Is my writing good? Is it great?

Somewhat to my surprise, this site is now getting links from poetry and other creative writing websites. Welcome, if you’re a creative writer. One of the questions which people seem to be interested in is how to critique their own poems. In other words, people are asking themselves the question: how do i evaluate my own writing?

This article should help, at least a little.

I’m a professional writer. That is to say, for the last 20 years, my core professional skill which I have been selling to my employers is the skill of writing. I can say, fairly objectively, that I’m a good writer – people who publish me once usually do so again, in fact, they ring me up or email me and ask me for material. My employers come to me (and have done for many years) when they want excellent writing. And when people hire me for contract jobs, it’s usually for writing. Not everything I write is brilliant. But I generally know what’s wrong when it isn’t. Sometimes this is because of deadlines, sometimes it’s because of a process mistake, such as submitting something before it was finalised. Sometimes it’s because the concept behind it was a thoroughly bad idea. Generally, these days, I try to tell people this rather than somehow create something worthwhile out of something that isn’t.

That’s professional, business, marketing, journalistic and PR writing, though.

Creative writing is a very different matter. It’s often hard to know whether what you are writing is the most amazing thing since Yeats, or, in fact, utter tripe.

What I’m going to suggest is that it is absolutely, definitely possible to know whether or not your writing is good (that is, as long as you can distinguish the good from the bad in other people’s writing) but it is not possible to know by reading whether or not your writing is ‘great’. I’ll explain why in a minute.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, after many years of thinking about it, I’ve concluded that the artistic process can be summarised with the acronym ART, standing for Alternatives, Realisation, and Transformation.

Alternatives is about originality and appropriateness. An artist considers (perhaps unconsciously) alternative approaches to what they are going to do. If you simply adopt the ‘bulldozer’ approach, of the most obvious (to you) approach, you will not create art, though people who have a radically different approach to life from yours might well imagine that what you are doing is highly original. Finding an alternative approach which is uniquely appropriate to what you want to do means your work will be original — even if others have used a similar approach for their own purposes at other times.

Realisation is about the quality of the way you turn your original idea or concept in reality. Some failures of realisation can be sorted out later on. Bad spelling is irritating, and unforgivable in a published script, but there is no reason why it can’t be fixed by someone else who can spell after you’ve finished it. Injudicious writing can also be sorted out, though there is a point at which the editor becomes co-artist, not merely an adjunct. TS Eliot famously dedicated The Wasteland to Ezra Pound, whom he described as ‘Il miglior fabri’ – the better craftsman, because he rescued what was otherwise an inferior poem. Most problems of realisation, though, can only be sorted out by the author as they write, or as they revise.

The final component is Transformation – it’s a change in the audience as they experience the work of art. One of the paradoxes of art is that the artist can never experience the art in the way that the audience does. It’s one of the peculiar joys of music and other collaborative artforms that the performer can experience a part of that, because the whole is greater than their part. However, for a solitary artist such as a writer, that particular pleasure is denied to you.

Great art — at least to my mind — is art which has a consistently great impact on its audience, and comes to be regarded by them as transforming in some way. For all its flaws, the Lord of the Rings is a great book. For all their formal perfections, virtually all of the reviews which decried it when it first came out were not.

By this token, it follows that you can’t know if your writing is great. And this is something which is borne out by experience. Many critics who were able to judge the qualities of other people’s writing have imagined they have created a great work. Gauguin, for example, stated that he saw his “Where do we come from…?” as a work comparable to the Gospels in scope. Gauguin’s painting has certainly stood the test of time, but (as far as I am aware) not even the most enthusiastic of critics has ever suggested that its importance was on that scale. The Beatles once described themselves as ‘bigger than Jesus’. However, 40 years later (but 1970 years later than Jesus), Jesus is now a more searched for term on the intranet than the Beatles.

But back to creative writing.

You can’t know if your writing is great. But you can know if it is originally appropriate, and if it is well written in a way that best brings out that original appropriateness.

Let’s explore this for a moment.

Good writing begins with wanting to say something. The all-too-familiar ‘blank-page-syndrome’ comes from the desire to write without actually having anything to say. You don’t necessarily need to be inspired (you might just be cross), but you do need to want to say something. This is one reason why many fine writers of lyric poems and short stories struggle with long poems and novels — if what they want to say is ideally suited to the short form, then they will be spreading it thin in the long form. But great writing, or even good writing, is not a matter of simply stating what you want to say. There are many ways to tell a story (and a story is itself one of many ways to say something), and the ‘alternatives’ part of the artistic process begins with considering how best to tell it.

The opening scenes of the film “The Two Towers” depict Gandalf fighting with the Balrog in the depths of the mines of Moria. But in Tolkien’s original book, this fight is never depicted — it is recounted by Gandalf several chapters into the book. To my mind, Tolkien’s way of telling the story is infinitely better.

In Macbeth, the murder of Duncan takes place off-set, so that it is described, twice, by Macbeth himself. We assume one of the descriptions to be the true one. In Roman Polanski’s film Macbeth, not only the murder of Duncan, but also many other things hidden in Shakespeare’s play, are presented straight on the screen. It’s generally believed that Shakespeare relinquished the attraction of having a murder on stage early in the play in order to maintain sympathy with the Macbeth character until later. I have to say I really didn’t enjoy Roman Polanski’s film, but I have seen a number of recreations of Macbeth wich stuck more closely to the original which I felt were very satisfying.

