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/or warmth, but that isn’t necessarily enough to take your writing to more ambitious heights. 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 differ and 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 outright purchases with the need for light editing at most. 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 worthwhile 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 a lot of flaws on your techniquebeing pointed out — 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 simultaneously point out your strengths or potential strengths — those are the areas you either have a natural flare for, or 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. As Bob Marley said: ‘You can please some people sometimes, but you can’t please all the people all the time.’ Get your head around it and get passed it. You need to be able to dump the disappointment and focus on what is genuinely valuable feedback – filter it from what is a regurgitation of a rule book that the critique giver doesn’t truly grasp.
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!!
When you find your critique partners are turning less and less to pointing out technical weaknesses (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, so to speak. The reader will be so involved in the story and its cast 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, 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 strenghten 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 out because a critique partner might not be able to pinpoint why or where (depending on their experience). 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 masturbate in your bedroom? 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? A combination of poor writing and offensive or 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).