“Am I Any Good?” Taking the Measure of Yourself as a Writer

Am I any good?

I get this question a lot. Mostly at conferences, in one-on-one critique sessions. It usually pops up late in the conversation, after I’ve discussed the writer’s sample pages and given my critiques. Then there’s a pause, and the aspiring author sitting across from me looks as if he’s about to make some awful confession, like the curtain of polite discourse is about to fall, and we’re going to get to the real, unvarnished and possibly painful truth.

“So, am I any good?”

There are subtle variations. Sometimes it’s “Is this any good?” or “Do you think I can get this published?” But even when the question seems to be about the pages in hand, I can tell the real question is:

“Me— am I any good at writing, a craft which defines my life and my hopes and anxieties? Am I any good at this thing, which is another way of asking: am I, as a human being, as a person, any good?”

And that’s a lot to ask a guy you’ve only known for ten minutes.

An important thing we writers often forget is this: We are not our writing, and we are not our manuscript. It’s so easy to take criticism personally, to hinge our egos and self-worth to 100,000 words eked out on the evenings and weekends while our families and jobs clamor for our attention. I’ve often heard the advice “You need to claim yourself as a writer. When people ask, say I am a writer.” Which is great, but perhaps the better thing to say is “I write.”

I write. I also play music. I cook. I watch too much television. I read. I dance (poorly). I spend time with my friends. I’m a literary agent—a job I love. I’m many things, which is what I remind myself when I’m not feeling too hot about my writing (which is often).

Remember too that you are not your manuscript. No one book or selection of pages can cast the final vote on whether you are a good writer. By my definition, a good writer keeps writing—and crummy manuscripts are part of that process.

I think where this question really comes from is the idea of talent. Sure I can hone my craft, I can work hard, but if I don’t have the talent— something kind of mystical and inborn— I’ll never make it. Yes, some people have an innate knack for telling a story or writing a pretty sentence. But in my experience, the relationship between talent and success is slim. It’s the hard-workers, the grinders, the folks who write a lot, then listen and take criticism and grow, that make it.

So when authors ask me “Am I any good?” I always respond with a question of my own.

“Do you want to keep writing?”

Some hear this question and then, slowly, smile—not for my benefit, but inwardly, to themselves. They’re anticipating their next productive day, their next great story, the bliss of meeting a new character.

Yes. These folks, I think, are good.

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18 comments

  1. I love this. I’m an editor and memoir coach and I get a variation on this one ALL the time: “Is my story worth telling?” And what I say is, “Doesn’t matter. You have to tell it, don’t you?” Of course it matters that the story is written so other people are captivated by it, learn from it, transform because of it. But that’s not what they ask me. “Is my story worth telling?’ is a soul-level question that can only be answered by one person: the one who must tell it.

  2. This is so apropos. Thank you.

    “Do you want to keep writing?”

    Some hear this question and then, slowly, smile—not for my benefit, but inwardly, to themselves. They’re anticipating their next productive day, their next great story, the bliss of meeting a new character.

    Yes. These folks, I think, are good.

  3. John, thank you from the bottom of my aching heart, from the midst of my twisted innards, from flip-flopping, over-emotional center of my brain. This post is just what the doctor ordered, if there was a doctor to deal with this sort of affliction. I’m searching for what my philosophy of writing, or rather my approach to writing, is. Or needs to be. Your words really hit the spot. All I can say is, keep on dancing, John, keep dancing.

  4. Best line ever! “But in my experience, the relationship between talent and success is slim. It’s the hard-workers, the grinders, the folks who write a lot, then listen and take criticism and grow, that make it.” Great post, John.

  5. Yes. I would write even if no one else ever read my stories. I would write even if the ink was invisible and my stories disappeared and I could only read them that once. But I’m glad it’s not because I get excited each time I revise and bring my stories closer to where they want to be.

    Thanks for pinpointing the true path to successful writing, John…we need to keep on chugging along – writing, revising, listening, revising, learning, revising…I think I’m seeing a pattern here. 🙂

  6. I’m of mixed minds on this one…

    On the one hand, I completely agree. I am not my manuscript. I am not my latest, or my worst, or even my best work. Writing is simply what I do.
    And the answer to your question is an emphatic “yes”. It’s not a want, it’s a need.

    It’s also true that talent alone is not what sells books. There are many terrible best sellers out there to attest to this fact.

    Writing is art, and as such, “good” and “bad” are subjective.

    On the other hand, as someone who has made their living in this world (mostly as an editor and copywriter), who currently works as a freelance writer, the question is far more complex.
    Most of us come from a world with performance evaluations, with set expectations, and goals. We produce work, and it has to measure up, or we don’t get ahead.
    So we ask, “Is it any good?” “Am I a good writer?”
    It’s the artistic nature of writing that takes that question from the realm of “Am I producing good work?” into “Am I valuable as a person?”

  7. Changing my question right now to what I really want to know: “What will it take to get this ready to submit?”

    I know I’m a writer. I know I’m good, or have the potential to be good. I know that if I work hard enough, eventually I’ll write something that someone other than me will want to read. But I what I really want to know in a professional critique session is whether what I’m holding is ready to submit or if it needs more revising.

  8. I can’t tell you how much this encouraged me. Yes I do want to keep writing. I love that question you ask writers.

  9. Great post. I think this question also stems from a writer’s view of an agent. We get feedback from critique partners, beta readers, friends and family, but deep down, we wonder if their feedback is influenced by our relationship. An agent or editor’s perspective is seen as the ultimate objective standard (if they like it, then it must REALLY be good). So, I imagine this is why an agent gets asked this question so often:)

  10. I, almost embarrassingly, asked an editor I’ve been working with this very same question recently. It can be painful and lonely at times, even though we share out work with critique group members and maybe family. The publishing industry has changed so very much even in the 12 years I have been writing for children, and there seems to be a bit of a frenzied feeling of needing to get work published asap. When that doesn’t happen, the self-doubting questions creep in. So thank you very much, John, for your ever-grounding presence of mind and solid suggestion. I write. I read. I rock climb. I dance. I parent. I teach. I run. I hike. I am so many people wrapped into one.

  11. Writing is so subjective! About a year ago I submitted a YA story to a small publishing house. All 3 of the editors read it and sent me their comments. One editor responded with, “I LOVE it just the way it is.” The second said, “I see great potential but it still needs work. I think you should make some changes and then send it back to me.” The third said, “I hate it. The main character would never do that!” (referencing a scene).
    It was very interesting to me. These 3 people were all from the same small publishing house. I replied with a sincere thank you to each for their time. (For the 3rd editor, I politely mentioned that the scene in question was a true incident because it had happened to me.)
    Appreciate the opinions of others. Take special note of technical advice. That is universal.
    For story ideas, keep in mind the opinions of others will always vary. Everyone’s taste is different. Thank goodness for that! Otherwise we’d all get so bored! We must keep our head up and keep submitting!
    I really enjoyed your article. I look forward to learning more from you!
    Best Wishes!
    Mary

  12. Reblogged this on Whimsical Words Blog and commented:
    I’ve been a bit under the weather this week and physically not able to sit at the PC keyboard and write or re-write. It happens sometimes. But I discovered that my creative mind kept moving forward, thinking of improvements to my WIP picture book manuscript. I found that encouraging. The true writer’s mind never stops. And that’s good. Last year I had the delight of attending SCBWI AZ’s Welcome to Our House where Literary Agent, John Cusick of Folio Jr. headlined. I am posting one of his most recent blogs. Your input: I feel I am a good writer. Do you feel the same about yourself?

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