Consideration of alternatives does not only apply to long works such as novels, films and plays. Keats’s To Autumn (which seems to be one of the main attractions of this website, alongside the Pathetic Fallacy) is, in my view, one of the finest lyric poems in English, particularly given the unpromising subject matter (for the record, most great poems are about God, Sex (or love) or death, or a mixture of all three). One could imagine that Keats has adopted the obvious approach with his “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…” But in the second stanza, he shifts the treatment, and personifies autumn as a woman. And in the third stanza he changes the treatment again. Keats had the lyrical ability to carry on with more epithets about Autumn for three stanzas, rather in the same way that he goes on and on in ‘On leaving some friends at an early hour’. The change of treatment, however, lifts To Autumn from a Romantic nature idyll to something much more.

The consideration of alternatives at the genesis of a work of art is something which happens often silently and without conscious thought. But if you find yourself setting out to imitate what someone else has done, or to repeat yourself, or to take the most direct route to getting your thoughts onto paper, then chances are high that what you produce will not be the best you are capable of.

Originality in itself is insufficient. In fact, complete originality is impossible, or, at least, dysfunctional. If you make up your own literary form, in your own language, using your own script and distribute it by an entirely new means (for example, by arranging apple peelings in a park), then it is unlikely that anyone else will ever appreciate what you have done. Rather than striving for something which is different from anything which has ever been done before, consider rather the appropriateness to what you are saying. Perhaps these words suggest a more mechanical process than really exists. Often we talk about “Who, what, when, where, how, why”, but writing generally begins with “Why?” (intention) through “What?” (the subject matter), and then on to the how, when and where. But all this is before you begin writing. In the settling of each of these, choices must be made. Appropriate choices lead to good writing. Inappropriate choices lead to bad writing.

I mentioned before my own particular failures in commercial, marketing, PR and journalistic writing. Aside from the things which i just didn’t finish properly, the most common reason for failure was trying to write something in an entirely inappropriate way. A pompous treatment of a light subject always fails (though a mock-pomposity can be very effective). A trivial treatment of a serious subject also fails. Again, most of this was a result of failure to consider what other ways there might have been of tackling the subject.

On to realisation. Assuming that you have something to say, and a way to say it which is appropriate and original, the simple task of writing is to put that into written words on page (or whatever you use). There are lots of great books about how to do this. Speaking personally, I’ve never found any of them to be of any use whatsoever. Even Ursula K LeGuin’s marvellous Steering the Craft I found inspiring rather than actually useful. As far as I’m concerned, the only way to learn to write is to start writing, and then read and revise what you have written. Write, read, revise. That’s all there is.

Ultimately, the length of what you write has to be determined by how fast you can write, read and revise something at a quality and depth which suits your purpose. Lyric poetry requires every word to be absolutely perfect — not something which can be done quickly or easily at great length. Keats, for all his genius at short lyric poetry, signally failed to write the great long poem he was hoping to create. Read his Lamia and Hyperion if you want to get a sense of how a great lyric poet could be bogged down in his own writing.

Quality and depth are two different things. A lot of Shakespeare’s words are not very deep, although, for soliloquies, he is able to write some of the most profound words in the language. However, it’s very hard (if not impossible) to find ‘wrong’ words in Shakespeare. It is said that he wrote straight off, without ever blotting a line. If this is really true, it explains why he was able to write so much, but also to control character and plot so well — one of the greatest problems of writing is that the actual writing of words slows the author down, so that the characters and the plot get lost. The individual words may be fine, but the quality of the work as a whole suffers.

Aside from the advice of write, read, and revise, I don’t have a great deal to offer you. But this article is not about how to write well, but about how to know whether or not your writing is good. This is a much simpler matter:

Good writing — at the realisation stage — is about saying the thing you really wanted to say memorably. To be memorable, there must be no distractions which lead the reader away. Bad spelling and grammar are distractors, but these are easily fixed. Poor choice of words distracts: words which jar, or are wrong for the sentences they are in. Clumsy rhythm and awkward sentences distract. Too many words or sentences, which slow down the reader and cause them to lose the thread — these too distract. Missing explanations or confusions distract at a more profound level. Most of all, characters who suddenly speak or behave out of character concentrate the readers’ minds on the inconsistencies — leading them away, therefore, from what you are saying.

Therefore, the main question which you should ask yourself as you determine whether or not you are writing well, is ‘does it distract from what I am saying’. Sentences which do should go. Beyond that, does the piece as a whole say what I am saying? And is it memorable? If you want to know whether it is memorable or not, ask yourself, do I remember it? If the page was lost, would I tell the same story, recount the same incidents, include the same sentences, use the same words? It does not have to be memorable at the word level — one of the greatest problems of writers is concentrating on the words at the expense of the story — but it has to be memorable at some level. As a reader moves on through the story, they must have some memory of what went before. If they have no memory of a section, and this is important, then they get lost later on. If they have no memory of a section, and this makes no difference, then the section was redundant, and merely a distraction to the main story. Of course, a passage may be memorable and yet not be required later in the book. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Three Men in a Boat, one of the most perfectly funny works of comedy ever written, is full of charming, memorable scenes (and many memorable lines which are quoted by people who have never read the book), but here isn’t really much of a plot, and there is no real need for one. The frame narrative of rowing up the Thames is merely a way of stringing together a series of delightfully observed vignettes of the human experience.

To summarise. If your writing is memorable, free of distractions, and says what you want to say, it is good writing. If the choices you have made about how to say this is the right choice, then you are writing well. And if (in addition to these things) what you want to say is interesting and apposite, then what you produce is actually good.

How good?

If this is what you are discerning, then it will be as good as (but no better than) your discernment. If you can’t tell the difference between Enid Blyton and John Masefield, or between TS Eliot and WH Auden, then one of the things you need to do if you want to be a really good writer is to learn how to distinguish better between the good, bad, and indifferent. If your critical faculties are sharp, and you can answer yes to the questions above, then your writing will be very good indeed.

Will it be great? Only time — and your readers — can tell.

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