Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why is it So Hard to Tell if Our Writing is Good?

Guys playing pickup basketball on the playground don't usually think they can step in and compete in the NBA.

Someone who doesn't own a guitar doesn't usually think he can become the next Jimi Hendrix.

Someone who can't draw doesn't usually think they're the next Georgia O'Keefe.

Why is it so hard for us to tell if we're good writers or not?

Just about every writer at some point has struggled with the Am I Crazies, not really knowing if they have the chops or the ability to make their writing stand out.

And, on the flipside, it sure seems like the majority of people in the world think they can write a book. And not only write a book, but write it as well as a published author. And not only just as well as a published author, but just as well as bestselling published authors who are among the elite in terms of building an audience and having their work catch on with readers. There are lots of people out there who think it's easy, think they could do it, and all but a handful are wrong.

What is it about writing that makes people put on the blinders and fail to recognize their limitations and makes the talented unable to recognize their own goodness?






240 comments:

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Jon VanZile said...

I'm first!

Because there's no way to keep score.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I agree with Jon. The criteria for great writing are totally intangible. We know what makes writing bad. That's the best we can do in qualifying it.

Cyndy Aleo said...

I told tight to the theory my crit partners tell me which is that that crazy people who think they are the next Shakespeare are the bad writers and the ones who think they suck every other day are the ones with at least some talent.

In other words, if you are replying to rejections by swearing at agents or if your query is on Slushpile Hell, odds are you aren't a great writer.

Note, however, that I fear every time I click that link in my feed reader that it will be MY query on there.

Tina Lynn said...

You got me. It would certainly my place in the universe apparent and your job way easier.

Trent said...

I think it's because the tools are minimal: time and a computer.

circo said...

Two things.

1) The shroud of secrecy surrounding the publishing industry (you have to be in it or actively trying to get into it to have the first idea how it works) combined with news coverage focusing on a small unrepresentative minority of wildly successful writers that emphasizes things that are not their writing ability.

2) The Dunning-Kruger effect.

Locusts and Wild Honey said...

Yeah, I think Jon's right.

Also writing is, as they say, so personal. I have heard people swear on their life that a particular book is the best book ever and then I try it and completely disagree.

I suppose we all admire different writing styles and that leads to less consensus and more confusion over what qualifies as "good."

Juli said...

Because it's impossible to look objectively at something you've created as you're creating it. The words you put on the page may seem incredibly entertaining, deep, clever, whatever as you're writing them down, but generally you have to step away from them for a while before you can really read them as they are.

Like, for me, I'll write something and think it's great, but I have to see it out of the context of a word processor (usually printed out) in order to be like, "Well, damn. That REALLY sucks." haha

Also, "good" writing is so subjective. Look at James Joyces's Ulysses - one person can pick it up and think it's absolute nonsensical rubbish, another person might think it's genius. You just never know.

Masonian said...

Holy mackeral, just had this conversation with a "writer" who told me (when asked what sort of novels he's working on) "Well, I'm only going to bother to write best-sellers or really high literary stuff so people will talk about me."

uh... So, how far along on that?
"Oh, I haven't started yet. but I blog."

I see. It's not that easy to write well. It takes years to hone your craft, even if you're talented. And even if some best-sellers aren't exactly high-literature, they still take lots of skill with things like plot, tension, character.

"Well, I figure I can just study how they write. It can't be that hard."

Riiiiiiiiight.

I die.

IsaiahC said...

I've played pickup basketball with some guys that think they could make the NBA. They play all the time, and they're pretty good, but they only play against the amateurs. Let a bruiser from the college team show up, and suddenly reality hits.

I think it's the same issue with wannabe-best-sellers. Everybody writes, every day. We write emails, twitters, facebook updates, letters, etc., so most people think "writing" is an easy practice. Some people have read enough or seen enough movies that they entertain themselves and their families with stories. But all they are doing is showing off to the amateurs. The shallow praise of shallow people creates self-proclaimed stars.

Get those guys some serious critique, and they'll either get better, or give up.

So there you go, Nathan, you are the bruiser on the court that puts the egomaniac in their place. :)

Dave @ A Writer's Look said...

It's all subjective. There isn't any formula that says "if you do x and y then you're writing is excellent".

To make matters worse, the best writing doesn't always sell the best -- sometimes crap does.

I don't think many would argue that Stephanie Meyers is a better writer than Cormac McCarthy, but the sales certainly don't bare out that fact.

There's simply no objective way to measure how good something is.

Steph said...

I agree with the previous comments. Writing is subjective, not only to your own perceptions, but also to those of your audience. What one person thinks is good might not mesh with what someone else thinks; two people can look at the same piece of writing and have completely different opinions.

Also, the thought of putting something that I've put so much of myself into, and having it be rejected, or not liked, or whatever, makes me look at my writing that much more critically. And, perfectionist that I am, I never think it's good enough.

annegreenwoodbrown said...

I tend to agree with Cyndy Aleo. The crazies think they're awesome and those with talent doubt it every step of the way.

From articles and biographies I've read about "the Greats," it would seem the most ridiculously talented writers doubt themselves the most.

Karla Nellenbach said...

I'm in agreement with the others. Writing is very subjective (EEK! I just sounded like a form rejection there for a minute), and opinions can and do vary. There are certain authors out there whose style of writing doesn't appeal to me, but I am only one of many. And there are those who think the sun rises and falls on these novels. So, who is right? The answer: Everyone. And, that (in my humble opinion) is probably why every Tom, Dick, and Jane out there thinks "Well, if so and so can get published and sell a bazillion copies, so can I!"

Uh...not that I'm one of those people *shifty eyes*

Lee Ann said...

I don't write because I think I can sell my work or because imthink I'm as good as a published writer. I write because I enjoy the process.

By eliminating the question of "am I good" and turning it into "this is fun", I've eliminated the "am I crazy" moments of my life.

Matera the Mad said...

Ha, the wannabe musicians and artists ARE just as bad, sometimes worse.

Julie Weathers said...

I wonder this at times when I see someone post a link to their latest artistic masterpiece. Keep in mind I'm a person who finds beauty in a lot of preschool art.

A person joined a writer's group and promptly informed all of us she was going to be a NYT bestselling author because, unlike the rest of us, she -knew- she was talented and she wasn't giving up. It didn't matter to her that several people in the group were published authors. When she posted a piece for critiquing, she blew off any suggestions as coming from people who didn't understand real art. After all, how many of us could juggle twelve writing projects at once?

On the other hand, we have people in the group who are phenomenally talented and quietly just keep plugging away at it. They occasionally wonder if they will ever be published.

It's an oddity I can't explain.

Ghost Girl said...

I'll just throw this out there: it's kind of like hearing our own voice; it sounds completely different outside of our own head.

Angela A said...

I would say because we add aspects to our writing that are touching to US, humorous to US, brilliant to US. And maybe it's not touching or humorous or brilliant, maybe it's just weird, but we can't tell because the writer alonek nows the thought process that led to each sentence, word, etc.

Anonymous said...

Uh oh. Should I stop practicing the piano right now then? I was thinking perhaps I might one day surpass Chopin. (sigh).

I think it's simply a matter of connecting with the right person at the right time. There's a lot of movies out there that should not have been produced and yet, there they are. It's all subjective.

T.M. Lunsford said...

Writing is such an intensely personal experience, it's hard to judge it when you're on the inside of it. So people cope the same way they do with anything else. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt. If a situation sucks, we say it'll get better, even if we know it won't. If something is going right, we say it's too good to be true. Writers just can't leave well enough alone and just be. We have to pass judgment on our writing and the taste of others.

Cheryl said...

What a loaded question. And interestingly enough, something I've been thinking about this morning. I constantly think I suck and everything I write is crap. I think it's partly because it's easier to crit someone else's work and help them improve but when you look at your own, you try and try to make it better but you can't look at your own writing as distantly as you look at someone else's so when you get a crit back, you slap yourself on the forehead wondering why you never caught it. Which in turn, makes you wonder if you even know what you're doing in the first place.

And then thoughts come... Why am I even doing this? What can I possibly think I'm doing trying to write a book? A book! This is stupid! I'm obviously not good enough! No one will ever like it and I'll be stuck with a glaring reminder of how terrible and idiotic I was to ever think this was a good idea for the rest of my life! What am I thinking?!? I could go on but I think I've beat that horse dead. Actually, I beat that horse several times a week and I can't figure out why it won't stay dead.

I don't know what makes some writer's so confident. I don't know if it's because they don't research how to write well or what the business is like or maybe they just don't think it's that hard. I know that the majority of those that think like that seem to be not so great writers, in my experience. They generally don't take criticism very well and accuse everyone of "not getting it" but every once in a while, I run into to someone that is just amazing and never seems to have any confidence issues and I'm flabbergasted. And jealous. And I want to rip their heads off. But I'm also glad someone feels good about their writing and with good reason. I still usually wish I had Syler's abilities, though. I'd love to cut their heads open and steal their power...

Sara Samarasinghe said...

I agree with Hannah!

Books are entertainment, and there have been some pretty big messes in entertainment. Auto-tuning has made 'awesome' singers out of terrible ones, and the weirdest paintings can be considered genius. Also, celebrities get to publish works that are sometimes written by ghost-writers, and that leads people (who wouldn't typically write) to believe that they can be just as successful as writers. It's kind of like how people try out for American Idol. Except for writing, it's way more difficult to know if you're good or not.

Still trying to figure it out here. :p

Jaime said...

I think it's partly because everyone uses language, and most people think they're pretty good at using that language. Words are so much a part of the fabric of our lives that it's next to impossible to become objective and make value judgments about how a person uses them.

And then, of course, there's the subjective nature of art, which will always make one person's "good" another person's "sheesh, I'd rather poke my eyes out." As a writer, it's so hard to look at your work and honestly answer "is there an audience that would love this?" Not until there's an actual audience to judge it!

Jess said...

Good question! I think about this a lot, and I think your recent post (and the comments that followed)about the Dunning-Kruger effect provided some interesting insights on the issue.

I think the key to knowing which category you fit in (good vs. you just think you are) is your work ethic.

Those who just think they're good give up easily. They may not even finish that MS they were so excited about, or if they do, they develop a bad attitude towards agents and editors when they face rejection.

On the other hand, those who really care about writing and have natural talent push through the hard times with a more positive attitude. When they take the time to learn about the process, they develop respect for those in the publishing industry and recognize that a rejected query isn't a personal rejection. It's not "you'll never get published", it's an invitation to keep working and try again.

Jay said...

Before I bought my Hyundai Elentra in 2005, I had never seen one before, and never even HEARD of one. But driving off the lot, I saw about 10 of them on the way home.

Case in point: I've noticed that writers don't realize they're bad until they've had lots of practice. Suddenly they look back on their writing and say, "Man, that sucked." And the cycle never stops. We only get better (hopefully).

Just because I had never "seen" a Hyundai Elentra before didn't mean they weren't out here. ;)

Lisa said...

Yeah, that subjectivity thing is a pain.

Anonymous said...

We all grow up writing stories, and we have at some point in our lives been told that something we have written was good. I guess it plants a seed.

I think most people can learn to write quite well. Those people who edit, read, learn, and consider constructive criticism are writers. If we practice these things long enough, hopefully we will improve to publishable standards, right? (Fingers crossed)

Many people don't do these things because they either a) believe they are great writers, already and couldn't possibly improve, or b) they find out it's hard work to do these things, and submit anyway, before it's ready.

Kelli said...

