More than a couple times, I’ve heard a newer writer say, “I just want to submit my stuff and have somebody tell me I suck.”
Aside from the masochistic urge of being knocked, if you know you suck, you’re wasting everybody’s time submitting.
Even more than “I just want to submit my stuff and have somebody tell me I suck,” I’ve heard people say, “I just want somebody to tell me I’m good.”
It’s Not About Being Validated
It feels good to hear, “You’re a good writer,” but if your worth as a person hinges on your writing being accepted, I have to think you’re in for some heartache.
If you have to ask if you’re a good enough writer to make it, you probably aren’t; you probably need to keep writing.
If you stay busy and do what you’re supposed to do as a writer, you’ll know you’re good without having to ask.
Here are five hints that you’re a good writer:
People Tell You You’re Good
I’m not talking about the people closest to you giving you a pep talk and saying you’re good — I’m talking about people in the know telling you you’re good.
- Take a creative writing class; are you consistently one of the best writers in the class?
- Has anything you’ve written advanced in a reputable contest?
- Do writers you respect tell you that you’re good (but still point out how you can be an even stronger writer)?
If you hear you’re good from people who have no other reason to tell you that you’re good (i.e., they don’t have to live with you moping around the house if they say, “This is a bit weak…”), you’re on the right track.
Step back and look at your writing.
Really look at your writing.
If somebody handed what you write to you, would you say, “This is good.”?
Do you think everything you write is good? If you do, chances are you’re kidding yourself. (Or you’re a rare genius.)
Most writers know when they can make a scene stronger; they also know when they’re on to something a bit more.
If you can look at your writing with objective eyes and see the good and bad, if you’re not already a good writer, you’re at least moving in the right direction.
Compare your work to the writers you aspire to. Can you hold your own with them?
Does the mere thought of comparing what you’re written to the writers you revere make you cringe a little? If so, keep writing!
I’m not saying that when you compare your writing to the best writers out there that you leave them in the dirt (because you probably don’t), but you should feel confident enough in your writing to see it on a shelf in a bookstore alongside other writers doing similar work.
If you feel you still have a way to go before feeling that confidence, keep writing.
Put your writing in the hands of people buying short stories, articles, novels, screenplays — anything that pays. (Okay, so short stories rarely pay, but you know what I mean.)
If you get nothing but rejections over a period of years, you probably need to keep honing your skills.
While submitting your work is subjective, part of making it as a writer is seeking out the right places for your writing, and if you don’t see some occasional success over the years — while it doesn’t always mean you’re not good (publishing is full of great writers who faced wall after wall of rejections) — it could be a good indicator that you still need to figure out a few more things.
You Don’t Have to Ask
Unless you’re kidding yourself, you’ll reach a day when you know you’re good.
Even if you’ve faced nothing but rejections that run along the lines of, “You’re talented, but this isn’t my thing,” you know people are recognizing your abilities as a writer.
Not making it big isn’t always an indication of whether or not you’re good; some people just don’t make it, despite their abilities.
Of course, there’s always room for growth; I think most of us — even if we meet great success as writers — will die feeling that we could have been even better.
But if you’ve heard you’re good from the right people; if you can step back and see the good and bad in what you do; if you deserve a spot on a shelf next to the people you aspire to be like; if you’ve met some success when submitting your work…you don’t have to ask if you’re a good writer or not because you have the confidence to say without any doubt, “Yes, I’m a good writer.”
So…are you a good writer?
Inspiring article – though is self doubt an indication you could be wasting your time trying to write? What if you’ve been writing for 10yrs and have met with very little or no success with your writing? Or is it just the standard nerves and worry a writer will always have about their work?
Christopher Gronlund says
I think self doubt is natural–even after writing for years. In fact, when I’d been writing for a decade or so, that’s when doubts came along. (Maybe because when I really started writing–at 20 or so–I felt everything I wrote was good.) When I started writing, I sold stories. Then when I got better, I didn’t.
Writing seemed harder; I wasn’t selling much. I didn’t have big doubts because I had sold things and had a couple close calls for big sales, but doubts were definitely there.
