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In a writing class I took while in college, a classmate who generally wrote very poorly once cited Ayn Rand as proof that he wrote very well. Essentially, because he thought he was doing good work, and because he had interpreted Rand’s philosophy as an invitation to exclude external opinions, he figured he was a pretty solid writer.

Philosophers have pondered what “good” means since shortly after pondering was something human beings became equipped to do; it’s not a simple question to answer. When it comes to judging your own creations good or bad, I think it can be even harder, for you tend to lack distance from what you’ve written. A fellow at a writer’s group meeting I attended recently had written a piece that, to him, described very clearly a scene in which a conveyor-belt system conducted fortune cookies in front of a group of people. To him, the image was crystal clear, but nowhere in his prose had he mentioned any mechanical system of conveyance; to us readers, the description was very unclear. Yet what he wrote matched what was in his head because it was already in his head. He simply lacked sufficient distance from the material to divorce it from the pictures in his head.

I got at this a bit last week when I write about revision. And though it’s something I think about a lot, it’s not something I’ve resolved for myself. I know when I’ve written something I’m excited about that I think may have the potential to be good, and I generally know when I’ve written a real stinker, but I always have a nagging fear that even the things I think could be good are in fact dismal and that I’m seeing them through the thick fog of my desire to write something good.

So. How do you know when you’ve written something good? What are your criteria for judging your work? And how do you stack your work up against the work of others (if you do)? And do you trust yourself? And can you trust your friends’ opinions?

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  1. Great post. Good for me is doing what’s right. As for work and relationships, it’s giving your best!

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  2. Lots to think about…
    I especially like your discussion of what is clear in ones mind,
    not necessarily translating to the written word.

    Thanks…
    Siggi in Downeast Maine

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  3. I can only claim if I’ve written a good article when my editors approve of it. Frankly speaking, I like what I write, but it doesn’t mean that it’s good. We write for the readers. So, unless the reader says I’m good, I ain’t!

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  4. I have just finished the first 52000 words of my book and got my certificate from NaNoWriMo2011. I wrote it using free flow writing and I am a little scared to read because it might be a lot of bad. I don’t know how to rate good for myself, it could change from day to day depending on my mood and how I’m feeling about myself.

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  5. I usually ask someone who is a good writer and is either part of (or equivalent to) my audience, or knows my audience well, to read what I have written to offer critique. That usually works well.

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  6. great post and one that i’ve asked myself often. I try to write a day or more ahead (since i write primarily fiction)…and to let it “percolate” for a day or two first, and then proofread, edit, proofread.

    then wait and repeat…

    and thus far, for me at least, it has worked.

    (my blog is erotic fiction, so don’t go reading there if you are offended by sex…)
    nilla

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  7. I think I am my harshest critic. Not immediately after writing, of course, when I am too closely attached to whatever I’ve written. However, after time passes I can judge myself a little better. I’ve read several things of mine (some that actually were published) and cringed at what I had written. Alternatively, I recently started browsing through old writing in search of inspiration and found things that I think are actually good. How do I judge? The same way I judge students’ work, does it clearly and interestingly convey an idea? Did I try too hard to be creative and play with words, or did I write with clarity from the heart? I can usually tell when I’m forcing it. However, when in doubt, I ask someone else to read.

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  8. I remember teacher once saying to someone else that I wrote ‘well’. What does that mean? That I’m not sick? I think when stuff comes streaming out and I write it down like when I’m trying to write a poem or song lyrics, sometimes some good stuff comes out. Other times I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But you know. It’s a sure bet if you’ve written a page or two of free flowing, throat clearing stuff, there’s going to be something in there. Like now I’m just writing junk here. Who knows what’ll come out. I find that I also write like I talk. Not necessarily grammatically correct. Well. I guess I should keep this short, so thanks for letting me flow.