I agree with Trent, the barriers to entry to write are low. They teach everyone how to read and write in school. We've all been writing [something] since we were in elementary school. Why wouldn't everyone think they were good at it?
I'm a copywriter at an ad agency and I run into this all the time. Our clients think they can write (because they can work Microsoft Word) but want an artist to design- I think if they had the knowledge to work InDesign, they would think they could design too.

Anonymous said...

For the same reason there are great artists who think they suck and terrible artists who think they are geniuses.

And for the same reason there are great graphic designers stuck in mediocre jobs and everyone with Microsoft Publisher or a few HTML skills thinks they're a graphic designer.

Everyone is a critic.

Art, the written word, film, and music are and always will be areas upon which a great deal of success is left to chance and clever marketing rather than talent and skill.

Lamentable. Embittering. But true.

William Topek said...

Bad writers are like bad actors, bad painters, bad musicians, etc. Their chief failure seems to be that they focus on themselves than on their art. A bad writer wants you to notice how well he/she is writing. A good writer wants you to pay attention to the content/story, and doesn't attempt to draw attention away from this to satisfy ego.

A good writer, like a person proficient in any field, is always trying to learn and improve. Such a person becomes increasingly aware of how much more there is to know (and explore), and knows he/she will never know it all. This kind of awareness tends to create a sense of humility.

susancolebank said...

In my opinion, there are just so, so, SO many variables that go into writing a book and reading a book, just as there are with other arts such a painting, sculpting, etc.

"Good" writing is sort of like the Supreme Court and pornography--you know it when you see it.

-S.

jamesbabb said...

He shoots! He scores!
Two fans:
"That guy is a great shot."
"Na, I think he's a ball hog."

Father and son in car:
Son turns up radio. "That's a Hendrix song."
Dad "I don't like all that guitar screaming stuff."

Two people at an art show:
"Is that a Van Gogh?"
"I tink so, but he was crazy. I heard he cut off his ear. His paintings are a little weird too."

One persons likes will always be anothers dislikes.

How can we expcet to win at a game that is ever changing and judged by people with differing opinions?
My guess is to Keep Playing the Game.

Marie Lu said...

Well, I think it happens in other industries as well, as American Idol can attest to. :) But it seems most difficult to tell if you're good at something when the skill in question has subjective judging. Anything in the arts is usually left to the mercy of people's opinions, so a "bad" artist or writer or whatever can just tell themselves, "Oh, that person just doesn't have my taste."

Maybe the most objective way of judging one's own art/craft is to see if it leaves some sort of lasting impression on the audience....i.e. does my painting make people talk? Does my writing make people talk, enthusiastically or scathingly? If it does, then chances are that it has that "spark". (And a reaction of "Meh" or "Yawn" doesn't count as making people talk, of course. :) )

Alyson Greene said...

Come on, have you seen American Idol?

There are tons of people out there who think they can "make it" in the big leagues at everything. I agree with Cindy, it's the people who suck who are usually delusional and the ones with talent who question themselves.

The delusional people make the normal people question their sanity. I'll sit there thinking, "This guy thinks he can write, but he's awful. He's crazy. Wait. I think I can write, am I crazy?"

Also, "good" is so relative. Sure, a lot of us know our writing is good. But good enough? publishable? How do we know unless we try?

Writing might be a little different than sports or music, because to judge writing, one must read. Any chimp can watch a basketball game or listen to music. But reading is its own skill.

Most people agree one must be a good reader to be a good writer. Well, if you don't read much, but decide to write (because it looked cool in a movie), then you haven't read many good books to compare your bad one to.

If you're not a reader, then really you don't know what good writing looks like, so how could you possibly know if you're good?

Anonymous said...

I wish today's blog post was actually about why it's so hard to tell if our writing is good.

Instead, it's a chance to complain about everybody else. You know, how everybody else is a bad writer. And how everybody else is destined to fail. Gosh, why is it that everybody else is so awful?

Tracy said...

Whatever it is, it's the same thing that keeps American Idol thriving.

When dealing with dreams, the head and heart often don't communicate with one another very well.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Or a chance to complain about the complainers.

Melanie said...

Most of the writers I know bounce between feeling confident and thinking they should give up on a weekly or daily basis. I like to think that I have a tangible mark by which to measure how realistic my chances are of publishing since I was admitted into my MFA program, but then you still see great writers go unpublished and unread and plenty of students get stuck in a workshop model.

Nick said...

I'd say partially because there's really no way to gauge. Obviously there are some things you absolutely SHOULD NOT do when writing, but like with music what makes it good is in a lot of ways subjective. The key difference, though, is that with music, you can gauge how good you are just by the sound of it. I suck at playing the violin. I know this because I can only produce three notes. Everything else sounds like someone sat on my cat. But with writing? There's not really a similar standard; not until you send it off to someone.

jjdebenedictis said...

Objectivity is the problem.

In our own heads, the story is gripping/coherent/vivid.

Determining whether that will translate into another person's head is where we crap out.

Dan said...

If you look at the hilariously bad singers who try out for reality-TV talent shows like "American Idol," it's clear that delusions of grandeur are not the exclusive province of writers.

There are a lot of lame garage bands who think they are on the cusp of getting "discovered." There are lots of talentless "actors" serving coffee and clamoring for walk-on roles.

The creative fields are perceived as a shortcut to fame and fortune, and there's not a lot of respect for the skill and practice necessary to write or act or play music well.

But the phenomenon really goes far beyond that. Every year, tens of thousands of people who can't meet admissions standards for community colleges are going into (federally subsidized) debt to get near-worthless degrees from for-profit colleges like University of Phoenix.

de la O said...

I think it's the Mighty Mouse Syndrome. We all believe in that tiny hero that can lift a car, no matter how ridiculous it seems.

We will still believe.

ryan field said...

"What is it about writing that makes people put on the blinders and fail to recognize their limitations and makes the talented unable to recognize their own goodness?"

Ego makes people fail to recognize limitations.

And fear of success usually halts the latter.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I'm at a point in my own writing where I think I'm beginning to be able to tell the difference between something that's good and something that's just flat-out stinko. Honesty with one's self and the ability to tie up your ego while you comb through your own work with a ruthless editor's eye may help to answer the question. If you have more misses than hits, don't quit your day job but do keep writing!

Mary McDonald said...

It's true I can't be objective about my own writing, but what would be the point of writing if I had no hope that I might be good? Maybe I'm not great, and maybe not even good, but if I had no hope, then I'd never write, and have no chance of getting better.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Hannah. There are some really bad books published out there. I guess it gives some people hope that they can *at least* do as well as that.

Shelby, The Script Activist said...

I think I fall into the catagory of not believing my work is good enough; so much so that I've not, until now, really tried to write. I was published while I was still in college for a poem that took me half an hour to write. But then some of my work that took a lot of time and consideration to complete was cast aside in later attempts to get published. Recently, I told myself that I would write what I felt compelled to write and send it off. I wrote a screenplay and queried some producers. I've had some interest in that project so far. Now I'm writing a children's book. I've got to try because it's what I feel passionate about. In the end, who knows if other people will like it or not. I think the important thing is to try.

Anonymous said...

Google this (and read it):

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
1999, Vol. 77, No. 6. ] 121-1134
Copyright 1999 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.
0022-3514/99/S3.00
Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own
Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

Kate said...

Yeah, because it's not measurable. My guess is that someone who doesn't own a drawing pad doesn't WANT to be the next Georgia O'Keefe. But there are tons of starving artists out there. Hence the phrase, "starving artist."

I'd love to be a pro tennis player (mostly because I could then, maybe, I dunno, rub elbows with Roger Federer, but that's another story) but that's just not going to happen because I didn't start playing when I was three.

But writing is different. Most of us start writing at an early age and somewhere along the way, we figure out that a) we like it and/or b) we might be good at it. You can't hardly get a job if you can't write. Now I know putting pen to paper is different from Writing, but it's still a big part of our lives.

Why do so many people want to be actors? How can people who have never taken an acting class in their lives become the next big thing? They have an "it" factor, a natural talent. And maybe they didn't know it was there until the tried.

Also, as you point out in a post a while back, the Dunning-Kruger effect is everywhere. : )

Not in Charge said...

I discovered that I am not as great a writer as I thought, I just have great writing taste. My skills have fallen so far that I am not even at a college level anymore. Am very bummed. But what you said about other skills vrs writing with peple assuming they can write, but not siwht other skills - that made a light go off. Hubris abounds.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan – Is it possible that you feel so many people think they can write because, as an agent, you hear from so many aspiring writers? In my personal life, I only know three other people who are writing and all three are working hard in school writing programs; and I know one other person who thought they could write but gave it up after one attempt. The only place I know lots of people who call themselves writers are online in writers’ groups. Once someone aspires to be a writer, I think things get murky because there are few unbreakable rules for art. Rules for writing exist, but both good and bad books that break the rules get published. Some badly written books take off and become best sellers. Some extremely well-written books never get published or fail to sell many copies.

There are other areas of life in which some people think they have more talent than they do: singers, painters, and parents of children in sports leagues, gymnastics and dance classes. The difference between writing and many of these other endeavors is that writers work in solitary without feedback from an audience for years, and it’s inexpensive to write. Other endeavors often supply a lot more feedback in a shorter span of time as to whether or not the person will succeed or fail, or cost too much money to continue for long without success. Also, some endeavors have age limits. While a person might succeed at writing at any age, a dancer or athlete knows that, if they haven’t succeeded by a fairly young age, they can never make that their career.

aimeestates said...

The Dunning-Kruger Effect?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

Tessa Conte said...

Hmm pretty much everything has been said already...

I do beg to differ on one point, tough... art is very similar to writing in that many, many so-so talented painters think they'd be the next big thing if only they could be seen by the right person...if only they could hang their pictures in the right gallery... if only, if only.

And, although I guess it's pretty subjective, there's some really awful art out there, being fêted...

Hilary said...

@aimeestates: Wow, I didn't know there was a word for that.

I think writers get way more emotionally attached to their writing than basketball players do to their jump shots. It's always hard to admit that something you love really isn't all that great.

Theresa Milstein said...

Everyday I tell myself I'm a hack writer. Then I tell myself I'm not so bad. And then I repeat the process. Maybe I'm not the right person to ask.

Chuck H. said...

I met a rather famous screenwriter once and he asked me if I enjoyed writing. I told him that when the words were flowing and it felt just right, I loved it and when they didn't, I loved the memory of when they did. He looked sort of sad and said that writing never felt like that to him. It was always a struggle and he hated it.

Why is it so hard to tell if our writing is good? Because no one's experience with writing is the same as anyone else's. Writers must write whether they enjoy it or not and it's up to others to decide if it's any good or not.

James said...

People imagine writing is especially easy because it is the only art form that is expressed in our minds - or seems that way. This creates the illusion that we have created what we are reading.

Imagine if, in response to staring at a list of symbols on a piece of paper, your arm came to life and painted the Mono Lisa all on its own. You might imagine you could be a great painter. You might even imagine it was easy.

Brian Ostrovsky said...

Great writing is rare and I believe somewhat subjective. Poor righting is more common but still rare. Most of us are at least moderately coherent even if we make occasional grammatical errors (inappropriate comma usage you say?).

I know I'm not the best writer in the world, probably not even one of the best of the people who replied to this post but I'm coherent. So, I figure if I combine my coherence with a good clever story, decent pace, and make the reader feel nourished I have a novel that someone would want to read (and hopefully pay for).

Having read what I've read I don't think prose excellence is required to write a terrific book.

Jck said...

mmm, I'm not sure I can elaborate on this subject.
Where's Simon? I think I need a strong drink!

