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  • How Do You Know If You’re Good? 3 Ways to Get Validation for Your Writing
How Do You Know If You’re Good? 3 Ways to Get Validation for Your Writing
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
August 2015
Outlining
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
August 2015
Outlining

Writers struggle with their inner critics more than most artists, I think. But they suffer from outside criticism more than most artists, too. I get asked nearly every week some variation of this question: How do I know if my writing is good? Good enough? Worthwhile? If readers will like it? If readers will care? Part of what makes writing a difficult craft to pursue is that the measures by which we as a culture judge writing are grayer than in other industries.

Consider music. We can listen to a song, and even if we know nothing about music, it’s obvious whether or not the musician has practiced her craft. We might not like the song or style, but the expertise shines through if it’s there. Same with art, though experimental pieces can leave critics shaking their heads and questioning the artists’ merits. But generally you can see a piece of art and at least measure the level of professionalism and artistry, whether or not you appreciate the form. Movies might be the strongest parallel to books. Big studios are comparable to big publishing houses, taking risks on fewer interesting projects and trying to go for the sure bet. The blockbuster. And while indie films are celebrated and honored in a way that far surpasses indie books, with independent film festivals and fan bases loyal to indies, as an art form movies are measurable not just by the quality of the writing, but also the acting, set, wardrobe, and more—all of which boils down to budget. The success of a film doesn’t wholly fall on the screenplay writer. 

Writing stands out to me as the craft that people most easily dismiss and judge. Because of its accessibility—anyone can do it and everyone seems to be doing it—writing is to the arts what running is to sports. There are elites and there are hobbyists. Unlike music, art, and film, there’s a low barrier to entry. You don’t need an instrument other than your hand, a canvas other than a piece of paper; nor do you need a team, a budget, or outsider talent to practice your craft. Everyone thinks they can do it, and the truth is that a lot of people do it well. One of the great difficulties publishing faces right now is that there are many many good books worthy of being published, but rather than finding ways to celebrate hobbyists and emerging talent (which is what’s happening in film), the industry has instead turned its back and turned up its nose at the very people who make possible what they do for a living: aspiring authors.

So how given this climate, where the odds for success are stacked against you, the industry itself has no vested interest in you until you prove yourself a talent, and everyone thinks they can write, how are you supposed to know whether what you’re writing is worthwhile?

 

Here are three places to start:

1. Get a professional opinion.

You have to pay for this, but it’s worthwhile to get your work assessed at some point in your writing process, preferably sooner rather than later. This is a high-level opinion, but from someone who knows good writing. People who read for a living are qualified to pick apart your work and tell you what’s working and not working. Writing is a craft, and you may be an amazing storyteller with a story that lacks good character development, or a memoirist with an important message who doesn’t understand reflection. Your friends and family are not good readers for your work. While all readers are subjective, friends and family are the most subjective. Set a manageable budget: five hours, for instance. You can glean a lot from an assessment prepared on a five-hour read about what you’re doing well and where you need improvement.

2. Submit your work to contests and at conferences.

Judges of literary contests are selected because they’re readers. They love good books and good writing, and they have wisdom and expertise to impart. Contests are valuable not just for the accolades you might get, but for the feedback. It’s a cheap way to see what a stranger thinks of your work. Read the contest guidelines and see what the measures are, and ask what kind of feedback you’ll get back from the reader/s. Similar to contests are evaluations that you pay for at writers’ conferences, where agents and editors read and evaluate your work. To me, this is more valuable than the pitch sessions, where you get 2-5 minutes with an overwhelmed editor who’s just going to say, “Sure, send me your work,” but who cannot possibly give you a meaningful opinion of your project or writing based on your pitch.

3. Submit your work to an agent or a publisher.

Many writers I know are so eager to pitch agents and editors that they go out too early, before their books or proposals are fully cooked. But if you’re suffering from a need to know whether there’s any merit to your project, I believe (though some may disagree with me) that it doesn’t hurt to send to a handful of agents or editors (not both at the same time) to test the waters. This can be a futile exercise because it’s possible you’ll never hear back, but many agents and editors are generous with their time. Many read query letters and/or submissions and can and will offer professional guidance. She Writes Press offers an assessment of 25 pages of writers’ work, and there are other presses and companies with similar services, where you get a guarantee that you’ll get feedback on your writing.

Outside opinions matter, but you want to get them from objective parties who actually know something about writing. Everyone fancies themselves a critic, and a lot of people really think they’re helping you when they give you “constructive criticism.” I’ve seen writers derailed by feedback from writers in their writing groups, hired editors, and especially family and friends, so proceed with caution.

The follow-up question to “how do I know if I’m good?” is invariably “how to I know if I’m done?” Approaching your writing as a hobby is not a bad entry point, but when you decide you want to get published, your mentality needs to shift. You need to approach this as a professional endeavor and seek out support. The more you practice your craft and become a true expert, the better you’ll be able to measure for yourself how close you are to the finish line. But if you’re struggling with the voices of inner demons who are berating your work, get help. It’s difficult to overcome those voices without support.

How have you found support or validation for your writing? I’d love to hear about what’s worked for you.  

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Comments
  • Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw

    Thank you, Brooke.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for sharing this, Veronica, and congratulations on your anthology credits.

  • I began writing fiction several years ago, out of a need to exorcise the demons that therapy had left unfazed.  I'd read a lot of noir growing up (we don't have to tell Mama that, okay? She thinks Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High were the extent of my 'literary interests') and I rather liked the idea of using words as bullets and knife blades to dispense 'bad people' in some darkened alley or rain-swept stretch of deserted highway somewhere between 'the middle of no-where' and "I don't know where the fuck we are".

