It’s a question every writer asks themselves and yet it can be one of the most elusive answers to obtain.
Most of us can string a sentence together, and those who are partial to a little write-off or two can usually string together something of evident intelligence, insight and warmth. That isn’t strictly enough to take your writing to more ambitious heights, though. To most untrained eyes, our writing is as good as it needs to be, and recognising flaws and weaknesses can be difficult – nigh-on impossible. It’s almost a rite of passage as a newbie to believe our first draft plopped out onto the page in near perfection, save for a few grammar and punctuation errors. Anything else is incomprehensible.
Professional-level fiction writing is layered with so many elements, and it takes time to learn them all (and I’m assuming, dear writer, that pro-level writing is your ultimate goal). Gaining a balanced perspective on the quality is hard, but it is something you grow into as you learn and improve. It’s not just about if you can write beautiful poetic descriptions, or an action scene that is so stuffed with gunfire, car chases and explosions the reader has no time to catch a breath. It’s combining all elements together so that the whole piece blooms. In a way, it’s a bit like baking a cake – all the ingredients and techniques must be in perfect balance with one another in order for it to rise, taste good and look irresistible.
As with cake, tastes diffe. What pleases one person will make another grimace. But there is a difference between ‘bad’ writing and a story or an execution that doesn’t hit the mark.
I read tons of short story submissions every month among an editorial team and — plucking a rough number from the air — 90% of those stories (being generous) have potential while about 1–3% are worth serious consideration. A slither of that bracket is worth outright purchase with only the need for light editing. This is not me deciding this on my own, this is a team of people with mixed tastes, plenty of experience in fiction writing, publishing and editing, and with the publication’s readership in mind. Those rough figures suggest there are a lot of writers out there who have no perspective on the quality of their writing because, if they did, they would understand they weren’t ready to submit yet, especially for the professional market.
Then you have to take into consideration the percentage of stories that are technically perfect but the subject matter is risky, gratuitous or outright offensive. Or it’s preachy and not actually a story but a lecture or rant in the guise of fiction. Sometimes, it’s even too depressing to want to publish, or there's the worry of triggering specific vulnerable groups into detrimental behaviour. Some of those authors might be good, but they are not submitting work that is marketable. (And as we now live in a global hyper-sensitivity environment, the pass rate is getting slimmer by the week.)
The best way to gauge if your writing holds any merit, initially, is to put it up for critique. Garner ten opinions, the more detailed the better. Remember they are opinions, and you are entitled to disagree with them. If you find they point out a lot of flaws on your technique — such as ‘Show more; Tell less’, or ‘you use too many pronouns’ or ‘your sentence structures are too similar’, ‘your dialogue is stiff and unnatural’, ‘you could use stronger vocabulary’, etc. — then you know there is room for improvement. Pay particular attention to those critiques that aren’t afraid to tell you straight where things don’t work, but point out your strengths or potential strengths — those are the areas where you either have a natural flare, are beginning to master, or have already. Work harder on doing more of that and improving in the other areas.
When receiving critiques, you might want to prepare your mindset in advance. I enter into the process with the attitude that everything I write stinks, no matter what. That way the only way is up! No matter how perfect your prose, how deftly delivered your execution, how convincing your characters, there will be something you overlooked, an underlying message or character that someone doesn’t like, or subject matter, or style, or they simply don’t ‘get’ it. There will always be negative comments. What was it Bob Marley said about not being able to fool people? I take those lyrics and change them into: ‘You can please some people sometimes, but you can’t please all the people all the time.’ Get your head around it and get past it. You need to dump the disappointment and focus on what is genuinely valuable feedback. But watch out for the rule book parrots -- those who don't fully understand the techniques but will repeat what they've heard on the circuit to make it sound like they do.
If you receive feedback that is largely negative, don’t respond immediately. Leave it for a few days. Get a little distance from the initial sting. Then return to it, re-read it, see if any comments hit a note now that you have entered into the critique, knowing what to expect. I tend to find that many comments pointing out flaws are often areas I was unsure of myself, so it simply confirms my suspicions in the first place. If the areas I was insecure about are not flagged, then BONUS!! I was being too self-critical.
When you find your critique partners are pointing out technical weaknesses less and less (a few typos aside) and, instead, drilling into plot holes and character development, that is usually a sign that your writing is improving because it isn’t getting in the way of the story. So, there you go – another marker: good writing cannot be seen,ironically. The reader will be so involved in the story and its cast that they don’t notice the clumsy writing. If they have to keep stopping to clarify details or make corrections, you know there’s work still to do.