Lisa said...

I think this stems from author success stories.

Stephanie Meyer, for example.

Basically, she had a dream. Wrote a book. No big deal. 6 months later, bam.

Stories like hers make it sound like anyone can do it. She made it look so, so easy! Which is so not true!

StaceyW said...

Commenting back to Marilyn: Since I started writing fiction (and once I gathered up the courage to tell anyone I was doing it), I've been shocked by how many people have told me they want to write a book. In fact, my husband and two close friends have started working on novels, and two other close friends are talking about doing it. I have no idea who among us, if any, has the talent and stamina to get from the "I want to write a book" point to the published author point, but I will say I think stamina is the key word there.

Finishing a manuscript is hard work, and until someone has tried to do it, I could see how they'd *think* it looks easy.

Also, I've worked as an editor over the years and I've edited some writers with delusions of greatness who were really chasing after the wrong calling. And they truly had no idea. That's harsh, I know - I feel bad even saying it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Bransford,

I have never commented on your blog before, and I wanted to begin my first comment by thanking you for the profoundly helpful and insightful posts.

To answer your question; first off, yes, there are guys who are stars in a pick-up game who swear they can play in the NBA. There are people who made Thanksgiving dinner once for their family and now believe themselves the next Daniel Boulud.

It stems from the fact that success is like the Sun, or water, or a beautiful woman; we can see it and feel it, but few people really understand how it functions.

People read Harry Potter and say, "Oh, that's it. All I have to do is write a story about a lost boy who secretly has magic powers." Or they watch Die Hard and say, "Oh, all my movie needs is some wisecracks and shootouts."

These are the surface characteristics, not the true nuances that make for lasting success. And recognizing the less recognizeable, IMHO, is the key to differentiating the amateur of transient brilliance from the lasting professional talent.
- Bill

Harry Connolly said...

To quote (paraphrase?) William Goldman, "Everybody knows the alphabet."

Terri Weeding said...

If we've defined for ourselves what good writing looks like, feels like, and sounds like, then heck yeah, we CAN tell if our writing is good . . . or not.

William Jones said...

I think the reason why more people believe they can write than people who think they can play basketball or guitar is because everyone is taught how. In school we learn english and grammar. We're told to write stories and essays. By the time we graduate we have a decent hold on the english languege. Some people think that's all it takes to write a book.

If someone has never been taught how to play the guitar, they know they can't pick it up and start playing.

And my answer to the "Am I Crazies" is yes. If your trying to write a book in the hopes of getting an agent, and then getting published, you are crazy. You have to be to go up against those odds. On the bright side, history never remembers the normal people.

Corinne said...

As both a writer and artist, this is something I've actually thought about a lot - and I think it's because writing is an art enjoyed on a micro-level. You can't look at a book and, in one go, say, "This is good." You need to experience it on a sentence-by-sentence level before you can judge the full thing and, hey, everyone knows how to write a sentence, right? The way most people appreciate books isn't through the writing, but through the story. Therefore, they think idea = novel, completely disregarding the actual skill required to put together proper sentences, paragraphs, storylines, characterisation, et cetera.

Most other arts you enjoy because of the art itself, not the idea it puts into your head. Most other arts, you can judge in one glimpse, not over the course of several hours or days.

That said... people will always struggle to assess their own skill. Just look at the number of people coming onto shows like American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance, convinced they're the next superstar after they've been practicing for barely a month.

cheekychook said...

I think there are a lot of reasons why people who can't write think they can and people who write well worry that they don't.

First off, unlike lots of other pursuits, writing is something everyone has done at some point. Not everyone has ever even touched a guitar. Many people haven't shot a basket since their last mandatory gym class in school. Most people have to write, in some form or another, continually from the time they learn how in kindergarten---emails, announcements, newspaper ads, work-related documents---something. People who don't write for reasons beyond the necessary tend to think that writing fiction or writing longer things must be just as easy as composing their latest email/press release/interoffice memo. They assume all things writing must be easy.

This misconception is easily perpetuated because, unlike something concrete, like math, there's no answer key that tells you if your writing is right or wrong.

For me, personally, I think of writing the same way I think about cooking. I love to cook. I know I cook well. I am confident in my abilities in the kitchen. Cooking for people brings me joy. Be that as it may, every time I cook something I practically hold my breath while I wait for whoever it is that's eating it to take the first bite and react. It doesn't matter how many times I've made the dish before, or if I could do it in my sleep, if the person eating it doesn't enjoy the end result then none of the other stuff matters. I can always cook myself a meal I'm going to be happy with, and I can always write something that I'm satisfied with, but if it's something someone else is going to eat/read that's a whole other matter. I'm always worried it's not good enough or I should have done something different. A little less salt, a tad crispier, fewer "just"s.

Did you ever have someone tell you "I make the best chocolate chip cookies in the world." or "You've got to taste this sauce, it's to die for..." and you take a bite and all you can think of is how you can go about discreetly spitting it into a napkin?

Most people think their writing is at least palatable if not downright tasty...good writers worry that not everyone will enjoy the meal they worked so hard to prepare.

Nicole Murray said...

I am of the camp that thinks what I write isn't good enough (even when told otherwise) but I am compelled to try (being published). Writing feels too good for me to stop now. And even when it sucks, I like the challenge.

It's easy for me to tell when it suck but tough when it might be good. I think its a lacking in self confidence.

beth said...

I've been writing as long as I can remember (though most of that time it was for myself). When it comes to words and where to put them I can be a snob. Then I overheard a conversation, by someone who I would say spoke vernacular to the extent it couldn't be mistaken for English. She was heartbroken and in a heated argument and in brutal honesty said something that caught my ears because it was both poetic and a beautiful metaphor.

Our brains learn language the way they do for a reason. Writing is as natural as communicating. Everyone can write; most people don't put the work in to it. Those who believe they are inherently great typically wouldn't put the work in it. They're already great! It's not that there is a multitude of bad writers out there trying to outsell Maggie Stiefvater or Anne Rice. It's that there is a multitude of lazy writers out there who think greatness doesn't have to be acheived.

Lee-Ann said...

I think part of the problem stems from what we read and who we look up to as authors. If the best plot line, the best character development, and the best writing style you are ever exposed to has "virgin" and "Greek tycoon" in the title, it's much easier to look at your writing and see talent than it is after you've finished reading Hemingway or Dickens or Austen. It's easy to forget that each voice is unique and it isn't going to read like anyone else.

Sara Murphy said...

Because...
Art in all forms is subjective. I've heard people call Stephen King a hack. What one person hates can be exactly what another is looking for. I keep trying because until I believe I'm terrible and it's not worth the effort, I have to keep writing.

Dave said...

Because people are like snowflakes. We are all individually unique, seeing the world and people around us in our different way. I think people read a story and say "hey I have a cool story too," only when they try to put it onto paper do they realize it's harder than it looks.

A novice writer will soon find out writing is not unlike playing an instrument or crafting a beautiful piece of furniture. It takes time, training, talent and sometimes good timing to make it professionally.

The "I'm crazies," self-doubt, will always be apart of craftsmanship. Without it, the world would be filled with mediocrity...

Missives From Suburbia said...

I faced a similar phenomenon working in advertising, and I think the reason is actually very obvious: Everyone watches TV, so they think they KNOW what makes a good ad and what doesn't. Nearly everyone reads and has opinions about books; ergo, everyone believes they can write. I bet virtually everyone has a screenplay up their sleeves, too.

I often think it wouldn't be that hard to be a clothing designer. I didn't realize until just now how insulting that is to Georgio Armani.

Davy DeGreeff said...

Because this never happens in a game of pick-up basketball:
DAVY: "Hey Mom, will you watch me take this shot, and then tell me what you think?"
(The ball flies from Davy's hand on a pathetically low arc and lodges in that stupid gap between the rim and the backboard)
MOM: Ohmygod! That was fantastic!
DAVY: Really? You think?
MOM: Absolutely!
SISTER: Davy, you took that shot all on your own?
DAVY: Yeah, I've been working on it for the past few months.
SISTER: Unreal. You could totally go pro, no problem.

KJHwrite said...

Not every artist is O'Keefe and not every b-ball player is an NBAer. I'm sure there are just as many "artists" out there who do think they can draw/paint/sculpt as there are "writers" who think they can write, just as many pick-up players who think they're something else, and just as many "musicians" who think they jam. If you ask writers if they think they're the next Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, I think you'll start getting more realistic answers. It's not that we're necessarily more self-deluded than anyone expressing themself in whatever form they chose, it's a matter of degrees.

Kate said...

Good point, Marilyn Peake. I probably know less than ten writers. Most people I know think I was nuts to major in English. They'd rather fall on something sharp, especially my husband, who would rather watch the LPGA than read a novel much less write one.

I honestly don't know if my writing is any good because I'm the only one who reads it. Ha.

courtney said...

As Lisa pointed out, people look at Stefanie Meyer and say "she just had a dream and wrote it down = success." So, it's THAT easy. Still others look at J.K. Rowling and say, well, she was rejected x number of times." So, you just have to find the RIGHT agent/audience. As everyone says, all art is subjective. Put a plumber on the job and it doesn't get fixed, call another plumber who can fix it, so you know who's better at their job because you no longer have a leak. Not so subjective.

I was watching Bravo channel's "Work of Art" and one woman, upon getting a poor critique said "I'm not responsible for your interpretation/experience of my work." I howled. If only that would go over at MY job.

Also, nice ICE BURN at Nathan 11:18. :-)

Sarah Laurenson said...

Publishing has been evolving for a very long time. This move to the digital world is just the next step.

Used to be there was a dearth of writers covering certain genres - children, SFF, romance - and the quality of what was published varied greatly. Still does sometimes.

Even recently (within the last 10 years), I was told by a writer that anyone could write a SFF book and get it published.

This is the perception issue in general and part of why every TDH thinks he can write the next bestseller.

I also think it has that lottery appeal. Because it is subjective, querying a book feels like playing the lottery. You might get "lucky" and get published. When in reality you might have talent and work your butt off and get published - maybe.

And there are books these days that are not well written but they get published and they make money. The subjective eyes are both in the publishers and the readers.

So the question may be if we think what we are writing can sell. But yes, from a psychological standpoint: self doubt plagues most artists. Creativity is not valued in our society. Just compare salaries between right brain and left brain jobs. (That's a whole new rant)

Rick Daley said...

Most writers reach a very limited audience, and friends and family are notorious for providing false-positives in regard to quality.

John Jack said...

1. Because we're told from the first time we pick up a crayon how bad our writing is. Color in the lines, son. Don't start sentences with conjuctions. Never use passive voice. No adverbs. No dialogue tags. No. No. No, No. Nuckle down and write like everyone else, missy.

2. Because encouraging good writing is hard to express concisely. It's so much easier to tear down than build up.

3. Because good writing is an art that can't be picked up in seven easy guitar lesson days.

4. Because originality and standing out from the mob is discouraged by groupthink peer pressure.

5. Because reader expectations are fickle.

6. Because writing is glacially slow reading. So slow it's hard to tell how it will read.

7. Because we're too close to our art in progress.

8. Because every progeny has a royal birthright and deserves it's place on a throne.

9. Because of illogical producer bias. I made it. I'm a good and artistic person; therefore, it's good.

10. Because no one but me really gets what I'm saying.

Seriously though, the real issue is because a writer really rarely has the skill sets to evaluate in advance audience responses to any given narrative.

Anonymous said...

