Judging The Quality Of Your Writing

In the previous post I said there’s no relationship between writing quality and publication. Book deals are made for economic reasons, not because great writing makes the world a better place. If a prospective but marketable writer stinks, the industry will hire a ghostwriter, treating content as just another part of the manufacturing process.

I said the same thing in a recent spat with Jane Smith. I said the same thing when Sarah Palin’s book was announced. I’ve pointed to, and will continue to point to, incidents where publishers have failed to meet the same standards they routinely accuse unpublished and independent authors of failing to meet.

I understand why publishing wants to promote itself as the sole judge of quality and merit. Such status equates to power, and power in the marketplace equals money. But publishing’s credibility is so completely corrupted by its own actions that nobody in their right mind would take the sole word of a publisher, agent or editor when it comes to judging writing on the basis of quality, any more than one would try a case if the presiding judge had a vested interest in the outcome.  

On Being Blind
There’s no disputing that most people who attempt to write — and particularly those who attempt fiction — falter in their initial attempts. Complicating the problem is that almost everyone who tries to write is truly blind to the quality of their output. (The only people who aren’t tend to be egomaniacs, but you can’t reason with them so we don’t have to worry about them here.)

I talked about the problem of blindness in a series of posts on writing workshops. While ego is always present in a workshop, most workshops have no profit motive associated with them. If the workshop is in a scholastic setting, the teacher gets paid whether the students are good or not. Contrast this with the marketplace, where agents, editors and publishers rely on the output of writers for their mortgage payments. In a workshop there’s no motivation to lie and no motivation to pass over good writing simply because it won’t sell. The emphasis is always on quality and effectiveness, not marketability.

On Being Free
The collective relief that I and other writers feel — including people who have been working professionally in other mediums for years — comes from the fact that the publishing industry can no longer control access to readers. From a quality standpoint, however, the ability of anyone to publish anything (on the web or in print) means there is no longer even a self-interested bureaucracy insisting on a given level of authorial competence. People who can’t write a convincing line of dialogue or an emotionally moving sentence have the same access as people who can carry a literary tune. Because the industry’s gatekeeping apparatus was the only game in town, it did function as a qualitative filter, occasionally plucking a wonder from the constant influx of muck, while generally rejecting people who didn’t have the chops — even as it also rejected people with amazing but non-commercial chops, or points of view that wouldn’t sell to mainstream audiences.

The question now is, who gets to decide? Who sits in judgment of writers who want to be judged today?

Sitting in Judgment
The answer is both simple and complex. It’s simple in that no writer should be asking the publishing industry to judge the quality of their writing. If you do not know how good your writing is, do not send it to an agent or editor or publisher. Their job is to judge marketability, not quality.

The question is complex in that every writer’s needs, abilities and goals are different. If a writer is writing for personal enjoyment, then their writing needs to be judged on that basis. If a writer is trying to tell a story that others will enjoy, or communicate information to others, then that’s the test: is the writing enjoyable and informative; is it powerful and clear or muddy and confusing? Similar questions should also be asked before a writer tries to take a work to market, and that includes the new online, world-wide marketplace we call the internet.

If you’re not ninety-nine percent sure that what you wrote is good, either as a result of long experience or direct confirmation from trusted readers, then the last thing you should be doing is banging on an industry door and demanding a response, let alone publication. To the extent that this advice necessarily decreases the workload of editors, agents and publishers — who are constantly inundated with bad writing — that is a byproduct of my intent. My desire is not to make life easier for people in publishing, but to make sure that no writer allows the publishing industry to invalidate the quality of their work when industry judgments are almost always made based on marketing criteria (assuming a minimum level of literary competence).

Taking Responsibility
If you want to set the literary bar as high as you can, go for it. If you want to have your book published by a mainstream publisher, I cheer you on. But before you make that attempt you need to know — not just think, but know – that your book is good. And if you’re an honest and humble writer, having as much confidence as possible in the quality of your work before you send it out should be critical to you.

Unless your spouse or relative is a writer in their own right, and unless you have incredible trust between you, asking people close to you to validate your work is not a good idea. Beyond the fact that family members probably won’t have the reading or writing chops to comment with authority, the main reason you shouldn’t ask people close to you to judge your work is that they love you and don’t want to crush your dreams. If you live in the same house, the prospect of blow-back or unending anguish will almost certainly corrupt the feedback process.

If you can find or start a workshop, that’s a good option. If you already have trusted readers, listen to them and ask them to be honest about whether your work is ready. If you are all alone on an island with broadband, reach out on the web and ask friends or peers for feedback. If you work in a large company, find the marketing department and ask if anyone is a writer along your own lines. Wherever you can, seek out readers who are interested in providing feedback — as long as no money changes hands.

Take on the responsibility of judgment yourself, but don’t do the judging. Get a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth. Make it impossible for the industry to reject you on any basis other than marketing.


This is a reprint from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.