Why I Won’t Say Whether Your Writing Is Any Good

Carol Tice

Writing coach won't critique your workHave you wondered if your writing is good enough to earn a living from?

Many writers have emailed me asking this question. They’d like my evaluation of whether they’ve got what it takes.

They want to know what books they should read about the craft of writing, or what classes they should take. Sometimes I have a suggestion or two there.

But when writers ask me, “Could you read this article and tell me if my writing is any good?” I never give them feedback on their writing.

There are four reasons why:

1. Writing is so, so subjective

One reader’s masterpiece is another’s staggering bore. It’s lyrical poetry to one, puerile fishwrap to another. My opinion would be just that — one person’s opinion. I’m not the Oracle of Truth here. It wouldn’t really change anything.

2. Standards for writing success vary

There are a ton of mediocre writers earning a living (if you don’t believe me, go to your local Chamber of Commerce and read the brochures), so if you’re not brilliant it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t make a career from writing.

Depending on the type of writing work you want to do and how much you want to make, even pedestrian skills might cut it. I know writers who earn $10,000 a year who’re thrilled with that.

3. I don’t want to kill your dreams

If your writing truly is awful, I don’t see why I should have to be the one to tell you that. I don’t enjoy being the bearer of bad news.

And — see #1 — I could be wrong, and then I would really feel horrible about telling you not to pursue writing. Or I’d feel stupid, especially if you win a Pulitzer 10 years from now or have a blockbuster novel. It’s a lose-lose scenario, from my point of view.

4. The fact that you’re asking is a red flag

Here’s the biggest problem with going around asking random people to critique your writing. If you’re doing that, it means you don’t believe you’re a good writer.

To do this for a living, you have to know you’ve got talent. Not from any outside feedback, but from deep in your soul.

If you don’t feel that writing is the talent you were meant to share with the world, my telling you your writing is brilliant won’t help. You won’t believe me.

On the other hand, if you do know you’re good, you shouldn’t need to hear it from me.

If you’re worried you aren’t a good writer, you probably need to improve. You should dedicate yourself to writing a lot and building your skills, or find another line of work.

Who should critique your writing

I’m not saying you should never ask for feedback on your writing. Far from it.

But asking a random blogger you know isn’t the best way to get input that’s truly useful.

For that, you want editors. Professional editors. Ideally, editors you are working with on an assignment.

They thought you were good enough to write for them, so you have a common understanding there. And from that understanding, you can seek to get even better.

I learned everything I know about writing by doing two things: writing tons and constantly peppering my editors with questions. When I got my first regular freelance publication clients, I would haunt the editors’ offices and ask things like:

I notice you changed my lede from X to Y in this story. Why?

You cut out my paragraph three. I thought it had really important points. Why’d you do that?

I loved this word that I used but I saw you eliminated it. Why?

Can you help me cut this 5,000-word draft down to 3,000 words?

As you’ll recall, I was kind of an idiot newbie writer, so I just kept asking. A good editor will help you improve your writing.

Even a bad editor can help. I had one editor I thought was awful, but he pushed me super-hard and helped me understand the mechanics of how to write a compelling article like never before.

Editors see a lot of writers’ work and usually have been at their gigs a long time. They look at writing in an analytical way, all day long. Drink up their knowledge.

How to become a great writer

There is one more reason why I turn away writing-critique requests.

It’s that your writing is evolving, every day. Maybe you had a bad day when you wrote the piece you’re handing me. Maybe you’ll write like mad the next six months and you’ll improve tremendously.

A piece of writing is a snapshot in time. If you’re passionate about writing, you will constantly strive to get better. Who doesn’t wince when they look at things they wrote long ago?

There is no golden moment when you achieve writing excellence and then you magically maintain that level from there on out. Think of all the writers whose second novel flamed out.

There is only trying to improve.

Recently one writer wrote me:

“How long did it take you to perfect your writing skills? Six months? A year? Five years?

“Any feedback, information, or advice would be greatly appreciated!”-Yvette

My answer: “Still working on it.”

So here’s my feedback on your writing: If you know in your heart you have writing talent, and you’re committed to working to polish that skill, my bet is you’re going to do fine.

Who do you get feedback from on your writing? Leave a comment and let us know.

52 Comments

  1. David Nordella

    You strike me as a kind person, Carol. Many of the people that approach you for your opinion are doing so because they feel that you will be sympathetic with their “plight.” They want to succeed in a competitive field without risking rejection.

    That is why they approach you instead of an editor. They might have to listen to criticism. Heaven forbid!

    I received unconditional love from my mother. She would edit my papers for college with skill and style. She was an English major from the University of California, Los Angeles.

    My adolescent moods did not sway her from coaching me while she was editing my work. I picked up a copy of “The Elements of Style”with her encouragement, a book which still guides my thoughts decades later. I am grateful to my mother for her love and her ability to maintain writing standards.

    Thank you, Carol, for writing this post. You have triggered a lot of happy memories for me.

    • Carol Tice

      Wow, what a great mom.

      If people are asking me because they think I’ll go easy on them, they don’t know me very well. 😉

      But I’d hate to think anyone would make a decision whether or not to be a writer based on my feelings about their skills. That feeling needs to come from inside, that writing is your gift.

  2. Lorraine Reguly

    My biggest compliments come from readers of my blog who say that they have subscribed to my blog because they like the way I write. However, I write with honesty and openness and think that these are contributing factors!

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