It's beause we all have to start somewhere just like Jimmy Hendrix or an NBA player. It's not like we are all naturals which means we all have to work to be succesful. It's better to know if you are a bad writer even if it means failing the first time so that you can learn to improve. Advice is always helpful whether your a proffesional or not. So, yes, there are people who need improvement but maybe writing something bad will actually end up helping them.

Monica O Kolkman said...

Well, you might have the blinders on to begin with, but not for long. Surely, reality hits you hard when the rejections start arriving, and then you stop trying. Or not?

MisterChris said...

Because they're listening to the Voices...

Voices of Mom and Dad, friends and family, who want to be nice and want to 'know' someone famous. And they care because you're... well, family.

ALSO: There are so many different genres, nothing anyone writes is going to appeal to 'ALL' people.

What sells, and what gets published, is what appeals to a large number of people.

For a newbie unpublished author, there's no 'market' following after them for the latest Michael Crichton or Stephen King. So their name doesn't 'sell'.

Also, those authors are encouraged to release (and even contracted to release) several books a year, that don't receive the repeated edits and fixes of their first works.

So, even they can lose following when the work isn't 'good enough' for their fans.

A creative person, close to the work they created, hot off the keyboard, is likely to think their work is 'great' when they are a newbie.

Once they've received some solid critiques, they'll either wise up, put up, or shut up.

Learning and honing the craft takes work and time. It's not an overnight wonder kind of thing. And you'll go through mounds of rejections before getting accepted.

Also, fixing the work takes a LOT of effort. It takes several times the effort involved in writing the first draft.

NaNoWriMo, while a good device to get a newbie entering words, produces a lot of wannabes who still will need to learn the craft and clean up their work to make it sellable.

And even then, if it's not what's selling, it may not pass the query stage.

Jil said...

As others have said, it's the American Idol syndrome = only friends and family must have heard singers practicing and should have given some hint that they're not quite as good as they think they are whereas writers often write unread and uncritiqued until their ink runs dry.
At least, unless they self publish, writers can't, usually, make such public fools of themselves as Idol hopefuls do.

Lu said...

I don't know - but I sure do wish you had the cure.

Greg Mongrain said...

The answer to this question is simple, and several have already pointed it out: there are writers who sit, week after week, on the best sellers list who don't even understand the concept of point of view. That's why so many bad writers think they're good, and why so many of the queries agents receive are terrible.

Nathan Bransford said...

greg-

What's on the bestseller list is still way way way better, objectively speaking, than the vast majority of the slush pile. I honestly think that one of the problems is that a lot of people aren't able to see what's good about the books they don't personally like. Everyone would learn a lot more if they spent more time trying to spot what's working in a bestseller rather than its shortcomings.

Travis Erwin said...

A writer does need a good imagination. Sure they need other things as well, but it starts with an imagination. Perhaps that is why so many of us imagine we are good enough.

Nathan Bransford said...

And sorry if I got all Cranky McCrankyagent there. I just get my hackles raised when people try and say that all or most or a lot of the books published today are crap/trash/what have you. For reasons I state a tad more eloquently here.

Sheila Cull said...

Perhaps because we were all taught to write but not play basketball or guitar. Even just going to college would mean a lot of writing. Or maybe it's because when we read, we can interrupt what we read however we want and then it's easy to manipulate your mind into thinking, "I could make this sound better!"

Kerry Gans said...

Maybe because my typed Word document looks the same as everyone else's typed Word document. What I mean is that you can see that you can't jump as high as the NBA guys, or that the person you drew looks more like freaky tree, or hear that your guitar riff sounds like your cat scratched it out. But my words typed on a page look pretty much the same as JK Rowlings'.

I also think it might be because writing is so much a "felt" art -- you are so invested in what you write that it "feels" good to you. How could you work so hard and put so much of yourself into it and have it NOT be good?

And I think the industry itself makes it hard, because so much of it is subjective. There are some truly awful books that have made it to print, and some very good ones that probably have not. This subjectivity makes it hard to measure how good your work is. As Jon VanZile said above: "There's no way to keep score."

C.J.Atsavinh said...

Good question. The way I see it is as writers (including myself) our greatest tool is our desire to create wondrous worlds full of possibilities floating on the land of our dreams. And when we dream, man do we dream big.

Nathan Bransford said...

Oops, wrong link on the "trash" point I was making. This is the one I was looking for.

Brant said...

I think part of the subjectivity problem comes from the fact that when a I write a story, I am translating (what is to me) a gripping and compelling story from my thoughts to the screen or paper. When I read my own writing, I don’t see the words as others will. I see the story in my head I was attempting to write down, not necessarily what is actually written down on the paper. Because I know the story, my mind will fill in the blanks, create the emotion, and make logical connections that other readers (who do not already have this story in their head) will not be able to do. That process translates into me having a qualitatively different experience when reading my own work than someone else will. For everyone else, the text has to stand on its own merits.

Lisa Desrochers said...

I like to joke that my editor helps me make my book into the one I thought I wrote. Confession: It's not a joke. It's totally true.

Most of us writers have a solid fix on the story we're trying to tell. Most writers think we're conveying that story to paper in the same form it's living in our heads. But, often, that's not the case. We read the words we wrote, and our minds fills in the gaps between what we wrote and what we meant. So, as good as a story may be in our mind, it may not translate onto paper, and we're the last person that's going to recognize that.

Just like this post. I know exactly what I think I'm saying. Problem is, I'm probably saying something else. O_O

A Rose by any other name... said...

Finishing a first draft and publishing the first book are as far apart as butter and tortoises. They require entirely different sets of motivators and skills.

Some clients love to write but never bother to read ANYTHING. They measure their ability sole by their output quantity. Others are omnivorous readers, but it has not occurred to them to pick up a how-to-write book. Consequently they have not been disabused of their fanciful idea that writing means pouring on the raw talent, crafting well-turned phrases and letting the editor shape the results into a book.

In some cases, the meaning of overwriting has never been explained to them. Or else they have not learned how to pace their imagination to match their transcription speed and large chunks of connecting narrative get skipped. Until these habits are highlighted in one's own work, however, no one ever notices them. But once a writer sees how their existence handicaps his or her ability to tell a lucid story, they become vigilant in rooting them out.

Amazing work can come from this process of story excavation. Writers find bones they didn't even know they had buried, and themes that unlock entirely new story options

rose

Mira said...

Well, I think everyone dreams of the stars when they start any pursuit that comes from the heart.

But I think Marilyn really hit it on the head:

"writers work in solitary without feedback from an audience for years"

For many writers, the first feedback they receive is when they try to be published.

This is why people misgage the extent of their own talent either way. Writing is communication, and you really need the reader to tell you if it 'works'.

Also, whether someone writes a best-seller or a masterpiece not only requires talent but that what they have to say resonates with other people - either in the current culture or at a very basic human level.

That's almost impossible for a writer to predict.

mfreivald said...

I'm the king of wishful thinking.
But what if I'm a bad king?
Oh, dear.

Seriously though, I'm positive my book will be great--as long as the right person writes it.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I think it's the natural tendancy to choose the easiest answer. If you think your writing is perfect and someone tells you it needs a lot of work, it's easier to just decide that person is an idiot than to renovate your views. Whereas if you're not sure whether your work is good and then you get thirty form rejections, it's easier to interpret that as proof that your book is bad than to wonder about all the other variables of rejections. In a field full of "maybe"s and subjectivity, it's nice to think that the answer is simple. Even if it isn't.

Jana said...

I think because people are naturally storytellers, and then assume they can write stories as well as they can tell them.

Steve Will said...

People who have never tried it think they can do it because everyone learns to use the basic tools, but they do not learn the complexity. I know what a wrench is, what a soldering iron is, but I can easily see how complex building a machine is. Looking at a piece of good writing, a novice cannot see the complexity. They see words and sentences.

People who have tried, but still delude themselves, have a similar problem but not quite the same. They put effort into it, and think effort is enough, because they cannot recognize the difference between hard work with the proper tools and creative skill, and hard work without them.

IMHO.

Bane of Anubis said...

Because our only validation is through publication and even then, unless we reach a wide audience, we're still wondering what the hell we're doing wrong.

Playing pickup, jamming on a guitar with your buddies, etc. are releases from the day-to-day stresses of our so called lives, so we can do those at marginal levels within our own peer groups.

Writing, though a relief for some (I imagine), isn't one for me. It's a stress multiplier as I constantly search for that elusive path to goodness.

Bane of Anubis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...

I agree with Missives From Suburbia. I'm an art director (magazines) as well as a writer - and everybody and their universal brother thinks they can design.

Not uncommon. Don't you all secretly look at a page/ad/movie and think you could have done better? It's human nature!

But I find the whole everybody-is a-writer thing so darn irritating because there's a difference between being a long distance runner and fashion victim out for a stroll.

And the difference is the PAIN.

"Don't talk to me until you've done the pain," I want to scream at the unaware fellow telling me about his fabulous idea for a novel that'll sell millions. Yes, scream. Even daydream of violence.

Apologies All, I don't mean to rant but this is a topic that touches a nerve!

Do the pain, then talk the talk!

Okay, I'll shut up now!

Becca C. said...

It's so easy to get lost in your own writing. It pretty much always sounds good to you, when you're writing it all for the first time. The first time a guitar player plays a song, it sounds bad to the player's own ear because they can physically hear it. Writing is all in your head, so you don't get that physical sense of "oh, this is bad/this is amazing."

I don't know xD

Mira said...

Also, after putting in so much work, it's very disappointing to accept writing as hobby. It's an unsatifying hobby because it requires a reader. Easier to think the agent/editor was mistaken.

And sometimes they are mistaken! That confuses things.

Also there is a strong mythology that writing doesn't require training and practice. Unlike a violinist, for example, who understands he'll benefit from a good teacher and hours of daily practice.

Also, everyone's words look beautiful to them.

Finally, writers CAN improve. Dreams are important. I think, given the topic of this post, that's important to remember.

I know my writing is improving just through posting on this blog. Someday, I'll write a book and it will be wonderful. :)

cheekychook said...

"Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn't possibly all have good taste. "---Carrie Fisher (as Marie in When Harry Met Sally)

Cheryl said...

Nathan,

I have to agree with you on the "trash" talk. I will freely admit that I enjoyed the Twilight Series. If I took it apart and critted the book, no, I wouldn't. But the things she did well, she did *really* well. I read a book wanting to get caught up in it. I don't read a book to analyze it's writing unless I'm intentionally looking for it in order to figure out how I'm doing in comparison and hopefully learn a thing or two.

I got caught up in Twilight. It really irritates me when people trash the series. Not because I think it's some great work of prose but because what she's good at, she's really good at and it's unfair to try to take that away from her. She is *really* good at discovery. Discovering love, discovering pain, discovering a new underground society and way of life, etc. I have plenty of complaints but I didn't care too much about the complaints (which I won't go into) because they didn't matter. I still enjoyed the journey.

I think that as writers, if you don't take off your crit hat when you sit down to read, you won't find much enjoyment in reading because we always have an opinion on how to make something better. I don't want to read that way. I want to be entertained.

If I have just half as much of Stephenie Meyer's bad writing skills, I'd say I'm doing at least something right.

Molly Hall said...

I read somewhere that most people overestimate their intelligence. In actuality, we're all probably a lot lower on the IQ scale than we think we are. Maybe it's the same with writing? What I like about good writers who think they suck is that--no matter where they are now--they are aiming higher.

Amanda Sablan said...

Simply because we want so hard to believe we're awesome, which leads to failing to notice all that's wrong. I suppose it's this way with writing because the basics of writing is something more people know how to do than the basics of basketball; being able to write at least half-way decent is something ALL of us are encouraged to do.