    Okay, Veronica, that's all well and good, but you're not a writer.

    Good point!  I needed some help.  Like maybe a writing group?

    After chatting with a couple of Facebook friends I soon found myself a member of not one, but two flash fiction writing groups.  I've always loved a challenge and the thought of writing a story in only 1,000 words... or 500... or only 100... thrilled me from the roots of my long, dark tresses all the way down to the tips of my pink little toes!

    So, for the next year and a half I "honed my craft", cranking out two stories a week, giving and getting critique from fellow writers... professional and amateur alike.

    The people in those groups were the most welcoming, encouraging and supportive people I have ever encountered.  Their advice and feedback was invaluable and I gained a confidence I doubt I would have found on my own.  I've been writing fiction for the last six years and I can't imagine ever not writing.

    So, where does the validation come in?  Well, it turns out that in those groups of writers, both published and unpublished, there were also editors.  Editors with 'publishing cred'.  One day, out of the blue, I received a request from an editor to use a story I had written in one of my writing groups in an anthology he was putting together.  That was followed by another.  And then another.  And before you know it, I have been published in six anthologies.  I AM a PUBLISHED author!

    Now, if THAT isn't validation, I don't know what is.

    The people I met in those flash fiction groups and the women here at She Writes as well as Vicki Abelson's Facebook group Women Who Write... the friendships that have developed... 'networks' built on... that is all 'priceless'!  Supportive, nurturing, encouraging... everything a would-be writer needs to succeed.

    Well, that and copious amounts of coffee, chocolate and wine.

    Writers are born, not made, but it takes a village for a writer to grow and thrive.  I am blessed to be part of such a village.  A village of people for whom the concept of 'not writing' is as alien to them as a Martian landscape.

    A village whose raison d'etre is to write.  To tell a story.  To touch the soul of another.

    Words are our oxygen.  If we don't write... we don't breathe.

    Ten years ago, I suffered through a six month ordeal that nearly claimed my life and to this day there are still holes in my memory.  Not of the ordeal... I remember every single hellish moment of that.  But of my life before.

    I don't write to be remembered.

    I write to remember.

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    The more difficult evaluation is whether feedback is based on the writing or the publisher's assessment of marketability. With The Sandoval Sisters' my agent provided me with copies of every publisher rejection, all of whom commended the writing, but who still said no. Only one or two mentioned marketing, but the only word echoing in my mind was the big N-O. Still a quandary balancing ego and novice insecurity with ambition and that gut desire to get your words out there.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Great point, Kala!

  • Kala Pierson

    It's also useful and interesting to think about the differences between "validation" and positive critical evaluation. 

    And while competitions have their clear uses, I usually encourage others to approach them as tools and not think of them as potential sources of validation.  By competitions I mean both opportunies with that label and any other highly competitive opportunity (since Hedgebrook came up, that's at 3% acceptance -- in other words, significantly more competitive than Yaddo, Macdowell, or virtually any other U.S. residency).

  • Patricia Robertson

    Sophie, thank you for the info on Publisher's Weekly! Just submitted a book for review. Wish me luck! :)

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for a very helpful post, Brooke.

    I just applied to Hedgebrook for a residency.  I suppose if I am offered one, that could be a form of validation.  I have a woman in the writer's group that I am leading who has written screenplays in NYC.  She is very encouraging.

  • Morgan James

    Thanks for the reply, Brooke. I hear what you are saying about "too cheap."  $70/hour is certainly a good value for industry credentials.

  • Shary

    Thank you, Brooke! Also, getting my book to a flurry of blogger/reviewers, including Cumberland Library, Book Fidelity and Crossroads Reviews, has really helped me gauge the interest in my memoir topic (Insatiable: A Memoir of Love Addiction) as well as secure feedback about my authoring savvy!

        

      

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Sophie, interesting. I didn't know they offered that service. Thank you!

    Morgan—I'm sure this varies so much. We do this through She Writes Press at a rate of $70/hour, so $350 for five hours. You get comprehensive feedback for this amount of work. And there are many private coaches and other sites that offer similar services. But I would be wary of people who are too cheap. You do want someone who has industry credentials to be looking at your work.

  • Morgan James

    Excellent points. Just wondering, what is the going rate for a five-hour assessment? And what would the assessment be based on? Five hours of the first pages? Or what? Thanks.

  • Beatriz Fernandez

    When I decided to write poetry for publication, I embarked on a series of phone/online tutoring monthly sessions with an established poet I had admired for a long time who had excellent teaching credentials as well.  Many professional poets offer these tutorials for reasonable fees.  She helped me advance my writing in leaps and bounds over what I would have been able to do on my own, in addition to validating my writing.  Knowing that she thought I was publishable helped give me the confidence to persist.

  • Karoline Barrett

    I felt validated after I found an agent, which is why I never wanted to self-publish. When she got me a deal with Penguin for my cozy mystery series, I felt truly validated!

  • Judith Newton

    I've done all of the above. Agents don't generally give you any feedback. Contests are often a shot in the arm and screenwriting contests supply notes, which are often very helpful.  There's nothing like submitting to a professional, however.  I do that after my manuscript has gone through two different writing groups and my husband.

  • Isobel cunningham

    Good tips. I especially like the caution about five minute pitches to editors at conferences. Will keep this in mind.