Non-fiction gave me renewed hope. When I started selling travel articles, I felt “worthy” again. I was making more money than I’d ever made writing and my articles were read by hundreds of thousands of people. But it wasn’t what I really wanted to write. So I put all writing aside and finally tackled the novel that I’d been putting off out of fear that I wasn’t good enough to pull it off. Even now, there are parts I’m not sure about, but that’s natural. Despite the doubts I had while writing it, the book is the best thing I’ve ever written, and probably the most “me” book I’ll ever write.
Don’t let doubts stop you. A look at many successful writers shows a lot of people who didn’t really make it until their 40s, 50s, and 60s. And in most of those cases, it’s not like they started writing one day and made it big; they wrote for decades. Writing’s not easy, and I think having doubts about what you do is a sign that you care enough to strive for being the best you can be.
It’s easy to kid yourself that you’re good and never look at what you do with a critical eye, but as long as you don’t let doubts stop you from writing, I’ve always seen having those doubts–in a roundabout way–as something good.
What’s a good place to start submitting short stories? Any examples of magazines (online or paper)?
Christopher Gronlund says
Thanks for commenting, Michele. It really depends what kind of short fiction you write.
It’s always worth seeing if a local library has the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (http://www.amazon.com/Novel-Short-Story-Writers-Market/dp/1599632284). For genre fiction, go here: http://www.ralan.com/ and check out the markets in the top header. (They are divided by pro, semi pro, pay, etc.)
These two places should be a good place to start. Good luck!
p.s. To answer about the type of fiction, I suppose you could say I(try to) write humorous short stories, something between realism and humorous magic realism… If that doesn’t sound too boastful!
All the best,
Christopher Gronlund says
Michele: I’ve always liked that kind of thing. When I’ve tried submitting that kind of story, I’m often met with, “Hey, liked this, but it’s quirky,” but at the same time, there are authors I like you have made a living writing that type of thing. Good luck!
Stefan Mital says
Pretty good but it doesn’t answer my qeustion. How to tell if your a good writer. That was my qeustion.
Christopher Gronlund says
I know it’s not a definitive answer, but when you’ve passed enough of your writing around to people who aren’t going to tell you that you’re good because they are afraid of hurting your feelings…and they tell you that you’re good, that goes a long way (i.e., you’ve submitted enough work and had things accepted, or at least received positive feedback).
The answer is really this: you just know.
You don’t kid yourself. You can step back and see your writing sharing equal spot on a shelf, or people willing to buy it when they have other options. You’ve seen your writing get better over time and you know you’re at a level where people are willing to invest their time or money into ready what you write. This still may not be the answer you want to hear, but it’s the best one I know.
Desiree Green says
Just finished reading your article and I like it. You give hope to us self-doubters out there. I have been writing since I learned how. I remember I use to write on notebook paper and my mom would tie the holes w/ string to make a little book. In a life that is complete disfunction; writing has been the only mainstay. I have never wrote to make money, but lately people in my life have been pushing to submit some of my stories. I’m extremely afraid of rejection. I’m terrified that my fears about being a crappy writer will be confirmed and I really don’t know how to go about dealing with that. Do you ever read other writer’s stuff? I guess I’m sort of fishing here, but what the hell, can’t hurt, right?
Sophie Dyball says
I was just looking for some advice on where to submit articles. I’m just a beginner and am wanting to make a start. Where would you suggest?
Christopher Gronlund says
Sophie: Check out http://www.writersmarket.com/ I haven’t used the site in awhile, but it was worth it when I was writing more articles than fiction. The online version of the Writer’s Market allowed some good searches based on what I was doing at the time. The book (http://www.writersdigestshop.com/2012-writers-market) always helped me brainstorm by flipping through and thinking about articles I could write for different publications.
Media Bistro’s (http://www.mediabistro.com/) Avant Guild (http://www.mediabistro.com/avantguild/benefits.asp) is another good resource about how to pitch, and what editors are looking for. Again, it’s been awhile since I’ve used it, but the annual fee was always worth it and something I keep up even when not in use.
