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  • [Reality Check] Set Your Standards. You Never Know Who’s Paying Attention.
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[Reality Check] Set Your Standards. You Never Know Who’s Paying Attention.
Contributor
Written by
Zetta Brown
February 2013
Contributor
Written by
Zetta Brown
February 2013

You don’t have to be a genius to love reading, but that doesn’t mean a genius won’t read your work. Bill Gates dropped out of college and Albert Einstein dropped out of high school. Both of these men went on to affect life on this planet today.

Ever wonder what books they read?

When my novel Messalina – Devourer of Men was first released, I had a strange thought, but a thought that has followed me ever since. Basically, I asked myself the question, “Do you know who is reading your work at any given moment?”

Well, do you? Is it your friends? Your doctor? Your pastor? Your mother? The young student sitting next to you on the bus? The single mother with three jobs? The CFO of your bank? I’ve been an avid reader all of my life, and I read a wide variety of things. The fact that I didn’t know who was reading my work and either enjoying it or hating it made me think. We may have our “target audience,” but it doesn’t mean no one else will take notice.

After nearly twenty years of editing people, I’ve come to appreciate those who can appreciate the craft of writing and the power of the written word.  If you don’t believe that writing can be influential then you have never been persuaded by a clever advertisement or angered by a news article or blog post.

If you ever get to hang out with a group of editors or publishers or other authors, more often than not, the topic of “quality” will come up. What—or who—defines quality? Does everybody agree to this standard of “quality?”

Hell no.

So does this mean that you don’t have to care about the quality of your work?

Hell no.

If anything, you need to set your standards to meet a level of quality you can live with. The words “quality” and “standard” do not mean the same thing.

Here’s what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has to say about each word. A standard in this context is “something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example”; whereas quality is described as “a degree of excellence,” “a distinguishing attribute.”

Notice how the definition of standard mentions “general consent.” Well, sunshine, in the publishing world, there ain’t none, and when it comes to determining a “degree of excellence” with regard to quality, that’s subjective too. If you don’t believe me, think about the OSCARS or any other award ceremony.

If you are contracted with a publisher, they will have their own set of standards that they will have measured your work against before offering you a contract. When you are self publishing or trying to present your work to agents, etc., it can be difficult to know what’s good enough and what isn’t. The truth of the matter is that there is no one, set measurement. YOU have to determine your standards and use them as your guide.

We may laugh at sci-fi fanatics who note every minute mistake with glee or cringe when a reader of historical fiction soundly criticizes an author for an anachronism. But these are two examples of why it is important to take standards into consideration when you are seeking an audience for your work.

So what can you do when it comes to setting your own standards? First, you can start by knowing what you don’t know. Next, decide how you want to deal with your weaknesses—if you deal with them at all. Make a list of improvements. For example:

  •  Do you have problems with grammar and punctuation?
  • Do you struggle with plotting?
  • Do you need help creating suspense?
  • Does your manuscript look sloppy and you need help creating a presentable, readable document?

Take this list and decide if it contains things that you can fix these on your own or if you need to ask someone or hire some help. Are you willing to seek improvement? Is it really necessary? Is it too much bother?

Finally, make a list of things that you are good at when it comes to your writing that you wish to maintain, such as:

  • developed characters
  • intriguing plots
  • thorough research
  • attention to detail

The result you come up with is your level of standards. Don’t be intimidated if your standards are higher or lower than the next person. If you can live with them, that’s all that matters, because I can guarantee you that others will be able to live with them too.

Call me a snob if you wish, but personally, I would rather err on the side of knowledge than ignorance. What I mean by this is that I’d rather my work be seen as competent by those who can tell the difference and set my standards accordingly. Those who don’t know the difference won’t care.

I’ve had authors complain to me about my insisting on certain things when other authors/groups/genres/publishers don’t. Conversely, I’ve had authors compliment me for taking so much care in certain areas, areas that may go unnoticed by the casual observer (reader) but may be significant to those who “know better.” The reason for this is that we all have our own set of standards.

Consider the following, especially if you have been in this position or have regarded an author in this way:

There are authors making lots of money because they can crank books out in quick succession to a hungry audience. As time goes on, the quality of the writing usually diminishes if the author is not careful, and they risk alienating their fans. This happens when the once ravenous audience start to criticize the author for letting their standards slip. Fans will accuse the author of “selling out” to make a quick buck at their expense and will feel insulted. Some fans will stay loyal to the author but others will move on to someone else, never to read another book by that author again.

When setting your standards, they should be realistic, but still demanding enough so that you have a sense of accomplishment once you meet them. Never write down to your audience. Write up to your standards.

 

©2013. Zetta Brown is the author of several published short stories and the novel Messalina - Devourer of Men. If you like this post, then stop by Zetta’s Desk or Zetta’s House of Random Thoughts.

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Comments
  • Beth Anne Reed

    I love this - quality is subjective and we should come to our own conclusions after serious consideration of the aspects which are important within our own realm.  Thank you.

  • Zetta Brown

    Hi ladies! - I usually try to reply to comments made on my posts quickly, but it's been a hectic few weeks! Just because something sells doesn't mean it's a quality product. Think about $.99 stores. Heck, it may be a bargain at $.99, but do you expect it to last?...Really? The same can be said at the other end of the spectrum. Why pay $500 for a designer purse when you can get a good one at $10? Designer products can have defects--or you could get a knockoff somewhere;). The point I'm trying to make is that you need to put your best effort forward with regard to your work.

  • Urenna Sander

    Thank you, Zetta. This is very insightful.

  • Great post, Zetta.  From my perspective  -  a former Quality Assurance professional, turned novelist -  you nailed it.  (Look who read your post!)

  • Karyne Corum

    Zetta, I think you summed something up really well that often gets ignored in the general melee that we call daily writing life and lessons.  I have abandoned several writers because their standards became about getting more money and less about writing a good book.  I think the concept of setting personal standards instead of adhering to "universal" ones is a great insight. Comparing yourself to everyone else is a sure way to get nothing achieved.

  • Sally Whitney

    You have some good ideas here, Zetta. I think one of the hardest parts of setting and meeting standards is to not let yourself give up too soon. It's always tempting to accept the first solution to a writing problem that comes to mind, but if you make yourself keep digging you'll probably come up with something better. Also, you're absolutely right that we never know who will read and be affected by what we write. I joined my first writing group in 1989, and I still remember verbatim some short poems written by people in that group. They have no idea their work resonated with me that much, and sometimes what keeps me going is thinking that somebody out there may be similarly affected by one of the stories I've published, even though I'll never know.