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  9. I’m reminded of the American Idol contestants we all laugh at. You know the ones I mean … their self image is center-of-the-universe confident, while the opinion of the general public is more toward the-bottom-of-the-barrel. Whether singers, writers, politicians, or game-show hosts; the problem is the same. Self-perception is not objective by definition. Still, self confidence produces more work than debasement. I think the trick is to keep looking for ways to improve, rather than being tempted to think “I’m already good enough”.

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  10. To me, I try to imagine what a reader would think of my writing. I become the reader, and judge the writing on its clarity. Does it get the point across which I’m trying to make, or is what I wrote confusing? When I do this, I’ll usually discover a sentence or two which really don’t make sense and don’t get my point across. So I’ll change it.
    I try not to judge my work against others. I feel we all have our own voice, and if we judge our work against everyone else’s, we’re bound to find ourselves wanting.
    I’m never satisfied with what I write. I always feel I can do better; but if I write to be perfect, I’d never write anything.

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    1. Your last is a very good point. I often find myself paralyzed because I don’t feel like I can write something quite as well as I’d like. But surely it’s better to get something on paper that you can shape than not to write at all.

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  11. I write it, I read it; then, leave it alone. If it hits any emotion while I’m reading it I feel I’ve done what I set out to do. Get the readers emotions to the surface. Whether happy, sad, angry or indifferent the emotion, to me, will keep the reader interested. My main issue with revising and editing is that I spend way too much time changing grammar, comma’s and puntucations and doubting whether I’ve done them correctly.

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  12. Nice topic. Tough topic too. Good is always relative. Like what they say, what is meat for this person could be poison to another. Same meat for the same person becomes a poison after over-dosage. What is meat for this person TODAY could become poison to the same person after a while. So, relevance is always the key in keeping it “good”.

    You will feel good when 30 people says what you write is good. Then you feel miserable when 2 or 3 people wrote a long essay to condemn what you wrote was rubbish.

    You feel bad when 30 people says your writing sux. Then you feel better when another 2 comes a long and say they truly understood the priceless key takeaway in your writeout.

    When you think about these two scenario together, you realized that positive feedback was good all along and you didn’t really quite bother with the number of people who strongly objected to your writing that much. You looked out for if they had left something constructively and just moved on bravely.

    So, good is hard to measure. Perhaps it’s a feel of current situation and supply a relevant topic that makes you good. If you managed to select a rather timeless topic that will be deemed as relevant for a long time to come, you will be perceived as a good writer. Otherwise, trust in your own style and your own feel. Believe in yourself and in others’ opinion. Then, trust in your own development over time.

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  13. The basic purposes of the mind,and the basic nature of Man,as discoverable,are constructive and good,uniformly constructive and uniformly good,the solutions modified only by observation,education and viewpoint.Definitely, Man is Good!
    Take away his basic aberrations and with them go the evil of which the Scholastic and the moralist were so fond.The only detachable portion of him is the “evil” portion.And when it is detached,Man’s personality and vigor intensify.And he is glad to see the “evil” portion go because it was physical pain.and most importantly because everything God created was good!

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  14. Like you, I generally have a feel of the quality of my writing; and also like you, I fear that even the ones I think are good are actually not.

    I usually ask a friend of mine to read something I’ve written and be the critic. So i’d say the blogging platform where a lot of random readers can comment is a good way to judge one’s work.

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  15. Honestly, I’m afraid that my writing is like…. You know how a person sings and thinks they’re good at it but everyone is afraid to tell them that they stink? I love to write but I do worry that my writing stinks to high heaven without me realizing it.

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  16. My editor (myself) discourages me from writing. When I shut it off, I write, but I don’t like it. Sometimes, I will look back on something after several weeks and like it, but mostly, I think it’s junk. Sometimes a reader will really like something and I don’t see any good in it, but I try to trust the reader.

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  17. Seems to me the first question to answer is “what is good?”. Only then can one decide if what one has written is good. Trying to answer what is good leads us naturally to Plato. I’m going to pick Plato’s Theaetetus where Socrates debates Protagoras’ famous maxim that “Man is the measure of all things”. In other words what you think is good is good to you. As Socrates noted, what may be good to you might be crap to most other people. So what are we to do?

