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?