Writers agonize over this (and we should) but it’s difficult to know when to stop. How do you know if your writing is good enough? Is there a litmus test you can give your novel?
Kind of, though it’s not one-size-fits-all, so I’m going to supply you with a template to make a test of your own.
But first, I want to stress how important it is to be able to recognize good writing. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that readers’ tastes are all completely subjective, thereby making “good writing” impossible to determine. I recently met a writer in this trap. At the event we were attending, he asked the agent speaking how to know if his writing was ready to submit to literary magazines, and the agent sensibly told him to read writing from those magazines and see if his measured up, but the writer replied he didn’t see the point in that because he believed the editors’ tastes were hopelessly subjective. This attitude is debilitating because it stops people from critically examining their own work. After all, what’s the point of revising if there’s no knowable standard for “good writing”? There’s nothing to aim for!
Oh, but there is. You just have to know how to assess it. To do that, you need some tools…
I learned how to gather and apply these tools in screenwriting school, but I don’t think it’s a common way to approach learning the arts, at least not from what I’ve gathered from conversations with people who took English or Film Studies or Creative Writing at more traditional colleges or universities. And you can learn how to make art. But most schools teach students how to interpret art’s meaning and all that intellectual stuff; they don’t delve into how the art was made. But if you want to create art, whether it’s with paint brushes or words, deconstructing how something is made is the key!
“Good Writing” Litmus Test in 4 Stages
Stage 1 – KNOWLEDGE
To determine what is good writing, you need to know what you’re looking for. This requires knowledge of the parts of a story (i.e. 3-act structure, the inciting incident, turning points, etc.) and the tools of writing (voice, sentence structure, POV, tense, etc.). So read some instructional writing books! Or blogs like this one (consult our Writing Craft section in the toolbar above).
Stage 2 – RESEARCH
Writing comes in many forms, genres and age categories. Where does your writing fit in? For example, I’m writing a YA horror novel. You might be writing a sci-fi short story or a romance novella. Figure it out and then choose three successful works that match your writing’s form, genre and age category. They have to match because good writing means different things for different age categories and genres. So if you write middle-grade comedy novels, studying a young adult romance won’t be useful.
And make sure that the works you select are successful. No exceptions. If your favourite book of all time is a mid-list fantasy with dismal sales, do not use it for this exercise. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good book, but if sales weren’t great, it’s likely lacking something. Of course, what qualifies as success differs between age categories and genres, so be aware of those varying benchmarks.
One last thing: the works you pick must be current. Why? Because what constitutes as “good writing” changes over time. No matter how much you loooove the classics, don’t pick a novel from 100 years ago. After all, you’re trying to get published in this century, right?
Stage 3 – DECONSTRUCTION
Now it’s time to take your three selected works apart and look at their pieces! How? Here are some suggestions:
- How many plots are there? And how much time is devoted to each plot?
- Is this story told from the POV of one character or many?
- When does the Inciting Incident take place? When do all the other important story points take place?
- How do the chapters end?
- Et cetera…
Basically what you’re doing is applying the knowledge you acquired in Stage 1 and noting all of it in the works you selected in Stage 2. In other words, how do these works demonstrate what you know about good story structure and writing craft?
Stage 4 – ANALYSIS
Finally, we look for patterns! aka Things the master writers do! In television and film scripts, these patterns can be bang-on (for example, the Inciting Incident may happen on the same page of all three film scripts) because structure is more tightly followed in these mediums, but in novels there’s more leeway, so the patterns won’t be exact but more general. Still, it’s useful to compare similarities. For example, you can learn a lot about effective pacing by tracking when the major plot points happen. Does the Inciting Incident happen roughly around the 30% mark? Or earlier? In some stories, the Inciting Incident might occur in the very first chapter! Does the inciting incident happen around the same time in the works you selected? Or at different times? And if different, can you figure out why? Does one timing work better than another?
So note these patterns and analyze why they work. Peering under the hood to see how all these parts work together is the key to identifying good writing.
Applying the “Good Writing” Litmus Test
As you may have discerned, this is not a quick litmus test. There are countless things you can analyze in any given piece of writing, so to avoid becoming overwhelmed, try breaking your analysis into smaller categories (such as story structure, characters and voice) and tackle them one at a time. Also keep in mind that this is a process that spans months, but once you have these tools in place, spotting good writing will become second nature.
