How do you know if you’re a good writer?

I remember very clearly the first time someone told me I was a good writer. I was nine or ten and had to write a biography about a person I admired. I chose my grandpa, a remarkable man in so many ways that would never earn him recognition outside his family. Loyal, kind, hard-working – he’s turning 90 this June and still spends hours doing yard work and fixing things for the widows on his street.

I wrote his biography, and my mom helped me type it up and print it out on her cutting-edge dot matrix printer. I stapled my booklet together, decorated it with my markers, and gave it to Grandpa the next time he and Gramma came over.

The only other time I’ve seen my grandpa’s eyes well up was on my wedding day.

Grandpa checks out the Union Jack boxers my British husband and I gave him for Christmas

Grandpa checks out the Union Jack boxers my British husband and I gave him for Christmas

He read through my story, shaking his head, grinning and murmuring, “My my.” He never once called me out on all the things I’d made up or guessed at – like what the weather was like on the night he was born (my opening scene).

Poor research skills aside, for the first time I felt like I could do something special. I could touch someone’s heart in a way no one else in my family could. They’re not writers, my family, so they made a very big deal of my creation.

For years afterward, “good writer” attached itself to my identity.

I’m guessing most writers have a similar story. You probably didn’t know you had a talent for story-telling until someone pointed it out. Let’s face it, not many six year olds sit back from their first crayon-scrawled story and think, “That’s some damn good stuff. I totally nailed what it was like to be a T-Rex in the Cretaceous period.”

The problem is that we quickly learn the equation “praise + recognition = good writer”, which means we convince ourselves the opposite is true: “no praise + lack of recognition = bad writer”.

As someone who’s writing novels with the goal of getting published, I often fall into this trap. Being named a finalist in a writing contest means I’m a good writer. Being rejected by an agent means I’m a bad writer.

But I also make my living as a professional writer, and that’s helped me learn there’s more to the equation.

Satisfied author + satisfied audience = job well done

I’ve tried to stop asking myself whether I’m a good writer. Instead, I’ve started asking whether the thing I’ve produced is effective, and if it isn’t, how can I improve it?

A lot will depend on my audience’s reaction. If I’m trying to get an agent but my queries are met with form rejections, does that mean I’m a bad writer? No, but it means my queries aren’t being effective. It means I need to work on them, get other writers’ opinions on where I can improve, and try again.

If I publish a novel but the reviews suck and no one buys my book, does that mean I’m a bad writer? As heartbreaking as that would be, no it doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer. It means that one novel I produced didn’t connect with audiences the way I wanted it to.

If I publish a novel and readers tell me it made them cry, does that mean I’m a good writer?

Hell yes!

Being a successful writer is not all about external praise and success, as wonderful as those are. It’s also about the process of improving. Of struggling to express yourself and not giving up until you’ve got it right – and recognizing that you’ll probably never get it exactly right.

When I wrote that biography of my grandpa, I didn’t do it thinking “I want him to feel so loved that he cries.” I did it because so much love bubbled up inside me that I needed to let it out, and the biography assignment gave me the perfect opportunity. Grandpa’s reaction wasn’t a consideration.

Too many of us forget why we started writing in the first place – not for the agent who will surely scream “Eureka!” after reading our query, nor for the longtime fan who’s sobbed over every one of our novels and named their children after the characters of our first novel (what, am I the only writer who has these aspirations?). We do it because we have thoughts and emotions we need to express. A huge part of being a good writer is satisfying ourselves.

The brilliant thing about writing is that you can usually start over again. You can write a new novel, where you improve the things that held your last one back. You can even rewrite term papers – you just might not be allowed to turn them in for a new grade.

Writing is not tightrope walking. One bad experience doesn’t mean game over. And as long as you’re struggling to improve your skills, you’re heading in the right direction.

Do you remember the first time someone told you you were a good writer? Do you over-rely on other people’s opinions to determine whether you’re a good writer? What would your equation for being a good (or effective) writer be?

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “How do you know if you’re a good writer?

  1. Your T-rex quotation had me laughing aloud. Thanks for that!

    I can’t remember the first time someone told me I was a good writer. I remember a lot of my professors telling me, “Whatever you do, it needs to involve writing!” I remember the same from readers of my old e-zine, come to think of it.

    What compelled me to write was more internal. First, I just wanted to be Elizabeth Wakefield. Then I decided I needed to write to help me understand the world better, which is where I continue to reside most of the time. If I read something and think, “That says exactly what I hoped it would!” I’m content. If someone else says the same? That’s the icing on top ๐Ÿ™‚

    This response should be considered a starter response. I’m going to be pondering these excellent questions as I go through my morning routine!

    • Katrina

      If I read something and think, โ€œThat says exactly what I hoped it would!โ€ Iโ€™m content. If someone else says the same? Thatโ€™s the icing on top

      LOVE this! Such a wonderful attitude. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I wrote a report about the human brain in sixth grade. I don’t remember what my teacher said, but I remember the look on his face when he called me up to his desk (which was, in itself, unusual) and the way I felt when I took the report back to my seat. A grown-up had actually *seen* me, and suddenly, a huge door opened. The whole world changed.

    I know I’m a good writer. Like everyone else, sometimes my work stinks or is (horrors!) mediocre, but that doesn’t change the underlying foundation. No one can take that away from me.

