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!