Is your writing “good”?

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Are you constantly assessing the quality of your writing? Does it mean you’re self-aware or paralysed by perfectionism? Inez explores the topics of standards, objectivity, and what it means to be a “good” writer.

Anyone who has been in the fiction writing world for longer than five minutes knows that it is extremely competitive. Writing is one of the few hobbies available to us that doesn't require expensive equipment or travelling anywhere. All one needs to write a book is a word processor and some inspiration. Last year, with many of us staying at home due to the lockdowns caused by the pandemic, more books than ever have been written.

These days, anyone can self-publish a book on Amazon Kindle with just a few clicks. For those of us who are pursuing a path in traditional publishing, we know that agents are flooded with thousands of query letters every day. In the crowded publishing industry, how do you know that your writing can stand out from the crowd?

The external environment isn’t the only challenge. Many of us suffer from self-doubt and impostor syndrome. The standard query package requires a comp title and choosing one can trigger an existential crisis. At least, it does for me. How can I compare myself to a professional, polished, wildly popular book and keep a straight face? I don't know if my book is readable, much less “good” in any meaningful sense of the word.

Worse, I suffer from a particularly bad case of perfectionism. I wrote several books and rewrote those same books multiple times before I even went looking for a beta reader who wasn't a friend first. It took me years to move past the beta reading phase to consider querying. When I finally took the plunge and sent out a batch of 20 query letters, I later got advice from a professional editor who politely but heavily criticised my query letter.

Yes, it was grammatically correct and everything made sense. Yes, I'd received generally good feedback with only a few suggestions that I had already implemented. However, this editor was adamant that while not derivative or actively bad, there wasn't enough of a hook to catch the attention of agents. She was right: out of the 20 query letters that I sent, I received only one request for a full and then… the flurry of rejections came in. I was devasted that I’d wasted 19 queries on a blurb that I had genuinely believed was “good”.

After receiving the editor's feedback, I looked at my query letter with fresh eyes. The blurb didn't capture what my book was truly about, and I had fallen into the trap that entangles so many of us: I'd added too many proper names and wasted words on details that simply don't need to appear in a blurb. After a moment of despair and a large bowl of ice cream, I once again rewrote the entire query letter and sent it out for a fresh round of feedback. I'm still angsting about whether this new version is "good".

This is why I am using so many quotation marks when I talk about something being “good”. Everyone has a different standard by which to measure good and bad, and in an industry as subjective as fiction the standards seemed to change person by person, day by day, and trend by trend. Part of me wants to shrug and say, “Well if there are no objective standards about good or bad, then what's the point? Why can't I just do what I want to do and ignore what everyone else says?”

Well, here's the truth: if you're doing something entirely for yourself, that's fine, but it's a hobby. If you want to bring other people along on your journey, and even ask them to give you money for it (i.e., buying your book), then you must adhere to some external standards.

So, how do you know if your book is good enough for readers? How do you know if it's ready to be released into the world?

The correct answer is probably the simplest answer, which is: you don't. There will never be a point at which beta readers have nothing negative to say or where agents will be banging on your door asking to read the full manuscript. Readers will always prefer other books over yours.

However, there are some standards that you can try to meet before querying or self-publishing. I won't pretend like they're hard and fast rules, but here are my suggestions for things you should check off your list before sending your book out into the world.

[1.] Get feedback from three to five beta readers who are not your friends or family. Why three to five? I don't know—and I have certainly had more than this—but I have heard from other writers that three to five seems to be the sweet spot. If you have fewer than three beta readers, you may not get a complete assessment because every reader has a different perspective and taste. More than this and you may suffer from an overload of different opinions and get stuck in an endless cycle of revisions.

[2.] Participate in competitions. Personally, I am not a very competitive person, so I don't get a huge thrill from participating in writing competitions. However, it does help me gauge how well developed my writing skills are compared with others. When I participate, the natural tendency is to focus only on my own entry, but I fight that urge and look around add other entries. If I don't like them, I think about how I would improve them. If I like them, I assess what they did right. Then, I bring these ideas back into my own writing and pitching process.

[3.] Expect to write a lot. I mean, a lot. You've probably heard of the 10,000-hour rule and writing is no exception. Don't expect your first second or even third book to be agented or a top seller. It's all part of the process, and the more you write the better you will get—especially if you pair practice with critical feedback from beta readers.

Finally, accept that your writing will never be perfect. This is easier said than done, and I am a living, breathing example of someone who has yet to really believe this lesson deep down in my core. I still yearn for perfectionism even though I know it's impossible and letting go of a dream of being a “good” writer, one who is beyond reproach, is hard to let go of.

So, I’ve decided to strive for “good enough”. That means good enough to pitch to agents, good enough to attract readers, good enough to be chosen over some of the hundreds of thousands of other titles being added to Kindle every day.

And from where I'm standing, my writer friends, "good enough" seems more than enough.

If you're struggling to find a good beta reader who will provide constructive criticism and is sure to help you improve your writing, you're not alone! Why not enter the Slushpile Monster's writing contest to win a free critique from an experienced beta reader?

Also, don’t forget to join our mailing list so you never miss any of the games or competitions! We also share resources for writers. It's much more reliable than getting updated on Twitter, and we also have special mailing list-only content!

Inez Rodk (@inezrodk) is obsessed with all things fantasy and sci fi, both as a writer and reader. When she's not lost in a book, you can find her getting rowdy at a pub or tiling her house. She is an official beta reader for the Slushpile Monster's writing contest.

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