    My equation: Good Writer = Skill + Showing up at the page Every Day

    • Katrina

      Love your confidence, Sandy Sue – and your equation.

      Do you still have your report on the human brain? Do you remember what it said, or mostly just the feeling of having your work understood and admired?

  3. my 3rd grade English teacher was the first to tell me I was a good writer. so i started writing short stories for her. until my homeroom teacher made fun of me [she wasn’t very nice]. it took me a long time to show anyone my writing after that, but I didn’t stop writing. then my high school English teacher told me I should become a writer when I grow up, and I remember thinking “aren’t I one already?”
    about a year ago, I told a close friend [she’s my mom’s best friend, I’ve known her all my life, and she’s my “2nd biggest fan”] that I was working on my novel. she said, “hmm. that’s a big task to take on. now has anyone told you you’re a good writer?” and it sort of stopped me in my tracks. she had always just lovingly supported me & told me I could do anything. so it made me doubt myself for a beat. i still think about that sometimes, but i’m also still writing.

    so i guess i would say:
    writer + criticisms/doubt + continued will to write = success!

    or something like that ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Katrina

      Doubt’s a constant battle, KristenSays, but it’s so much worse when someone you love, trust and admire. Good for you for keeping at it. I definitely like your equation and hope it keeps your butt in the chair through all the hard times!

  4. I remember winning a story competition in school when I was 10. I can’t recall the exact plot, but it involved a magical tiger that had escaped into the suburbs. I wish I still had a copy! It gave me a lot of confidence and from then on I determined that one day I would write a book and get it published.

    Like you I generally would write things because I just had to get them out. Since then I have learnt the value of asking others to read and edit work before it reaches a more general audience, although there’s so much to gain by blasting any-and-all thoughts into a meandering blog (as I tend to do occasionally!).

    Regarding equations for being an effective writer…I think honesty is top; brilliantly worded prose is empty if it is all showmanship. Also, as Sandy Sue and Kristensays suggested, dedication and perseverance!

    Thank you for the great post! I would love to read the story about your grandpa ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I don’t know if it was the first time someone told me I was a good writer, but it was a memorable time. I had a teacher in high school that I took two classes from—Speech during Freshmen year and Media Productions in my Senior year. I had to write many essays in Speech class, though not many in Media Productions. Obviously, I had to write at least one, though, because my teacher told me he remembered what a great writer I was from the essays I had written for him four years ago! My heart still swells thinking about it now. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. I actually don’t remember the first time I was told I was a good writer. I do remember always making up stories and stuff. It’s funny because I always thought I was a good writer, at least to some extent, and the praise I eventually received backed it up. Oddly it was when I published myself is when I started to doubt my ability. I suppose expected the sales and the cash to just start rolling in instantly (a guy can dream can’t he?) and when they didn’t I sort of freaked out (doesn’t help I had an all or nothing mentality drilled into my brain since childhood haha.)

    It’s only been a week since I published and I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s like the purpose of my writing has changed from what it was before (simply something I needed to express) to something else (making money) and like I said not sure what to make of it. I’m probably just psyching myself out haha.

    Great post though. I believe I shall give it a Stumble Like so other authors can have a gander!

    • Katrina

      Good grief, you’ve sure sent a lot of traffic my way! Thanks for sharing!

      I think for most professional writers there’s a funny transition period where you go from writing for yourself to writing for others. My novels aren’t published (yet), but I work as a writer and one thing I’ve realized is that you still have to decide for yourself what you want from it. If making money from writing is important (and, if it’s your career, then of course it’s important), then throw your all into learning how to do that. But if you’re publishing your work because you want to share your ideas/stories, or to build recognition, then that’s different.

      Long story short, decide what’s important for you in this new venture, and put your creativity into accomplishing that.

      (Two cents from someone who’s unpublished. :))

      And thanks again for sharing and stopping by!

  7. ClockworkSoldier

    I cannot pinpoint the first time I was told that I was a good writer, it’s happened many times.

    My Mum always told me that I’m a good writer, but as you would, you’d assume it was just your mum being… Mum. I completely disregarded the fact that she’s a very well versed reader, her favourite book being ‘Catcher in the Rye’ – If I could stand up to that as a good writer… Nope. Motherly bias.

    Then I wrote a story for an assessment in year nine, for the most stern and unfriendly english teacher at the school (think the real-life personification of McGonagall), whom, after marking, made me stand up in front of the class and read my story as an example to the rest of the students.

    It was that same teacher that marked a year 11 paper, where I wrote a story again. I didn’t have enough time in the timed test to finish the story (40 minutes was way too short for my idea). When she approached me and said; “You didn’t finish your test…” I expected a scolding. I didn’t expect her to ask how I was going to finish it because she, “Just had to know.”

    I think it was mainly this unlikely teacher that encouraged me the most. I’ve been told the same thing many times by many people, but it’s never seemed to mean so much as it did to this teacher.

  8. Emily

    I was told I was a good writer when I was 13, by a professional writer a friend of mine knew. I’d recently started writing at that time, so hearing that I was good made very happy.

    I’d continued hearing from English teachers that I was a good writer. My creative writing teacher spoke about my writing to others when I wasn’t around. That same teacher also wrote, “You’re a talented writer…” in my yearbook, and I still smile years from now when I look at what she wrote.

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