And for those who think it's EASY? Either you are a complete and utter freak of nature, or you're sadly in denial. Enjoying the craft can, I believe, take out some of the difficulty, but writing a truly great book takes very hard work. Successful authors are simply willing to DO the hard work necessary.

Anonymous said...

Ah, FICTION ENVY has raised her ugly head. Anyone who has taken at least a community college writing workshop has met her...Fiction Envy. "She wears low-cut blouses!" "He's a lit major in disguise!" "Her nephew's best friend once dated the professor's second cousin. Or was it twice!" It's not a far leap to: "It's been on the bestseller lists for 78 weeks, and it's absolute crap!" After many years in workshop I learned this: the writers who are willing to listen, to take the honest opinions of their teachers and peers, and USE them, are far more likely to succeed than those who are convinced they are god's gift to the literary universe. So. Listen, learn. It's not all that hard to tell when it's good, once you've figured out what "good" is.

Sarah said...

I think subjectivity is only part of why everyone thinks they can write.

I think it's mainly because writing is common and there's little analysis of that writing. Almost everyone writes something each day. But those e-mails and blog posts and journal entries (let alone actual stories) are rarely subjected to real critique. Stir in the delusion that idea=completed novel*, and there you have it: anyone can write a best selling novel.


*Does that happen with painting? Do people think that because they have an idea for painting that they have the skill to execute it? "It'll look like the Mona Lisa, only better."

Jeff Abbott said...

I have always said the difference is between those who want to write and those who want to have written a book.

The first group wants to learn craft, wants to rewrite, wants to read and understand a variety of works (maybe even some book they don't like but can respect for their success or craftsmanship). They understand there are many steps between idea in head and words on page/screen.

The second group just wants their name on a book. You can't give them advice because they don't want to hear it. Craft has nothing to do with getting them to their goal. They think the idea in the head just automagically appears on the page. They are the writing equivalent of the tone-deaf.

Katie said...

O'Keefe makes painting look easy until one picks up a brush and realizes there's a huge difference between the mind's eye and the hand's control.

What makes this difference harder to see in writing is that everyone has to write words at some point during the day. There's no difference between an email and a novel, right?

It's the same idea that plagues teachers. A lot of people think they can teach because they spent twelve plus years in a classroom. The problem is that there's a huge difference between the role of a student and the role of a teacher. Just like there's a huge difference between a thank you note and a poem (even if the first is longer).

<>< Katie

Richard said...

Most of us are asking the wrong question. There is a huge difference between writing being 'good' and simply being 'good enough' for a book that's going to sell because of subject, brand or platform.

To continue the basketball analogy, it's as though people decided to buy a ticket based on something other than the quality of the players in the game.

I go into this in more detail on my own blog:
http://historicalmayhem.blogspot.com/2010/07/so-you-think-you-can-write-ok-who-cares.html

Greg Mongrain said...

Hey Nathan Cranky--

You're right. I did not mean best selling authors were inseparable from the slush pile. And I do look at the good things from the work of these successful authors. For instance, vampire romance is obviously still hot, and mysteries always will be.

lora96 said...

My gut tells me that people think it's like transcribed talking and since any two year old can talk, ergo any verbose moron can write a book better than (fill in the accomplished bestselling author name).

I also think it's like parenting in that, if you're afraid you're screwing it up, you're probably fine. If you think you're awesome and competant, your 13 year old will get knocked up/your book is crap.

:P

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

I think the difficulty with writing is that it's symbolic representation, rather than literal. You hear a song, and it's all right there, good or bad. You see a painting and the image is clearly there before you. But a story... just looking at it there's a bunch of words that from a distance don't look much different than any other story (usually).


Letters and words are symbolic markers - you have to translate them. This symbols means this, that symbol means that. YOu string together meanings, and so part of every text comes from the reader, from how they translate these symbols into a vision they see and hear and feel. And the skill of a writer is in providing words that create a vivid and seamless vision for the reader, creating a sort of film inside their head.

But for the writer, we already have the vision in our head. We have it there as we write, or even before we write. The translation operates in reverse: we must try to allocate a bunch of word symbols that capture and relate the vision in our head. The problem, of course, is that when we look at our own writing we still have that original vision in our head. We don't see the one created by the words on the page, but rather the words evoke the original story.

The trick is learning to see the story provided by the actual words, and not by our original vision. What are the words doing? Once we can see what the words are actually doing, we can manipulate them to shape the vision as needed

Jonathan_Priest said...

There's writing and there's creativity and they don't necessarily come together. There's writing and humour, and they're not always in the same bed. And then there's story telling and visual imagination, insight, anger, passion, an urgency to express ones feelings, having a good ear. People talk of writing as if it was one thing on a sliding scale from average to exceptional, but I think there's a lot more to it than that. What are the qualities that make a writer other than the ability to write?

Anonymous said...

Nathan,

I have noticed that you get a little...snappish let's say, when folks suggest that a lot of what's out there is "trash" or "garbage" or "low class" (my personal fave).

But I'd like to ask you an honest question. While many agents, like you, may very well be looking to represent quality work and quality writers, aren't you really just looking for the thing that you believe will sell? And if that's true, then haven't we seen that typically what sells is what appeals to the most common denominator, and necessarily what's quality?

And if that's the case, are people so unjustified in their gripe that low-quality makes it through the gates all the time simply because it's the current hot vampire, teen, wizard, celebrity, or whatever genre at the moment?

Carol Riggs said...

Because (and I ditto many people here):
1. Proximity. We're way too close to our own writing. Letting our work SIT helps, instead of dashing it off to the first agent we see (*cough Nathan coughcough*)
2. Subjectivity. Whatever the finished quality, other people look at our work through the lens of their own experiences and selves. If it resonates with them, the writing is more apt to be proclaimed "good."

I do my best writing (I think) when I ignore the fact that I want validation and publication, and just write for the sheer joy and rhythm of putting words on a page. Same goes with artwork (only with paint or pencil), which I also do. SUMMARY: Readership may give motivation, but ya can't ignore or underestimate passion and a LOVE of writing. Woo!

Robert Guthrie said...

Everybody has a story... but not everybody knows how to tell it.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Yeah, this is definitely a topic on which I get snappish.

In response, I'd point again to this post, which explains in detail why I bristle.

But really, I think there are a couple of factors at work:

1) People compare apples to oranges when it comes to books. If you're reading THE DA VINCI CODE and hoping for DUBLINERS that's your fault, not Dan Brown's. Dan Brown did what he set out to do really, really well.

2) Saying a bestseller is trash is kind of like saying a bench warmer on an NBA team is a terrible basketball player. Um. Yeah. He's no LeBron, but he's in the top 0.000000005% percentile of basketball players in the entire world.

3) A book has to do something really, really well to make it through the publishing process and to attract readers in huge numbers and prompt people to wait in line for the next one.

4) We're smarter and better than that. We're writers, right? Use your words, say something a little more nuanced than "That book sucked."

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Okay, that definitely deserves a Thank You blog:
http://katrinalantznovelist.blogspot.com/2010/07/why-i-love-nathan-bransford-platonic.html

G said...

I don't think it's completely hard.

I do know that sometimes we can be our own worse enemies when it comes to our writing, and even when we do get "hurrahs" when something we write connects with a reader/readers, we have a tendency to downplay it just the same.

Sometimes though, one needs to be slapped upside the head like Larry from the Three Stooges, in order to accept a compliment about our writing.

But a cheesy answer would be this: every friend we got is a yes man/sychopant who would like nothing better than to stay in our good graces, so they tell us what we want to hear. Presto! Our ego is stroked so hard and so fast that we become immune to criticism.

I'm sure I have a point in there somewhere.

D.G. Hudson said...

We all do some writing every day, and probably have since we learned that skill. Perhaps because it's so familiar, people tend to think it's something anyone can do.

I think it's hard to know if our own writing is good, because we're too close to it. Creative endeavors are hard to judge -- music, art, and writing -- we need experience to train our eye and ear to what's going to appeal to the consumers.

Stephen Prosapio said...

What most everyone else said and...

This comment section is 106 comments long and it's already hard to say something original. Writers with talent know they're competing against hundreds of thousands of other books. "Fantasizers" compare themselves to the last horrible book they read (or heard of, or movie that bombed).

Writing a quality novel takes ALL the following skills. Many of which even most published authors don't have:

1. Great high concept ideas.
2. Fantastic ability to hook readers.
3. Can write characters that people connect to/aspire to/are intreagued by.
4. Ability to ratchet conflict and tension.
5. Technically construct quality sentances/phrases/structure.
6. Construct a great and believable climax.
7. Show character growth.
8. Leave the reader with an emotionally complete ending.
9. Be at the right place at the right time with the right project.
10. Reach and connect to your audience.
11. Be a bit lucky.
12. Be persistent in direct disproportion to #11!

"Fantasizers", at their best, only know of #1 & #3 and maybe one or two others.

Real writers know which of the above they're weakest on and hence may feel self conscious about it.

Steph Kuehn said...

Well, I think the charming combination of blazing incompetence + grandiosity can be found in any profession, hobby, or social interaction on earth. We've all seen it/experienced it/done it.

But artistic mediums are subjective, so it's easy to impose the self-serving bias of "they didn't get me" versus the pretty obvious "Oh heck, I'll never play in the NFL" attribution that happens when no one calls on Draft Day.

It also takes bravado to put oneself out there for rejection in the first place. Maybe the most self reflective, perfectionist writers are the ones least likely to query. Who knows? Interesting post, thanks!

Ladonna said...

Because Aunt Betty said it was good.

At times unqualifed people read your work, and tell you it's great. If the writing is good, you'll get a following.

Maggie said...

My two cents:

Yes, good writing is subjective, but there is a certain level that you really cannot be under if you want to be published.
People say all the time how "awful" the writing of say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown is, and how they could certainly do better, but truthfully, these authors are probably better than 99.9% of people out there writing.
I worked at a bookstore where people would try to get us to sell their self published work, and let me tell you...yikes. If I saw that much truly horrible writing (I mean, did they even spellcheck, let alone edit?!) I can't even imagine the slush agents have to dig through. So "good" writing is subjective, but only after a certain point, and many, many people out there writing novels do not get to that point. (Sorry for the rant-this drives me crazy!)

I think it's easy for people who have never attempted a full length novel to think it's easy because they used to get A's on high school papers and figure it can't be much harder than that. They think that because The DaVinci Code was not, in their opinion, the best book ever written but did amazingly well anyway, that they could certainly do just that if only they had the time... :)

Marjorie said...

I do not think it is hard at all to tell if our own writing is good. I think most people who write have confidence and a high level of self-esteem and think their work is excellent.

I think my cartoons are hilarious. I don't care how many rejections I receive. I will always believe my work is terrific. I don't need the approval of total strangers, even if those strangers have the power.

And if my work remains unpublished... so be it.
All humor is subjective anyway. I don't think Jackie Mason cares if a young reviewer thinks his jokes are funny. He knows his audience.

So, it is not a matter of whether the writing is "good," but a matter of finding your readers.

LSimon said...

People tell stories all the time- Jokes anecdotes, even dreams. They don't realize that the difference between telling a story and writing a book is vast.

Ann M said...