And that’s empowering! I love reading a book and going, “I can tell why this was a best-seller!” because that gives me something to shoot for.
(Quick aside: this works with best-selling books I hate too. For instance, I despise the Twilight series, but when I deconstructed it alongside other YA romances, I saw that it gives readers who enjoy YA romances what they want. I am just not the right reader for Twilight. Armed with this insight, I avoid falling into the trap of believing good writing cannot be determined.)
Once we understand why certain stories resonate with readers, we have the tools to make our writing just as good. So is your writing good? You can be the judge of that now!
7 thoughts on “How to Tell if Your Writing is Good”
Great article! I’m not sure we can indeed judge our own writing, but I think deconstructing is a great tool, not just for analysing stories but also to build them.
For me, there were two pivoting experiences that helped me learn to deconstruct a story.
The first was reading manuals of literary critique. Literary critique manuals differ from the writing manuals for a major element: they are less about theory and more about tools. Stories are made up of countless specific elements and these manuals are made specifically to name every single element (I’ve always thought there is indeed power in names). Once you own the name of an element, you are able to recognise it and you know what it is and what its job is supposed to be inside the story. That’s how you deconstruct a story (you take it apart element by element) and this works for stories you read as well as for the stories you write.
Judging if one element is doing its job in a story is a lot easier than judging whether a story is working on the whole, and especially to pin down why.
The other experience was being part of a critique group. I was part of the Critique Circles for seven years, and in those years I received some 300 critiques on my writing and I gave more the 1000.
The main thing I learned from receiving critiques is that we should never give anything for granted. What is perfectly logical for us (the writer) might be completely obscure for the reader and we’ll never know it if we don’t confront ourselves with actual readers. If you confront yourself often enough, you’ll learn to anticipate what may be particularly tricky for readers. Experience will tell you what went wrong before and why, and so you’ll be able to address that issue before you even write a new piece.
The main thing I learned from giving critique is that I can’t just rely on what I like. Everyone of us write in a different way, with different goals, in different genres. When you are forced to critique hundreds of stories that don’t really fall into your personal taste (for example because you are returning a critique) you learn that you can’t just tell the author ‘it doesn’t really work for me’. You have to at least tell why that is. This is where deconstructing comes in handy. It is very difficult to go past your personal tast, but if you start concentrating on the parts of the story and whether they do their job or not, leaving your taste out is far easier. You start by thinking ‘I dont’ like this thing’. Then you focus on what that ‘thing’ is (POV? Exposition? Focus? Dialogue?). Once you know what you’re looking at, you’ll be able to say whether that particular element is doing its job or not reguardless of your tastes about the particular story.
And when you learn this on other writers’ stories, you’ll then be able to do it on your own stories too.
It is not a fast process. It took me years to learn t, with daily practice. But I think it’s well worth learning 🙂
All excellent points, Sarah! Learning how to give good critiques is another way to dive into the elements of story and figure out how things work. 🙂
This is such a significant article. I know exactly what you mean, as I was an elementary and high school art teacher for 25 years. People have been leaning for too long on the cliche belief that all art is equally good, that anyone can create art, and that no one need learn anything in particular in order to create art. I spent much of those 25 years explaining how to judge art, explaining the structure of my curriculum, and showing why their kids needed to aspire to improving their skills.
Place my knowledge against yours in determining the aspects of good writing, and I can see that the scaffold is just a sturdy, just as essential. In fact, I’ve often suggested to friends who ask for help, that they read their favorite book and figure out exactly why it works. With your practical and specific ideas, anyone can apply what they know about writing to what they need to know about their own writing.
One more thing I’d like to add. Though I was an excellent art teacher (I won’t describe the benchmarks, but they’re there, and I met them) I often explained that I could teach art to anyone. I can, I did. Listen, pay attention to instructions, follow directions, I will help anyone create credible art. What I can’t teach is how to be genius in art. I’m pretty certain the same is true in writing and in all creative endeavors.
Thank you for a practical guide. It may not create literary geniuses out of your readers, but it will activate better writers. Me, for one.
Thank you for your insightful comment, Sharon! And you’re absolutely right about the genius thing — can’t create those, but am happy to help foster better writers! 😀