“How do I even know if my writing is any good?”
At some point or another, every writer asks themselves this question, in the general sense about themselves as a writer, as well as about specific pieces of work.
In my experience – both with my own writing and for students I’ve worked with -- I think the question has its source in two separate desires:
Secretly, every time I’ve given work to someone and asked them to comment on it, what I want to hear, deep down, more than anything, is that the story or poem I’ve given them is an absolutely riveting, perfectly realized, work of art worthy of my (ahem) considerable talent as a writer.
Ideally, my idealized reader would say this a whisper of awe in their voice.
Just me? Damn, this is embarrassing…
OR, if you let yourself get in touch with what you really want to hear at the moment you’re asking for feedback, is there a part of you (maybe roughly the size of your writer’s heart?) that needs/wants to hear the sweet siren call of praise more than you want technical advice on how to improve the work at hand?
(And isn’t it the absolute worst when someone “mis-reads” your story or poem and just completely gets it wrong? I mean, are they even reading the actual words on the page??)
Here’s the thing:
Praise is a legitimate writer need.
We all need to believe that we have some “talent” -- that amorphous and terribly subjective word no writer manages to avoid. No one wants to waste years of their lives on something without real potential, and we typically want to move readers with our writing the way we were once moved ourselves by the favourite writers of our childhood (or last week).
But I think that writers who are genuinely moved to write out of a love of language, image and story do have talent. In fact, I would define “talent” as precisely that persistent drive to shape language in a way that moves another human being.
You don’t need anyone to tell you that you’re talented. What you need is someone to tell you where your craft isn’t yet fully serving your original artistic impulse or idea.
And the latter might sting a tiny bit, like mercurochrome on a cut or scrape, but really digging in deep with craft is where the magic will happen for your story or poem.
It’s such a vulnerable state, to want so badly to reach and move other people through our creative efforts, and we naturally seek reassurance that we’re nearly there. It’s just that small typo on page 2 that throws a little shade on your brilliance, but fix that and your story is absolutely good to go.
That is what you wanted me to say when you asked me to look at your story, right?
(Oops, just me again? Okay, it’s definitely what I want my first readers to say.)
But increasingly I believe that we do ourselves and our work a disservice when we allow our desire for praise to push us to seek feedback too soon in the process. I can’t tell if your story or poem is brilliant if you really haven’t finished it yet.
And when I say finished, I mean:
So often, we send work to our first readers or editors before it’s really ready, and then find ourselves nursing a nest of small hurts when we hear from them what we already knew: it’s just not ready to be read yet.
Of course, we are always sending out drafts, works-in-progress, something not yet fully realized: of course. That’s not what I’m talking about here -- I’m talking about the difference between a finished first draft, where you really have reached the limits of what you can do with it on your own without feedback, and a draft that has just been abandoned.
A clear sign that this has happened is if your reader is confused about what’s actually happening in your story or poem.
I think that if you pay attention to your feelings about a piece of work and you’re honest with yourself, you can come to know when you’re tempted to do this. And if you are working with a reader you can absolutely trust to hand them something completely raw and unformed, then sometimes you can get away unscathed.
But send your unfinished draft to a reader or editor who doesn’t already love your cotton socks, and you might get more “constructive feedback” than your writer’s heart can take right now.
Or, something EVEN WORSE could happen: you could find yourself writing their story and not yours, not the one you were really meaning to tell if only you’d given yourself just a little more time to find out what it was.
There isn’t a hard, clear line and we need to use our own good judgement for when a piece of work is ready to be read by someone else. Generally, if I feel I have the initial idea or impulse expressed as completely as I can, and now I need feedback on how I can better use craft to shape it into a more fully realized form, then I know I’m ready – and so is my draft.
Over time you can learn to trust yourself and your own judgement about your work, but also know it can’t hurt to push yourself just a little further to see how much more you can do to ensure that you’re giving your reader a truly complete first draft, and not one that’s merely been abandoned in their general direction.