Another thing I used to do is go to the library and look at the periodical section for inspiration and editor names in the masthead. At the end of the year, many publication produce a listing of all the articles they published the previous year. That’s a great resource because it allows you to look back and see if they recently published something similar to what you plan to pitch to them. The research desk should be able to help you find these listings.
I hope this helps! Good luck. I had luck with some magazines and larger newspapers simply by giving myself credit and pitching what interested me, while being prepared to adapt to the publication’s needs.
Matthew Kent says
I know this article was from a while ago but i have a very important question. I’m only 14 but i have come up with a couple of things my friends quite like. I’m not sure if this is reliable because they are like my main friends. Nobody has suggested any improvements on my work but i am still not very sure. Should i plan a career in music writing?
Christopher Gronlund says
Matthew: It is an important question. I know a lot of adults might discredit it as being “important” because you’re 14, but…when I think back to when I was 14, so much of the adult I am today was shaped during that time.
It can be hard to know if one’s friends are being totally truthful or not. But when I think back to when I was 14…uhm, 29 years ago…my friends would either be honest with me or have teased me a bit if they didn’t think what I was doing was good. With juggling, the little writing I did, and even art…my friends saw in the things I did…something worthwhile. I’m still friends with these people, more than two of your lifetimes later, and I still have their respect for the things I was passionate about then and am still passionate about today. Just as I respect them and all their realized dreams and turns along the way.
Right now, if I’m even in a position to offer advice (I’m not what one would call a successful writer and have no children of my own to whom I’ve offered advice), it would be seek out what you get from your friends…and seek out advice from good teachers. Not bad teachers, but good teachers; they are definitely out there. I encountered adults along the way who were bitter and took great pleasure in telling me all the things I wanted to do when I got older were a dream and that I should give them up and do something “sensible.” Find the teachers with heart, let them know what you want, and ask them for advice and help. The Internet can be a great place for feedback, but it can also be harsh, as I’m sure you more than know. Find the people with your interests at heart and never be afraid to ask for help!
I’m lucky in having parents who believed in what I wanted to do. My father was a bit on the fence about writing, but when he read some of what I wrote before he died when I was 22, he was one of my biggest fans. If your patents are behind you in their support, you have people even better than teachers. Also, what you’re doing right now: write to people who at least appear to know what they’re doing. If you want to pursue a career in music writing, write to the people you respect. Maybe most won’t have time to reply, but some might. In what you wrote to me, there’s no sense of entitlement — you just want information. There are people who will be generous with what they know…being humble and asking for advice really can go a long way.
You have a long way to go in life. I know you probably don’t want to hear that at a time when everything seems sooooooooo amplified and vital RIGHT NOW, but it’s true. That you’re even thinking about the future means you’re ahead of many others your age. I’m not really at liberty to say whether you should pursue a career in musical writing, but if it’s dear to you — by all means — do it! You may get advice that you should have a fallback plan…and as much as it may sound typically adult, it’s not bad advice. But even in that “fallback” thing, make it something you care about. And do what you love even more on the side. Work hard to make it your life. It can be done. My most successful friends are those who didn’t just get a job because it paid well — they are people who may have done some jobs they hated along the way while working hard at what they most loved, but…they eventually made a living doing something they loved. And they now take their position as examples of a dream seriously.
A good example of a friend who had a “fallback” plan and made it all work is John Picacio. John started out studying architecture in school while still doing what he loved (comic books and painting), and along the way he took that chance and now he makes a living doing what he loves more than anything in the world. I’m friends with a lead designer at Epic Games. I know musicians and other cool people. At the same time, one of my happiest friends is a software architect who works a normal day job. I have other friends who have done the same. It really can happen., but also realize that things can take time. I’m 43, and I’ve had my moments as a writer, but still have yet to be telling stories full time. I am a full time writer, making a living as a technical writer supplementing income with other writing, but I did think I’d be a full time novelist by this point in my life.