If you are worried about keeping your emotions in check when receiving critiques there is something else you can try before handing it over to any human beings. Use a critique/proofreading software such as Prowritingaid as an initial port of call. These insights are totally impartial and computer-generated, so there's no room for argument. If you use a lot of adverbs, it will report that you do. Deciding which ones to keep and which ones must go is entirely your decision. This approach will also point out where you have used passive voice, sticky sentences, repetitions, too many sentences of similar length, amongst other areas. Again, it's up to you to judge where to ignore these flags and where to rewrite/delete to strengthen your writing. But you can't argue with the machine, and you'll be amazed how it forces you to view your prose from a different angle. Of course, what it won't do is tell you if your characters are believable or sympathetic, or if your plot strings together authentically, etc., -- you definitely need a human's input for those aspects -- but it will remove some of that sting when you do hand it over to the breathing critiquers.
So, what about the instances where your writing might be technically good, but your execution might be off-target? This is probably harder to fathom because a critique partner might not have the savvy to pinpoint the 'why' or the 'where'. This is where we can turn to your rejection slips.
If you are receiving form rejections you need to improve your craft on all levels, most likely, but it could also be that your story was offensive, overly gratuitous, or preachy. This is where you have to be brutally honest with yourself:
Did you write a piece that will upset people, or reinforce a negative stereotype?
Or something that reads like an outsider (the reader) is watching you do naughty things too yourself in your bedroom -- entirely for your own pleasure and not for enyone else's (like modern jazz musicians)?
Does the piece strive to ram home a point about religion or politics, or some kind of moral high ground?
Are there any hints – subtle or otherwise – of sexism, racism or homophobia?
Poor writing, or offensive and gratuitous material will not receive any special treatment in the way of comment from the publication.
If you are getting a personal note from the editors, you know your technique is good, but you haven’t found your market. Or, your piece isn’t marketable (see above note on risky material).
Feedback on endings is vitally important, which some folk might not realise. If you get a note from a publication saying thanks, but the ending didn’t work for us, that is a sure sign your execution is off-target.
ENDINGS SEEM TO BE THE HARDEST THING FOR WRITERS TO GRASP.
I’m not joking, and I’ve said it before. Writers more often than not do not seem to understand what an ending is, but it’s a key sign of structural flaws in the whole piece. Many stories just stop as if the author ran out of any meaningful plot. Some authors mistake the start of a longer piece of work for a short story, yet they still merit it worthy of possible publication as a stand-alone. Those are a couple of straightforward problems with endings, but the more complex version is it wasn’t adequately foreshadowed, or there wasn’t enough characterisation (i.e. motivation, usually), or nothing connected the beginning to the end and there was a lack of consistency. These are all execution flaws. Execution is about delivering the right information at the right time in a way that intrigues, delights, surprises or spooks and makes the whole piece gel, so that by the time the reader gets to the end, the ending makes sense. It’s also about creating a discernible turning point within the piece or chapter so that the reader has gained a new understanding or perspective of the situation, characters or world. Most importantly, in order to create a satisfying ending, the story must follow some basic structure – character, goal, obstacle/conflict, resolution.
Other signs the delivery hasn’t worked: 'We were hoping for a stronger resolution,' or, 'we couldn’t really connect/empathise with the central character,' or 'we didn’t get xxx nor why Character A decided to do that crazy thing that surely meant their own death.' These are all signs of stories with weak executions. That doesn’t mean the writing itself is poor. If they bothered to write to you that means the writing was strong enough to merit consideration. This is valuable insight.
Then there are the rejection letters that tell you your writing was wonderful, but it didn’t suit their needs, or that the piece came close or to the final round, but they chose someone else’s work over yours. Now, sometimes an editor might straight-out tell you that they had stories of similar themes and they had to contrast some pieces against others and that's why your work lucked out, but more often they won’t. This kind of deliberation happens all the time in publishing. This is a sign that you are good enough to be published, but you haven’t yet found your tribe, so to speak, and you are subbing to the wrong types of publications. Or, there just happened to be a similar story that was smidge better than yours or more to the publcation's tastes. Either way, keep at it because you are good enough, and that’s why the editor sent you a word of encouragement in the first place – they believe you show enough promise that perseverance will eventually pay off.
I’m sure you can begin to see, if you were thinking that publication is surely the mark of good writing, that good writing gets rejected time and again. It’s something you need to be honest with yourself about. Learn to identify if your writing is the truly good stuff that’s being declined for want of finding its proper home or if the ‘good writing gets rejected all the time’ is something you tell yourself because it seems easier just to wing it than make a proper commitment to become an expert in your craft.
You have to use your own common sense, too, to decipher what standard you are at, but I value my critique partners like diamonds. Critiques are a good place to start.