You Know if Your Writing is Any Good

No matter how successful, there's probably not one author who hasn't wondered how good their writing is. By good, I mean how well it is technically. Does it give accurate and complete descriptions? Does it flow fast and smoothly, or just grind along? Is it captivating and does it have elan?

I'm not talking about subject matter. What the writing is describing,  and what is the subject matter, are totally different from how well something is written. Many people, even so called writers, confuse these two separate areas. Many times writers purposely create this confusion. It's what the Ancient Greeks called rhetoric.

An example of this would be the writer Jim Thomson. Many well mannered people would be abhorred with the subject matter and characters of his books. But technically, as an artist in writing, Thompson may have been the best American author that has ever lived. ( For more about Thompson, read In Praise of Jim Thompson on this blog. )

Like any art, writing can't be taught. Oh there's some rules of thumb, and you can list the essential elements that must be there. But it's not a chemistry formula. You can't create novels like Ross MacDonald from the ingredients Ross MacDonald uses. Only Ross MacDonald can do that.

However, even for someone with natural talent, there are certain guidelines one should always keep in mind. First, and foremost, make sure what you describe and write is clear. It's sort of like what Spencer Tracy said about the  most important thing in acting - "Know your lines". If you think that's obvious, just look at all the published fiction out there that doesn't do this.

Next, have the writing flow smoothly instead of grinding along. Many times I've seen interesting stories that become totally boring because the writing has become so boring. This can often times be tied to how interested you are in the subject. Technically, I have written fiction where I didn't like the genre or story, but I was still able to make it flow freely. I can also tell you it was boring for me and went slower than I wished. When writing something that interests and excites me, the project is done very fast.

Then there's that unknown ingredient I call elan. You're really into your story and characters. It leaps out at a reader. Just look at the writing of someone like Mickey Spillane, Ross McDonald, or Janet Evanovich. Now take a look at Joe Konrath's Jack Daniels novels. It's the difference from being alive or dead.

( I really don't like bringing up Konrath and his writing all the time. But he's the only bad "author" I've given more than a passing glance. Really, if you want to write good, always read the successful  and good writers. If you read too much of people like Konrath, your writing will become like Konrath's writing. Mediocre. )

So how do you tell if your writing is any good? Well, the opinion of third persons is a good indicator. Particularly if they're a literary agent or publishing editor that goes through manuscripts all day long, and are sick of it. If they give you genuine personal compliments, or want to read more of your stuff and enjoy it,  that's an encouraging indicator. ( In the old days, in my early twenties, I was told that if they didn't like it, they had no hesitation in telling you to get lost. But in today's world, I don't think that's the case any longer. )

But like one agent said -"It's a very subjective business. What works for one, may not work for another."

For me, I'm skeptical about praise. And the few criticisms I've heard seemed to be tainted by ulterior motives.  So at times, what I try to do is take an objective look at my stuff when I'm sick of it. I mean I'm just tired  of writing, particularly my own writing,  and just don't want to look at it any more. Then I'll calmly sit down, and look at some of the past stuff I wrote. Sometimes I'll even compare it with successful authors who write similarly. If I'm satisfied with what I see, well I go on writing. If not, I'll throw the typewriter away.

The important thing is to honestly, objectively look at yourself. Realism, particularly about yourself, is the most difficult thing you can do. As Bobby Burns said - "If we (only) had the gift to see ourselves as others see us.".

As for learning from other people how to write, sometimes you pick up points from publishing editors, no matter how uncreative they are. But usually in writing and other arts,  people that teach can't do. And if they can do and teach, I've heard they're pretty terrible teachers.

The only thing I learned about the art of writing is what Somerset Maugham once said - "Write like you're writing a telegraph, and don't have much money to spend."

                                                                                                                    Joseph Day, Author
                                                                                                                ( This is to make someone named
                                                                                                                   R happy. I think you already                                    
                                                                                                                   who I am.


  1. I think everyone gets sick of their own writing on times and you are correct to work through the doubt and carry on.

  2. Thanks Gary. Sometimes I've never seen people work through the doubt, and continue writing / doing the same novel year after year.

    A perfectionist is someone who never gets anything done.