Part of the issue could be because the writer "fills in the gaps." The author might know what the character is feeling, why events unfold as they do, why point A led to point B, but just because the author knows this, doesn't mean that the reader will. So, even though the story might be complete, compelling, and eloquent in theory, it might be hard for the beginning writer to understand that his/her vision wasn't transferred to the page.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I think a large part of it is that we can walk into any bookstore and see a huge number of books, with more coming out all the time, but we never see the piles of rejected queries and manuscripts. We don't realize just how many people are writing and how few get accepted for publication and thus we don't have a sense of the odds.

Also, a literate culture surrounds us with writing, for school, for work, for fun, if we so choose. That prevalence might make it seem easier.

Writing is also subjective. If I play guitar, I can hear (or should be able to) if I'm off. If I wanted to play basketball...well, I'm 5'6", so I never harbor hopes of being in the WNBA. And if I tried to draw, I could look at my work and immediately see if it didn't look good. Writing is personal and usually takes more analysis to determine whether it's good or bad, and since it's subjective, people will disagree on whether any given writer is good. I think that makes it easier to dismiss criticism of your own work.

(P.S. I know people who are delusional about any skill/talent one can possess, for the record.)

Derek H said...

I blame Twilight.

christwriter said...

I think a big aspect of the disconnect between a writer's ability and attitude is having contentious parents. I'm 24. My parents had "build good self-esteem" drilled into their heads, so I got complimented on EVERYTHING.

Rather hopeless art scribbles? "It's BEAUTIFUL!" (okay, I'm a pretty good artist now. But when I was sixteen I sucked and knew it)

Violin playing ability that makes cats scream? "You're so good, here's a two thousand dollar fiddle."

Dancing like a fence post? A year behind the rest of the class? "Remember, Margot Fonteyn had bad feet, too."

First attempt at actual story-writing, which I burned upon finding several years ago? "OOOOH, lookit this pretty sentence!!!"

So naturally the first time I presented my work to a pretty harsh critique group, I fell flat on my ass. These days I ignore positive feedback and assume I suck, because people only say nice things when you need a lot of hand-holding. Negative feedback is always accurate, because otherwise people wouldn't say it, and it's always worse than what the person indicates because you have to factor in the natural human tendency towards niceness.

If you're honest enough with yourself to improve as a writer, you lose your ability to say, "this is good", because that's what people have told you all along, and that's what gets disproved the second you set foot in the professional arena.

If you can sustain a belief in your writing abilities in the face of negative criticism, you're probably not honest enough to admit when you suck.

kea said...
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kea said...
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Not Totally Anonymous said...

Nathan,
I love ya and I'll go with you a long way, but you did NOT just mention Dan Brown and the top 0.000000005% percentile of writers in the same post, did you?

Dan Brown wrote 3 books prior to Da Vinci - that based on his phenomenal "before-it-was-popular" digital self-promotion he managed to sell enough books to continue getting published. Still, relatively speaking not many read those books prior to Da Vinci Code which by almost any account can be classified as a "Black Swan" -- a phenomenon which happens maybe once a decade and can't be predicted. It went "viral". Use whatever term you want. It was big.

And yes. It was entertaining. But it was the same formulaic story and same stilted writing which his other books contained. Most even have the same cliché villain and same "surprise" master villain revealed at the end. Those of us duped into reading his other books found that out the hard way.

After his phenomenal blockbuster success of course he stretched himself writing many great diverse novels, right? Or maybe he waited FIVE YEARS and released the same tripe garbage as the previous novels? A novel that can barely maintain a 3 Star Amazon rating. And deservedly so.

Please, Nathan. Do not insult real writers and loyal readers of your blog with 0.000000005% percentile comparisons to Dan Brown. To use your basketball analogy that's like giving Will Purdue (look him up) the $150,000,000 contract while Michael Jordan sits on the bench.

I don't mind people knowing I hold these opinions and didn't want to hide behind anonymous posts, but I also didn't attach my name to this post for obvious reasons...

I don't need the Knights of Templar on my arse...


"Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own."

Gag.

Anonymous said...

Trash is not a pejorative word when people use it to describe books they perceive as having less value than literature. It's shorthand for a separate type of reading experience.

I liked THE DA VINCI CODE and have no problem calling it trash; it was fun, silly, disposable, McDonalds instead of French Laundry.

No one reads Harold Robbins today, and no one will be reading Dan Brown in 20 years. Trash as a shorthand serves its purpose.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Writing's something everyone learns how to do, but it's also something very few people learn how to define.

In school, everyone learns the basics of how to form and merge letters and how to make proper sentences and paragraphs. We learn the functions of writing, but not the art.

I think most people know the "formula" for perfect essays from high school - the five paragraph model or the inverted pyramid model, or whatever your particular school used. You needed a certain number of words for a sentence to be "correct", and then 4-5 sentences in every paragraph. The emphasis was on information without any room for voice.

People who learn to write like that and get high marks are bound to assume that's how professional writing works.

If you take someone who only knows the academic rules of writing and have them submit a novel, you'll probably find nothing grammatically wrong with it, but it won't have a soul.

I was blessed with 2 English Lit. teachers who didn't use that form of writing. They emphasized voice in our paper and took the restrictions off where language and length were concerned.

They taught together, one for Jr. year and one for Sr. year, because the way our school was set up, and gave us some of the best advice I've ever gotten:

1. Rules are for learning; art requires improvisation.
2. Strive for the unexpected over the easy. When given a choice, pick the subject least likely to be written about by anyone else.
3. Write as though you're speaking to your reader. Narrative =/= to textbook writing.

What those two women taught us was "commercial" writing. It went completely in the face of what our other instructors had taught, but the writing that came out of those classes was superior to anything we'd done in the others... and, IMO, it was superior to anything done by others assigned the teachers who persisted in the "academic" style of writing.

The other thing to consider is that many people don't understand what style and voice actually mean.

They assume that voice = accent, and churn out something unreadable because they've tried to write it phonetically.

Or they don't understand that even if the author is a 47 year old woman, that doesn't give an 8 yr old boy permission to talk like one. He needs to sound like an 8 yr. old boy.

Or they try to write (painfully) authentic dialogue which consists mainly of "um.... like... ya know..." and many awkward pauses that leave the MS looking like it's written in braille.

Not Totally Anonymous again... said...

and oh....

No. Using "was" as the verb 13 times on the first page is not “sparkly” writing either. Giggle.

K.L. Brady said...

Provocative question. Rejection--whether it be from agents, editors, or readers--is the ultimate reality check that the vast majority of writers don't subject themselves to. It's kind of like that saying "Better to be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." Better to call yourself a great writer (with your unfinished or non-critiqued opus), than to finish and put it out there to find out you suck. :)

And for everyone of us finishes and puts our work out there--and uses the criticism to make our work better--there are probably ten who ignore any hint of criticism because their egos have convinced them that they are literary geniuses.

Kind of reminds me of those people who audition for American Idol when Simon says a singers sounds like musical wallpaper. They swore down he was wrong--and most people with without tone deafness would agree. Truth hurts. You can use it to make you better, quit, or ignore it. Too many people choose the latter.

My story was good but the first draft sucked, wasn't ready. I embraced that. Embrace the suckiness...and then make it better.

Nathan Bransford said...

Not Totally Anonymous-

Dan Brown did what he set out to do very very very very well, and yes, I know what I said.

Claire Dawn said...

I live in the Am I Crazies.

But I take it one step further, I think everyone who think sI'm good, either has no idea what they're talking about or they're crazy too. And if I ever become a bestseller, it will be because there are thousands of crazy people in the world.

Alison said...

Um, yeah, have you ever watched American Idol?!? We have all witnessed off-key, out of tune "belting" that is not even suitable for the rattiest of karaoke bars! Yet all of the offenders (entertaining as they may be) truly believe THEY will be the next American Idol.
It's not just writing...it's just people.

Ann M said...

I think that people today are so incredibly self-absorbed that almost everyone thinks they have a fantastic story or two in them, and that having a basic knowledge of grammar or instinct for plot doesn't really matter. And while it's probably true that most people do have a few good stories in them, most of them would be better off selling those stories to someone who can actually write, rather than blundering through it on their own - the way J. Peterman sold his life story to Kramer. Although I guess that didn't work out so well for either of them.

Micky Leib said...

I think that the real reason that so many people think that it's easy to write a book is because of grade inflation. Many students are told that they're are wonderful, creative, and brilliant, when in truth, they're not. I know an 8th grade teacher who grades based on effort. That way an untalented child can receive an A and a 'Good Job' just for bothering to do the assignment. I'm not saying that it works this way in high school and college, but it happens to be that most teachers don't tell students how much their writing truly sucks.

Brian Crawford said...

I think about this a lot.
Consider how many unique author names have been on the New York Times bestseller list (which still doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to make a living as a writer) over the past four years. I don’t know the number, but I can assure you it’s far less than the 11,000 athletes who participated in the last Summer Olympics. And those people were genetic freaks of nature who’d spent every waking second of their lives preparing for the event. Seems pretty unlikely that I’d become an Olympic athlete in my spare time, right? So why does everyone ask me, "if you get your book published, are you going to write bestsellers for a living?"

I’m not bitter about this – really. But lately, I feel like I’m throwing a Nerf football around the parking lot, and people are asking me when I’m going to play in the Super Bowl.

Lucy said...

Part of the trouble is that validation only comes at the end of the process when you either publish and make a lot of sales, or don't. Before that, it's possible to believe that even the people who hate your book can be proven wrong. If it sells.

Anonymous said...

because we really are all crazy

Malissa said...

Everyone has an imagination and everyone dreams. Everyone can write. Add determination and commitment to the craft of writing and you may be a writer. Add blood, sweat and more re-writing than you can count, and you may become a published author.

GuyStewart said...

My opinion and belief is that people DO know if they aren't good. It's just hard to admit it. The ones who "know" they're good believe in themselves and just keep sending their work out without fanfare until they hit the right combination of right agent, right place, right time, right project, right publisher.

MarissaV said...

Why is it so hard to tell if our writing is good? Parental love. Our writing is our baby, and every parent thinks their baby is the cutest baby in the world. Even those bucktoothed, crossed-eyed babies are beautiful to their mothers.

You conceive an idea, you nurture it, you feed it, you spend sleepless nights thinking about it, and finally, you birth it. You have a completed novel. It’s the most precious thing in the world to you. Your baby is more beautiful than the hardbacks on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Who cares if it is your first baby or if your baby has terrible skin, or if your baby is in the 10th percentile? Your baby belongs out front for the world to see.

In the words of Johnny Castle, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” (ok, I got carried away with this last line)

Not Totally Anon said...

@ Nathan Touché!

Kaitlyne said...

I can think of two possibilities off the top of my head. One is that people start with an image in their head that's much cooler than what gets translated onto the paper. They can still see that image, so when they're reading their own work they may not recognize that their words don't convey the image as well as they think. There's a lot of self-awareness required in writing, and self-awareness isn't something a lot of people possess.

The second thought is that people see books they think are bad and think they can do better, but most people really don't see examples of what bad writing looks like, either. Even badly written published books are going to be (generally speaking) grammatically correct and better than what most of the population can manage. Maybe it gives people a false sense of how easy it is? If all you see are good examples of something, you don't necessarily realize what the bad looks like. That might be completely wrong, but I'm just thinking aloud.

Honestly, though, a lot of people are never taught to write correctly in school. By correctly I mean able to use commas and construct sentences and paragraphs and that sort of thing. They don't realize they're doing it wrong because no one's ever taught them there's a right way. They don't understand the basic rules.

I think Pub Rants was the blog I saw an article at recently that said the average person only read 2~3 books a year. And that was on average. I imagine there are a lot of people who don't really read at all, or read a book a year. So maybe, in contrast to my previous suggestion, there's something to the idea that people don't even expose themselves to good writing to know what it looks like.