But really, as much as I once craved the thought of being a full time novelist (and still do), I’m happy with my life. I’ve been with my wife for 20 years, I’ve juggled for 31 years, and have great friends and a fun life. Sure, I want to tell stories full time, but if it never happens, I’ve had enough close calls to know that I’m good. What’s even more important is just being happy.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in “making it” — even putting that success on your own worth. I’m guilty of it, and I’m old enough to say that it was a foolish thing to do that caused me a lot of misery. Still, I don’t laugh at my younger self because a huge advantage of being young is that belief in big things! Never lose that belief in dreams and the things you want, even if the way to those dreams may not come as quickly as you hoped. I have more than a few friends who found their big success in their 30s and 40s, and in a weird way, the taste of victory was a little sweeter for them for having struggled along the way.
I don’t know if you should plan a career in music writing. I don’t know what the state of music writing will be like when you’re at an age when being published is likely. But I do know this: if you love something, it’s worth doing. Things may change along the way, but if you love something, you will figure out how to adapt it to the times and it just might end up even better than you once imagined!
I may not be in a position to say, “Yes, Matthew — plan that career as a music writer,” but I will say, “Matthew: why not? Why not take that chance. Know that it may not work out as you envisioned, but do what you love.” At the time to decide, “The dream or stability,” take a chance. If that chance doesn’t pay off, choose stability, but…don’t give up the dream. Never give up the dream. Don’t sacrifice your life and security in a blind charge at a dream; keep a foundation beneath you, even if it means a little longer trek toward your dream, but never give up the things that matter to you!
I may never see a novel I’ve written on a shelf. I may work a normal job until the day I die an old man who never knew retirement. But I know this: doing what I love is worth it.
That fixation means I don’t give up. In a week and a half, I celebrate 20 years with my wife. We’ve had our rough times, but things are better each year. I’ve juggled a long time. Sometimes I stray, but when I come back, it’s like an old friend who never left my side. Speaking of old friends who have never left my side, I’m friends with people I’ve known since I was in first grade — even kindergarten! Not acquaintances — good friends! I don’t take anything for granted in my life and, as a result, I’m happy. Writing is just a facet of that happiness.
There was a time in my life that writing was everything. I gauged my worth on whether I “made it” or not. It was a hard lesson to learn that writing doesn’t define me. It’s a big part of who I am, but it’s just one of a myriad things that define me. So…the only advice I feel wholly qualified to give is this: take the chance. Accept that it will take another decade or two and be okay with it. Work hard at everything you do, but always keep room for the writing you love. There may be times you hate it, but no matter what happens — if you stick with it no matter what — you’ll have something most people don’t have: a body of work. And a body of work is a chance at bigger things!
I truly hope the body of work you will produce in the coming years brings what you hope…and I hope there are also surprises along the way. I’m sorry it’s taken a couple days to get to this. I have a lot going on with my day job, a tech conference I’m speaking at this weekend, and many other things. But you’re right: this is an important question: one that hasn’t slipped from my mind at all…I’ve carried it with me a couple days. I hope that somewhere in all my babbling you find something in what I said that you’re able to carry with you until you find what it is you’re looking for in all your dreams. If that happens, even if I never make it as a novelist, I’ll consider what I write here a huge success!
Good luck, Matthew! Sincerely.
Matthew Kent says
Thank you soo much! I needed this advice so badly and now that I have it, it will be extremely useful! You are clearly very intelligent so it wouldn’t surprise me is you ever made it, thanks again!
Connie Wesala says
I am completing an A.A. in Creative Writing and have been published in my college’s literary review every semester. I also received second place in fiction in our state-wide competition last spring. I have been submitting mostly to contests for short story since they do pay and regular submissions usually don’t. Each year I read Best Short Stories and wonder if I truly have the talent. My question is actually this: does it help to hire an editor (not agent) to objectively assess one’s abilities? And, perhaps, to make suggestions re: appropriate places to submit one’s work?
Thanks so much for this site and for your time. Connie
Pat W Coffey says