9/19/2016

How Do You Know Your Writing Is Good?

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were at a local restaurant catching up with two of our friends. Over our various fried foods and beer, we started asking each other what we were working on. I shared I was investing time each day to practice writing, which piqued my friend's interest.

“How do you know if your writing is good?” he asked.

I paused. “You don’t know.”

The question stayed with me and perhaps it’s something you’ve wondered too.

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The following guest post comes to us from writer and entrepreneur Dan Murphy. To read more of his articles, check out his blog at DanMurphy.me

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When you’re writing, there’s no instant feedback mechanism. It’s not like Super Mario Brothers, where you make it to the castle or not. In school, you handed in your writing to a teacher. In real life, there are no grades.

Even if you do give your writing to someone, there is no universal standard of quality. An English professor and a friend writing for a craft beer blog will have very different opinions.

“Good” writing is relative. Even the greatest literary works of our time have bad reviews on Amazon.

For a beginner like me, it’s even tougher. After writing, editing, re-reading, and editing again, I compare my work to the articles and books I enjoy. Most of the time, I feel I miss the mark.

So, what can I do to improve?

I can take time each day to close the gap between where I am and where I want to be. Anyone can.

The Importance of Feedback


The only way to close this gap is to get feedback on your work. The biggest challenge is allowing yourself to be open to it. 

Feedback isn’t always easy to receive. I’ve invested time writing and revising my work, and I’d like it to be viewed as perfect.

Then a friend or colleague emails me saying my writing is far from perfect. I made huge mistakes. The advice is good, but my ego takes a hit.

All of this is perfectly fine. These temporary letdowns and stings are how the gap is closed.

I’ve learned that temporary stings are just that: Temporary. It’s important that I put my ego aside and focus on how the feedback will help hone my writing. The sting is just my ego getting in the way.

If someone takes the time to correct you and offer suggestions, pay attention. Feedback, when offered in a pleasant and helpful manner, is a gift. Be grateful. Look to apply it. Ignore it at your own peril. This is how you improve.

One thing to keep in mind: A thing needs to be bad before it becomes okay, okay before it becomes good, and good before it becomes great.

Where can you get feedback? Here are a few places:

1) Feedback from friends


Feedback from friends is valuable, but can be tricky to get.

Friends may fear that if they’re brutally honest it will destroy the relationship. To receive useful feedback, you need friends that will be 100% honest.

A few of my friends and I have relationships based on complete honesty. We both understand being honest may be a temporary pain, but there’s no malice behind it. If you can find friends open to giving you honest feedback, do it.

Feedback like “It’s good” or “I liked it” isn’t helpful. If they say “it sucked,” ask them what sucked about it. You may have to dig a little. If they don’t feel comfortable, don’t ask them to do it.

It is possible that friends don’t know good writing from bad, and that means their feedback would be limited, or not very helpful. If they tear through a book a week, they could be helpful. Someone who stopped reading a book because it was terrible may be a great candidate.

Another sad reality: Many people won’t—or simply can’t—take the time to help. Even if they try, their feedback may be far from helpful. This is part of the process. Continue to look for the person that will provide the feedback you need.

2) Ask someone whose writing you admire


When my friend Christy writes an email or a blog post, it has style and grace to it. She produces colorful sentences that flow. Her word choice and sentence structure are diverse. When comparing her writing to mine, I feel like mine falls short.

I want to write more like her, so I reluctantly asked her for help. She obliged, and has been amazing in pointing out where I could improve.

She checks three boxes: she’s a great friend, honest with her feedback, and a great writer.

When reaching out to someone, make sure it’s someone accessible. You may admire the writing of Stephen King, but he’s not available to give you feedback now. Or ever.

A writer with a lightly-trafficked blog [Like me!], a journalist writing for a local news publication, or an author beginning his or her career could be accessible. Ask to review their articles before they are published, help them gain exposure, or offer to proof their unpublished book. Give before you can receive.

3) Trade services or goods


If you don’t have money to pay someone, there’s always the option to trade goods or services. See what a potential reviewer needs help with, and offer to do that task for them in exchange for some critiquing time.

A little tip: Before you do this, make sure to determine the scope of the trade before you begin. What will you do? How much will you do? When you complete the task, how much proofreading time will you receive?

People value services differently. If you agreed to paint a ceiling for someone in exchange for critiquing time, you may value the task at $1,000, and the other person may value it at $300. Hammer that out first so neither party feels it was an uneven trade.

4) Pay someone


Editors all over the world offer critiquing services at a reasonable cost. Check out services like UpWork, Guru, and Freelancer. Post a job on one of these sites asking for help with your writing.

These sites allow you to explain the scope of the job and what you’ll pay. The job description could contain something as simple as, “I’ll pay $X per hour/article/page to receive assistance with my writing.” Compared with trading goods or services, the scope of the job is clearer, so no one feels like they’re shorted in the end.

Before engaging anyone, view the rankings and reviews of the potential hires to determine who is a good fit. Of course, the most important part is finding a person you can communicate with, and who understands your writing goals.

If you think someone is a good fit, hire them short-term and see how the relationship works. Don’t be afraid to switch editors if one isn’t working out.

5) Join a group, online or off


There are plenty of writing groups. If you're interested in an online group, a quick search on Facebook will show a few to check out. Some are public (anyone can join) and some are private (you need to request access).

A tip for Facebook groups: Before or after joining, look at the size of the group. Some groups are too large to be effective. Feel free to lurk a bit and see if the group is a good fit and contains other supportive writers.

Search Facebook for events that cater to writers. You can also use Google to look up “writing groups near [city]” and see what turns up. Another resource is Meetup.com, which lists thousands of in-person events, including writing groups. Check if your local library hosts workshops or events.

There are a ton of ways to find these events. Start digging and see what you uncover.

6) Start your own group


Almost a year ago, I started my own group for writers on Medium. The idea was to motivate myself to write more and help others when I could.

I started with a post on Facebook stating I was forming a writers group. At the time, I had no idea how it would be run. Only after people showed interest did I figure out the rest. Now it has a nice membership and is growing a few members at a time.

Anyone can do the same. Put something on Facebook, Twitter, a forum, or wherever you find other writers. Even if you get just one other interested person, that’s a start.

I didn’t plan how my group would work, but you might want to plan yours before you start. People will expect the group to have structure and will look to you to provide it.

Even if you plan thoroughly, be open to adjustment as the group evolves. When I started, I received article submissions via email. After almost losing a few, I moved to a submission form. I’ve also changed the format of the emails to tighten things up, reduce clutter, and make things clearer.

7) Read books on writing


Books on writing cost less than a large pizza (and have fewer calories, I assume) and can help you determine if your writing is on the right track.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott covers a vast number of topics in an entertaining way. Her section on putting perfectionism aside was a huge help in completing my drafts. She covers how to overcome mental hurdles like jealousy and writer's block, a topic other books omit. She also has a section on how to get help from others, and decreasing your learning curve.

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is filled with methods to refine your writing. His first section focuses on writing principles and how to keep things simple. The chapter “Words” shows how caring about words helps you select better ones while avoiding clich├ęs. If you’re stuck on how to start or end an article—both cause me difficulty—there’s a chapter on this.

Apply What You’re Learning


Learning how to write is easy, but writing is hard. Focus more effort on the hard part. Writing and revising will show you where your struggles are. Once you start understanding your struggles, you’ll learn what you don’t know and know what you need to learn.

These are the sources of feedback that I have found most effective. Of course, there are other ways that you may discover on your own. See what works and discard what doesn’t.

No matter which methods you decide to use, always experiment with new ways to obtain feedback. This is the fastest way to improve as a writer.