Jil said...

I really believe success is achieving the result you aim for. I'll use show jumping as my example. If a rider's horses consistently win the competition even though he looks far from picture perfect in the saddle, that person is a success and better than those following all the riding school rules.
If a book makes me cry, get angry, see a beautiful land, or shiver with fear, following rules or not, that author is good.

Nathan Bransford said...

lol Not Totally Anon. I think what you're seeing is that I tend to judge books more on the "did the author do what they were trying to do/is it good for what it is" scale rather than the "Proust to unpublished poorly spelled stream of consciousness novel about a dead cat" spectrum.

T. Anne said...

I refuse to give up my delusions Nathan.

Sanna said...

Most people are half educated as readers and writers, so their lit crit chops are far less developed than, say, their point guard crit chops are. Same goes for design skills.

That's one reason. There's always plain ole garden-variety delusion.

Anonymous said...

It's hard for a lot of reasons. I find it difficult to be objective about things I love - people, animals, trucks. Why wouldn't everyone else love them the same way I do? Same with the stories I create.
Another reason might be that there is no definite yardstick by which to measure the goodness of your work. Even publication is no real assurance that you're good - only successful at publication.

Nancy said...

My two cents: Most of the writers I've known are good at one or some of the elements it takes to create an entertaining story. One might be good at laying out a bare bones story skeleton, but sucks at prose, sentence dynamics, or characterization. Another might have great characters, dialog, and visual scenes, but there's no real story. The combinations are endless with this scenario. It's one in a million (just about) writer who's got a handle on how to deliver all the writing variables to a piece of paper well enough to evoke continual emotion in the reader. And that takes years of writing practice.

I believe what makes us think we're good at writing is the feelings in us when we see our creations on the page. It's like giving birth to a baby. We are so proud and thrilled and feeling euphoric that we have created something. Such genius! We expect everyone to feel these things, too, when they encounter our works, whether or not we have been successful in mastering all the writing elements in our creations.

Most writers don't realize they have substituted quality for euphoria in the act of creation. It takes years of practice and learning to discern the difference. What we see as a talented writer is one who constantly goes through this process of discernment, and probably has a worn out delete key.

BrownEyed said...

No two persons are alike--after all, that is what gives them the individuality. I liked Paulo Coelho's "Brida" far more than his "Alchemist"; Ayn Rand's brilliance shined through "Atlas Shrugged" for many, but I found it a little off for my tastes (too corporate-ish, bit devilish, at times intolerable).
However, that doesn't go on to make the best sellers any less of so now, does it? And am glad it doesn't work that way--I'd be drowned to my shoulders if everything depended on what I liked! ;)

So the answer is simple--following the "thumb-rules" till you can invent your own is a safe bet--rest depends on individuals; some will love even your tatters, some will ignore you in broad day light. Not every one can be pleased--their taste-buds are too varied to cater to!

-BrownEyed

tracy-d74 said...

Okay, I am a psychologist and I can give you the psychological reason. When people are talented they surround themselves with other talented persons. Their view of what it takes is skewed. They see the best. They are comparing themselves to the best. People who have mediocre skills do not surround themselves by such people. So the people they are around, well, they in fact more talented than those folks. Also talented people often see teh gap between what they know and don't know. They are exposed to the full range of information. This does not happen with the less gifted. They take what they see as the real and only deal, not searching out the rest because . . . they are the best among their friends. There is actually a psychological term for this, I learned it in social psychology . . . but I have forgotten it. Sorry.

CFD Trade said...

What is it about writing that makes people put on the blinders and fail to recognize their limitations and makes the talented unable to recognize their own goodness? - I'd say the answer is agents!:)

Anonymous said...

I disagree that as the level of doubt increases so does a writer's skill. The crazies have a lot of doubt. The level of nuttiness is usually proportional to the gap between reality and what we want to believe.

Sue said...

Everyone here is actively deluding themselves this very moment. This kind of post, while appearing to shed light on this issue, actually reinforces the beliefs we already have.

Anonymous said...

I think the Dunning Kruger is a great idea but about as accurate as eye whiteness testimony because it's built on a fault premise that ignores people who are skilled and rate their ability accurately, and skilled people who have the a mammoth ego.

Fawn Neun said...

Nathan - obviously you don't know enough amateur musicians or budding artists.
They teach us to write in school from kindergarten and tell us that not only will we learn how to write, we must learn well enough to pass to the next grade. So, unlike the examples you've given, people think they can write because they've been doing it in some form or another for many years before they begin to "write".

Music, writing and visual art aren't basketball or some other measurable skill - it's all very subjective. I've seen some real crap on the shelves. To someone else, it's great stuff.

Most fiction writers are a bit bi-polar about our own abilities, anyway. It's one of the things I miss about technical and non-fiction writing - I knew it was successful if the average reader could understand and duplicate the information. So much easier...

wendy said...

I think it's hard to be discerning about any artistic foray. I've dabbled in a few forms of the arts and have gone through the same experiences with each one. Especially early in the learning process, it's so easy to become self-congratulatory. Then later, perhaps years later, you go back and look/listen to that same piece and can tell it's woeful.


I agree with Nathan that writing is easier to dabble in than, say, music composition or artwork as these require certain learned skills. But everyone can write sentences and everyone has ideas. Most people think the ideas are the important thing; usually, though, it's what you do with those ideas that will make a novel fantastic or rubbish. Quite a few people approach writers with the proposition that they go halves in a writing project where he, or she, supplies the ideas and the writer supplies the expertise. Unless the ideas are truly amazing, it's the expertise that's more valuable, because it's mainly the way those ideas are brought to life on the page that make them believable, interesting and viable.

I would have thought that if someone is writing brilliantly, then they'd have an inkling of that. But I once read that Tolkien doubted he'd ever be published. This might have been because he wondered if his work would be perceived as commercially viable, not because he doubted his abilities. As a University Professor, he must have known he had above-average skills and knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Do you really not know the answer to this? Or are you playing possum in order to generate a lively discussion?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

No, I really don't know the answer. I think writing is particularly prone to people not knowing whether they're good or not and I'm not sure why that is. Though I think there have been some compelling ideas in the thread.

sallysmart said...

Because writing is communication. Only the reader can decide.

Anonymous said...

Mmm, I don't know. I've met a lot of people who, because they play Guitar Hero well, think they're the next Jimi Hendrix. Same with basketball players, football players who think they're the next Lebron James or Troy Aikman (you can see how current I am on my football knowledge).

Sports, however, isn't usually about who you know. In publishing, that can be one big factor. Not always, but it definitely helps. I can't count how many stories I've read about an author knowing someone, or knowing someone who knew someone, and that was how they got their manuscript read with interest (while it was rejected forty-something times -- one guy's like 200! -- prior to that). Sometimes "who you know" is the main reason people get published.

To me, if someone REALLY wanted to make it as a professional athlete, unending hard work for many years could honestly make that happen for them. Playing sports is objective (you can either sink the shot, or you can't). Writing is subjective. And again, it can come down to who you know, or whether you happen to meet the right person.

As far as me, I oftentimes think my writing is good as I'm writing it. Then I set it down for x amount of time (sometimes only 24 hours) and whenever I look at it again, it's always crap. Real, utter crap. I can't stand it. I can't even open my synopsis without editing it. It's killing me.

So if I can't even decide if MY writing's good, how can anyone else? I think much of today's writing, and whether it's considered "good" or not for publishing purposes, is mostly about the market. The reason I think this: Several books I enjoyed 2 years ago no longer hold my interest. Now whether I'm changing WITH the market, or the market is fluctuating b/c of the populous' interests/etc -- that I'm not sure.

Amanda said...

This is the reason I have a crit group. Tonight, I had the opportunity to take my blinders off. Got to hear what the flaws are, and get to work and making weak things become strong.

heellis72 said...

I am sure all of us know at least one "blowhard" who loves to hear himself speak.

These fools like to write because to them writing is running their mouths in print.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I think there are three forms of the crazies.

1) Am I crazy to think I'm any good at this?
2) Were people who told me in the past I had talent crazy?
3) Are the people who say I have no talent crazy?

Unfortunately, the current method of "keeping score" is sales. But, just like early "boxoffice" numbers for a new movie, popularity, or readability, or talent, are determined by book sales statistics, which are skewed by the talent or lack of promotion of the author or publishing house, and don't reflect necessarily readers' reactions to what they've been told or urged or recommended to buy.
That comes later.

A large number of books, like mine, are out there now waiting for readers to "discover" them. The more the better, and the books' true merit will be determined more by what individual readers think, eventually, than what someone tries to tell them to think.

But if no one likes my book, no one else loses money betting they'll pay big for my book. And bigger for the other marketing revenue streams: toys, shirts, games, movies, etc that are now part of the decision making process on the merits of someone's writing talent.

So, in that sense, self-publishing is to writing "artists" what hanging a painting in a gallery is to a painter--a product you hope someone will pay something to have that you created.

As a non-expert, I say if you think you're good enough, walk onto the field during try-outs with your head held high.

I once complained about wishing I worked somewhere I was convinced was beyond me. The person I complained to, who had worked there, asked: "have you applied?"
When I answered no, he said: "then what makes you think you aren't qualified?"

Robert said...

I think people believe they can write, even if it is not true, because stories are words (strangely enough) and words are so common that we use them every day.

Because of that, words are seen to be like pennies, in that they do not have that great of value. These people do not truly understand that it is not just words that make up a story, but the COMBINATION of the RIGHT WORDS in the RIGHT WAY.

Now how the words are combined and what are the right ones to use and the right way to do it, that is what sets the various published authors and their readers apart.

JDuncan said...

Wish I had something profound to add to this conversation, but I don't really. I can say that I like the stories I create. I enjoy the process of creating them. I write them to the best of my current abilities. I know I can always be better at this thing called writing. As far as being good for others, well, that's entirely subjective and open to interpretation. Some will think I'm good while others not so much. This will be the case no matter how much I improve my writing skill. As long as I'm am satisfied with my current effort given what I know how to do, that's all I can really ask for.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Because judging talent in writing is subjective, and judging talent on the basketball court or the stage is not.

If you can't dribble a ball, or you never get the basketball in the hoop, or suck at passing, or even if you're okay at all of these things but not amazing, when you get out there on the court among the professionals, it's obvious that you're the one who shouldn't be there. And everyone will tell you, and you don't even need them to tell you because you can see it yourself.

When you can't read music, or you don't know the difference between a C chord and a G7 seventh, or you can't hit the right notes or carry a tune, and you get up on that stage with Madonna or Michael Buble and try to sing with them, it's really obvious that you're the one who doesn't belong there. And if you can't even read music, you know for yourself that you have work to do.

In sports and in music, there are stages and standards and things you just have to know how to do.

In writing, there are none of these things. And I would argue that in art, this is actually also the case. Plenty of crazy people think that they are the next Picasso or O'Keefe or Klimt or Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock, and plenty of non-crazy but talented people wonder every day how they are going to pay for food and rent. But I digress.

Every person who has eyes to see and a mouth to talk with has at some point walked into a bookstore or an art gallery and looked at something that someone else has made and opened their mouth and said, "That is a load of hooey, and I could do five times better than that in my sleep." We've all done that. And we wouldn't be human if we didn't, at some stage, try to do just that.

And it's hard, when you conceive of something and create it yourself, to step back from it and get perspective on it. We know if it is what we had intended to create, but because we love it we have no ability to see it clearly compared to other work by other people. And for some reason - maybe because they love us equally well - even though they have no problem telling us to shut up when we can't sing or sit out when we can't shoot, our friends and relatives tell us that we have created something wonderful and that the world should see it.

