Am I a good writer?
People ask me this a lot: “Am I a good writer?”
“Can you look at my writing and tell me if I am a good writer?"
I understand the desire for reassurance. Not only is it nice to have approval, writing is nebulous. There is no finish line or egg timer or score board telling you when you are done.
How do we know if we are good? How do we know if we are good enough?
There are a few things you need to know if you are asking this question. Let's explore them here.
1. Are you a good writer? Yes, no, and somewhere in between.
If you are already writing, and you care enough to be asking the question, you can probably write — at least at a basic level.
If you are a writer, no matter how advanced you are, you can also probably do better.
Writing is an evolving skill
Some people come to it more naturally than others. That goes for just about anything.
As a kid I could write better than a lot of adults. That doesn’t mean that some of my early writing (ahem, looking in your direction, teenage years) isn’t a little cringeworthy now.
And it doesn’t mean that another editor or my future self wouldn’t be able to take any given piece of work I write and make it better.
Your work is always evolving.
Embrace that fact, keep writing and learning, and you will move closer to “good” — no matter what “good” means.
2. You should probably stop asking this question.
Why are you asking whether you're a good writer or not?
Are you looking for permission to stop? Are you afraid and need reassurance?
Getting a “yay” or “nay” is not going to give you either of those things.
Accept that writing is a skill like any other. And skills take time to develop. If you want to get better at them, skills are a continual work in progress.
Writing is a skill like any other. When I walked into a boxing gym three years ago and started boxing if I asked whether I was a good boxer I would have been laughed at (or maybe punched in the face).
Hell, I wouldn’t ask that question today. I suck a lot less than I did before. But the skills need continual work. Will some people be more naturally better as boxers than me? You bet. But with work, focus, consistency and good teachers I can improve.
I don’t ask if I’m good enough. I watch for my weak spots. I take feedback. I do the work.
So maybe the best way to become a better writer is to stop asking whether you’re good enough.
Instead ask, "do I need to write?"
And if the answer is yes---even if it's a tiny little yes from deep inside---then just go and write.
3. Learn a better way to ask for (and use) feedback.
Okay, so you want to be a better writer? Fair enough.
Getting feedback can actually be a great way to do that.
But asking generally for someone to read your work and tell you if it is good probably won't accomplish much. In fact, it could send you spiralling in the wrong direction.
To improve your writing, you need to work with some good editors, and you need to work with them. Editing is not a one-way street.
Here’s how you do that.
Find one or two editors, and bring them into your ‘team’. This may be a paid relationship or a symbiotic support system. They should know that you are seeking to be a better writer and that you'd like their support in this journey. (And hopefully you can help them in turn.)
These people have to be invested in you or your work in some way. Maybe they are a mentor, a colleague, a customer (past or existing), a business partner, or comrade-in-arms. They should understand what you do, and they should have proven or demonstrated to you their success (in whatever way you define it) at writing and editing.
An editor/writing mentor should be:
- Someone whose work you like
- Someone you trust and respect
- And ideally someone who represents the audience you are trying to reach or the kind of writer you are trying to emulate.
The best kind of editing is done in real-life, or at least in real time. Ask them to edit your work and review their edits with you, side by side. Consider each and every single note and why they suggested it - don’t take it carte blanche. Try to learn from their perspective.
If it's general feedback you want, here are some good questions to ask:
Instead of asking whether your writing is "good", ask:
- Is it clear? Is my message coming across effectively?
- How does this piece of writing make you feel?
- Is my grammar correct? Can you spot any errors?
- Does this piece of writing resonate with you? Why or why not?
- What does this piece of writing make you think? What does it make you want to do?
Just because you get feedback doesn’t mean you have to take it!
Countless famous authors had their books rejected again and again before finding publishers. Many of today's great writers (and great writers of history) were told they could not write.
Feedback can help us improve.
But don’t let other people's opinions of you or your writing stop you from writing altogether.
When in doubt, write from your heart.
4. Accept that you might be a “bad” writer and that’s ok.
I once did an intensive writing program at a college, and one of the lecturers answered the question "am I a good writer?" this way:
Even if you are a bad writer, think of how many bad books get published!
This sounds funny but it is really fantastic advice.
Writers, especially early writers, are afraid that maybe they suck.
Is my book any good? How will I know? Please, God, why won’t somebody tell me!
All you can do is do your best work.
Let’s take a bad book… oh, I don’t know… Fifty Shades of Grey?
Whatshername’s a pretty bad writer. Cheesy mixed metaphors and clichés bumping into each other all over the place, mixed in with lots of implausibility… that writing was sloppier than Christian Grey’s bedroom floor. (See what I did there?)
But really: 50 Shades was a phenomenally successful book. And she made a lot of people, um, happy.
We should be so lucky to be terrible writers and have that kind of success!
5. The question you should really be asking.
Stop worrying about whether you are a writer and ask yourself: why are you writing?
What are you writing for?
Does it bring you home to yourself?
Does it give you clarity?
Does it make you feel alive?
Does it help you connect with others?
Do you have a message to share? Something important to say? Do you believe there is somebody out there who will benefit from what you have to say?
Do you have an idea you cannot shake? Are there characters in your head asking you to bring them to life on the page?
If you are wondering whether you should be writing, ask yourself this:
Is there a story inside you?
Do you feel like you need to write?
Then yes, absolutely yes. You should be writing.
I don’t care if you are a “bad” writer or not.