    Sticking with Plato, in “Crito” Socrates argues against fleeing the city to avoid his execution. He argues that since the city made laws it thinks are good for it and since Socrates himself chose to live in that city then he must necessarily abide by the judgement of the city including the judgement that he be executed. Similarly, we might determine that what is good writing is good only if other writers (which ones – the majority, the influential ones etc) judge the work to be good.

    When the impressionists started out, they were derided by traditionalists. Now no one with a “good” eye thinks Monet inferior to Titian. Or do they? Who knows? What we can say from observation is that what is good for a group of people may not be so for a different group. Rome thought it was good to erase Carthage. It’s unlikely the Carthaginians thought so. The biblical God thought it was good to erase the first born of all Egyptians. It’s also unlikely the Egyptians thought likewise.

    In art, we can safely say that “good” depends on genre/style/education and experience of the reader/viewer/listener and so on. Hunter S Thompson may be good if you like that jumbled up style but for me personally he’s just a nuisance. I think Vasily Grossman’s Life And Fate not only “good” but excellent but many westerners don’t have a clue who he is. Back to Plato’s Crito, Socrates argues one should take advice from experts – on fitness from a trainer, on health from a doctor and so on. In modern science we are trained to not trust one source but to critique and seek out a multitude of views. Likewise in writing, “good” can be assumed to be by common consent.

    To get back to the point then, how do I assess if what I’ve written is good? I think I’ve written something good when I’m excited about my writing with the same heat of excitement I have after reading a really “good” book or author. A bit of circularity there. If despite my heat, virtually everyone else thinks my work is crap then I may well be self-delusional and mad. Vincent van Gogh died with few people thinking his work good but today we all think he was a genius. So what is “good”? Perhaps only the gods know.

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  18. Great food for thought in this post. Generally the more nervous I am to post, the better it end ups being (as weird as that sounds) I think it is because those are the posts that I am passionate about and passion affects writing and all art. As to “what is good?” Subjective but I would say good posts make me feel something. Journalism reflects facts, when I read blogs I want the feeling behind the facts. Thanks for the good think. 🙂

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  19. When I write a blog post I sometimes take death defying leaps of logic. I start on one topic and wind up someplace entirely different. The transition makes perfect sense in my head but when I review my work I realize it would not be clear to others. That’s a blog. Dashed off. Spontaneous. The reader may have to risk whiplash reading my posts.
    Stories are different. What’s clear in my head must be clear to the reader. This is terrifying because what is perfectly clear to me may not be so clear to the reader and because it’s clear in my head I won’t even realize it. I think it’s important to get some distance from the writing process to get a little perspective. You have to see it new, without ownership.

    The goal is for the reader to feel like he’s watching instead of reading. The reader doesn’t have to see it the way I see it but he or she does have to see it. You don’t have to describe every character in detail. Just provide some detail that makes him more than a faceless mannequin.
    You don’t have to describe every scene in detail either. Everybody knows what a conference room looks like. But again some little detail helps to make the scene come alive. A flower arraignment or a picture on the wall. It’s a plus if the detail says something about the story.

    Of course there are details that can be vital to the plot. ‘George knew there was something wrong as soon as the stepped into the conference room. There it was. The door in the back wall was on the left instead of the right. That’s when he knew he had passed through the looking glass.’

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  20. Matching my writing to what’s in my head is often why my work communication was misinterpreted! I assumed they all could see things the same way I did. Thanks for making this clearer for me. I have to work on that more.

    I hopefully take the time to read my post out loud to myself. I find many problems that way. Otherwise, I don’t worry too much about whether my writing is good because for me it’s therapeutic.

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    1. If you think you are no good then you would not write, so keep on writing and improving, and who knows, you may touch one heart somewhere, and that is all that matters, touching one person.

      Written by Susan Oliver owner of A Fun Gift Shop

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