This piece first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’ll be republishing each of my BHfW columns here over the next few weeks.
I don’t know, personally, whether it’s merely difficult or actually impossible for writers to judge our own writing well. You write a story that you’re convinced is the finest thing you’ve ever written and send it out to the world, and it’s only 18 months and ten rejection slips later that you decide it really wasn’t so good after all. Or you scribble something up in a rush that you think is unremarkable, and everyone who reads it tells you it’s great.
This stuff is frustrating. If we don’t know how well we’re doing, how can we do better? And how can we ever have any confidence in our own work? If we can’t really judge the quality of our own writing, even something that sells can feel like a fluke, a bad call on the part of an editor. A few thousand adoring fans can be an effective cure for this, but they are hard to come by in those numbers.
It does make sense, though, that we can’t be perfect judges of our own writing. If we could, we’d immediately see and fix all of the flaws, never suffer any doubt as to changes we might need to make, and never be upset by a rejection. Further, being able to judge the written work would mean completely ignoring all of the imagined things that went into that work, not allowing them to influence the reading at all–yet we have to be intimately involved with those imaginings in order to write the piece in the first place.
It seems to me that it’s important to recognize this blindness, this inability of any one person–especially the author–to make any kind of final judgment about a piece of writing. If we don’t come to terms with this limitation, we’re doomed to crash repeatedly into the jagged rocks of reader and editor opinion, to be amazed and horrified at the difference between our beliefs about our own work and everyone else’s. Some writers (you may have met them) do exactly this, assuming that if they write work they deem brilliant and readers don’t agree, then the readers are deficient. That way lies madness–and also failure and a really annoying personality.
But though we can never be perfect judges of our own work, there are steps we can take to be better at judging it. Here are specific techniques we writers can use to get a new perspective on what we write:
- Get someone else to read it. This can be a critique group, a friend, a relative, a teacher, etc., although all of these kinds of readers are problematic in one way or another. Teachers and other writers have ideas about how things should be written that don’t necessarily have to do with how well something reads, and friends and relatives tend to be biased. The ideal feedback would come from a group of people in the target audience who don’t have a connection to the writer and don’t write, though that’s not an easy group to recruit.
- Let time pass. I don’t know about you, but for me it’s very difficult to let a piece sit when I’m excited about it. I want to send it out right away and get some kind of excited response in return. Yet if I let a piece sit for weeks or months (or at least a few days), then when I come back to it my experience is much closer to that of a normal reader than it was immediately after I wrote it, when I still had all the supporting ideas and images swirling in my head.
- Read it aloud. Some people have no use for this approach, others swear by it, and yet others (like me) might like it if they tried it but never seem to get around to trying it. If you’re in that last group, consider having a computer, Kindle, or other device read it to you. (I’ll be giving this a whirl myself.) You can even use headphones.
- Look for specifics. Another way to get perspective on your work is to analyze it instead of reading it to experience it. You can go through the piece checking for voice, plot, sensory detail, character, or practically anything else. One friend of mine goes through printouts of his work and highlights things like action, moments that show character motivation, and themes in different colors to check the balance and pacing. You might like to use a checklist: I have one I’ve compiled of the best ideas I’ve come across, “The Virtuoso Writer’s Cheat Sheet,” which I use to try to remind myself of all of the ways I could improve a given story.