How Do You Know If Your Writing is Good?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my writerly pursuits, it’s that all writers, even bestselling ones, have times when they think their writing sucks. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “When I was writing Eat, Pray, Love, I had just as strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything.” And then look what happened. I, along with a gazillion others, adored it. Others didn’t, but that is actually beside the point.

Last weekend, it was my turn to give up a short story for my writing group to workshop. I’ve been working on it for a while, but very piecemeal. I haven’t been writing every day; I wrote chunks of it while working on something else. A few days before, panicking, I thought, I’ve got to get this shit together at least in the same POV and tone. So I did that. Now and then I added new things. Finally, I had to email it off. I told the girls, “It’s not done yet. It’s really disjointed. It’s not consistent. Basically, it sucks…I’m sorry.”

But then all four women, with the most enthusiasm I’ve ever seen for any of my work, praised it. One of them used the word “love”five times in three comments. They used words like “brilliant” and “brave” and “such strong, specific images.” Hearing them, one after another, tell me how much they loved it, what they loved, and what little work it needed, brought me to tears. It was that unexpected and touching. And I trust this group with my life, let alone my stories. After two years together, we’ve got honesty down.

Afterward, I picked up my jaw and said, “I had no idea. NONE whatsoever. I’m flabbergasted. It really just goes to show how unreliable we are when it comes to our own writing.”

I had what I call story dysmorphia. We who judge our own writing have no real concept of what its like, and often then spend an inordinate amount of time trying to correct flaws that aren’t even there. I am totally convinced that I would have ruined the whole thing had it not been for the feedback I received from my group. In trying to make it not suck, I would have overworked it, listening to my critic rather than my instincts.

This experience with my writing group, more than any other because of the extreme contrast between what I thought and what they unanimously said, drove home the point I’m making: We have no idea whether or not our writing or our story is any good, no matter what draft. Thus, we have no business asking ourselves whether or not it’s good. Not only will we not give a reliable answer, but we are presuming to decide for others.

While trolling Pinterest one day for inspirational quotes on writing, I found this:

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It’s true that we’ve been right about our writing, too. Usually, that niggling feeling that it needs more, or that twinge that says, oh shit, that has to go, even though we love it, is correct. But those things come from being in tune creatively—they come not from judging our writing but from our storytelling instinct. That’s all we need to listen to when we ask anything of ourselves while we write.

Think about how free you are now that you’re relieved of your need to decide between good or bad. Like a child, you can be unfettered by self-doubt. You get to put all your energy into creating, into writing what you really want. Be brave. “Your job is only to write your heart out, and let destiny take care of the rest” (Elizabeth Gilbert).

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