And a monster is born.

Anonymous said...

The yardstick lies in the classic philosophical problem of "other minds." Writing is our attempt or wish to touch other minds--whether they exist or not. All writing is good.

"Written words are the non-pictures that convey anything to other minds." -Old Spice Guy

I'm sold.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bu-KBxOtJxs&feature=player_embedded

anne vinsel said...

Have to question your premises, Nathan. I'm a painter and the university art classes I taught were flooded with people who couldn't draw and assumed they were the next Georgia O'Keefe. My musician friends say the same thing; in fact didn't punk music start just that way? Have no basketball buddies, but if I did I bet they'd confirm. In art, it takes a while to train your eyes enough that you can see the difference between a good line and a lazy line, between interesting colors and thoughtless colors. Between the time you start working and the time your eye is developed, you honestly can't see the difference between Leroy Neiman and Jackson Pollock. It's quite a handicap until you learn, and some people never do. Can't imagine writing is much different, except maybe it's the ear that has to develop? takes time and persistence (the dancers say it takes ten years to make a leg, and that seems to be about right for painting).

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Love your blog. Love your always thought inspiring questions.

Agree with you that scoffing at best sellers is a fool's errand. But I don't necessarily agree that great writing is a requirement for a best seller as much as knowing what will sell, and how to market it.

So, a great agent is another important ingredient...

Perhaps, instead of comparing writing to basketball, it is better suited to being compared to boxing--most aspirants get knocked out of contention in the first few professional bouts. But once in a while, out of the slush pile of would be and wanna bes, Sonny Liston gets knocked down.

But nobody expects it. And that's what makes writing, and working hard at trying to write really, really well, so much fun.

One punch to the solar plexus--the right agent sees something, or the agent's reader sees something, and before you know it, you go from living in your car to being one of the best-known writers in the world.

Like J.K. Rowling. Hits have to be noticed by someone. Otherwise, they stay part of the slush pile.

John said...

Hey Nathan,

The artist's last name is O'Keeffe, not O'Keefe. I say that not to be pedantic, but to mention a sure-fire way to win some pocket money. Figure a way to bring her up in polite conversation, casually speculate on the spelling of her name, wager 20 bucks. I've made at least $500 on that extra F. Give it a try.

treeoflife said...

I imagine most of these writers with the superiority complex must not read their own stuff... When I'm writing, I marvel at my own brilliance, but when I actually read what I wrote, I shudder in disgust and fight the urge to delete the file.

Jackie said...

Hemmingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

It's also been said he wrote some stinkers, too. Published and Unpublished. Same goes for Virginia Woolf.

I'm certain these two thought they sucked. And often.

Vicky said...

I'm unable to be objective about whether my writing is "good" or "bad". It depends on how I'm feeling about myself and the day, what feedback I received recently and how I took it. (Professionally I hope, but sometimes it still hits me in the gut.)
What I do know is whether I'm getting better as a writer. And that comes from constantly writing and rewriting, opening myself to honest critique and critiquing others' work. Often I can see in others what I'm slow to see in myself.

Amethyst said...

"What is it about writing that makes people put on the blinders and fail to recognize their limitations and makes the talented unable to recognize their own goodness?"

For both, it's the fear of failure.

Andrea said...

Nathan, I agree with what you said earlier about people not really looking at why a book they don't like is successful.

In college I read a couple books I felt sorta 'meh' about, and then the professor went through them, pointed things out, and did it with a certain passion that changed the way I originally saw the book. It changed the way I read.

On a side note, I had a professor who I was constantly trying to get the answer to this same question from. I wanted him to explain to me how he could grade people's stories, poems, et cetera. There's no real answer.

Maybe all writing is good. Even the bad stuff. Not good as a bestseller, perhaps. But, maybe we should be glad there are still people who are creative and are still telling stories, even if it's only for themselves, their kids at bedtime, or a close friend.

Robin Connelly said...

My opinion is vast. I think the main thing is because when someone really wants to be a successful writer they don't start off having the writing contacts they need to improve their writing, skills or even get an honest critique from. So, for the longest time, they'll run into a lot of people who will go "Oh, you wrote this? It's 300 pages. You're going to be a best selling novelist then, I take it?" Some take this too heart and send in their books too early. of course, there are several are other reasons and examples I could name. But I think a lot of them were mentioned ahead of me.

Besides, what makes me such an expert? I don't know if I'm good.

Damyanti said...

As people have said umpteen times in this thread, evaluating a piece of writing can be quite a subjective affair: Can't compare Dan Brown to Toni Morrison, they set out to do completely different things, and did them well.

But there is a basic threshold, I think: grammar, spelling, technique....unless the purpose/punch lies in breaking these down for a purpose.

That aside, people can better evaluate themselves if they detach their own selves from the writing to an extent: think of it as a clay image, to be molded into a statue, a process that can only benefit from constructive criticism.

This is THE hardest part.

Sadly, most of us can't do that, and since we think of a criticism of our writing as a criticism of us as people, we tend to defend our writing the best we can.

The worry warts (in most cases) are those willing to spot the flaws in their work, and get "better". They have learned to keep their writing at a distance once the first one or two drafts are done...and will never be able to consider their work great. Unless carried to an extreme, that is a good thing, and leads to good writing, IMHO.

Those who consider their first drafts to be works of genius would obviously remain where they are, for a long time to come.

Wildheit said...

Look@14th-10:43am expanded, you also have to take into account that bad writing gets published and sometimes sells way better than good writing, and that Nathan gets cranky when you push that stream of thought to its limits (only $$$ matters to the market). Anonymous Bill@14th-12:29pm sidesteps this nicely, and concludes that what's important to the discussion is not that bad writing gets published, but *why*: "These are the surface characteristics, not the true nuances that make for lasting success. And recognizing the less recognizeable, IMHO, is the key to differentiating the amateur of transient brilliance from the lasting professional talent."
2) Mentions of the Dunning-Kruger effect abound, which IMO sort of comes down to "we're basically unknowable about the things we don't know so we don't know but naming it Dunning-Kruger makes it sound posh".
3) Jaime@14th-10:52am encapsulates what others said before: it's language, everybody uses language, so it can not be difficult. Add trent@14th-10:37am's that writing doesn't need a great deal of capital before you can start. Add to this it's a learning process (you can always learn more and better language), everybody "thinks" s/he's a good writer until they try. Also, not everybody is taught what good writing/literature is, which sort of ignores the whole point of the subjectivity of "good writing" in #1 (. Though I agree that benchmarking is an important part of the learning process.
4) Some of the fingers pointing at subjectivity do not limit it to "good" or "bad" writing, but how basically you can compare titles. An apple is not a pear, though both fruits, right? And yet our so low-cost writerly tools (trent, above) only help to create deception; as Kerry Gans@14th-1:43pm puts it: "Maybe because my typed Word document looks the same as everyone else's typed Word document [...]you can see that you can't jump as high as the NBA guys [...] But my words typed on a page look pretty much the same as JK Rowlings'".
5) Also, abundant variation of the theme "there's always idiots". Our egos get in the way of clear thinking. Or more softly put: everybody likes their baby, even if it's a misshapen heap of flesh without a brain. Writing creates a high, and you need your distance to be a good judge. Nancy@14th-7:02pm phrases it nicely with "Most writers don't realize they have substituted quality for euphoria in the act of creation. It takes years of practice and learning to discern the difference. What we see as a talented writer is one who constantly goes through this process of discernment, and probably has a worn out delete key." We delude ourselves links nicely with:
[continued...]

Wildheit said...

[continued...]
6) Imagination (Travis Erwin@14th-1:36pm). To write we tap into our imagination, and it's a land where we're kings and live in huge sprawling palaces with 100 bathrooms with golden taps and not once in that bit of fantasy we stop and think about who the hell is going to keep all those bathrooms clean. As C.J.Atsvinh@14th-1:46am puts it: "when we dream, man do we dream big." From this naturally follows what Ghost Girl@14th-10:46am says: "it's kind of like hearing our own voice; it sounds completely different outside of our own head." And James@14th-12:12pm links it closer to language: "People imagine writing is especially easy because it is the only art form that is expressed in our minds - or seems that way. This creates the illusion that we have created what we are reading", and Brant@14th-1:52pm continues in that line: "That process translates into me having a qualitatively different experience when reading my own work than someone else will. For everyone else, the text has to stand on its own merits." Ink@14th-3:20pm elaborates the idea that words are at the heart of a work's subjectivity: "part of every text comes from the reader, from how they translate these symbols into a vision they see and hear and feel [...] for the writer, we already have the vision in our head. We have it there as we write, or even before we write."

IMO, it's not simply that words can and will be interpreted by the reader even when the author has great skill or craft or talent or luck in guiding the reader's eye and mind (go too far on that post-modern path and you'll soon be proclaiming the author dead, and trust me: not where you want to end up as writer). That everyone carries their own experiences in words with them is only part of the problem.
But words are the tools of our mind, not simply of our imagination or memory. We think in words to define our reality, it gives form to the formless reflections of light that fall into our eyes. And while through imagination we create a new reality with words (as writers and readers we experience how that works), we often fail to see that even the real reality in which we sit behind the computer writing is in a way a construct of our brain (but let's not go off into the deep-end of solipsism). We easily get fooled by our own high because what we write at that moment simply *is* sublime. By feeling/thinking it, we make it so, to us at least. And without drifting off into solipsism: who is to say it isn't?
And that's why it's always such a good advice to put something in a box or drawer for a while when you think you've finished. Not simply because somewhat later the high will have worn off, or we'll have learned new tricks, can sift out errors we've newly learned to identify, but also because our words themselves, the meanings and associations and experiences behind them, have changed. When you look at your creation again after a long time of doing something else completely, it will be with almost literally new eyes.
And then, of course, the trick is to keep that distance, not get sucked in by your own imagination or high again, so that you may actually see things for what they are...

Raymond Terry said...

It does seem to me that if you ask five editors or agents for an opinion regarding a written work that you will get five different responses, none of which will agree with any of the others. There are even some editors, publishers and agents who resort to the time honored phrases , 'it's not right for me' or' it needs more polish'. That of course means that the responding party has no idea whether the writing will attract an audience or not and can offer nothing more than a trite response.

Now, after some time, and many conflicting reviews, the aspiring writer, good or bad, will reason that perhaps his or her work may in fact be better than the reviewers have stated. After all, if it were terrible they all would have simply said so and the writer could then, either move on or continue beating themselves up.

Or it might just be egotism. I have even been accused of that on occasion but in all honesty, I don't believe that I am half as good as I really am...

Terin Tashi Miller said...

On the flip side, I have a few friends who are actually great writers but will never be "known" because they are more critical of their own work than any reader.

Moderation as with all things. And you can't win any contest if you don't enter.

Writing is exposure--of thoughts, ideas, perhaps experiences.

I think all writers take their writing seriously, maybe too much so at times, or not enough at others.

I think, perhaps, the answer to the question you so eloquently pose at the start is that it is so hard to tell if our writing is good because we are afraid to trust our own judgment, and need the validation of others--readers, agents, editors, publishers, book buyers, reviewers, etc--to either confirm or reject our belief or understanding of what it is we are trying to do.

I say this as someone who was "infected" with what I now refer to as the terminal disease of writing.

Other questions for me always are: who am I writing this for? Why am I writing it? If the answer is for fame and fortune, good luck. If the answer is because it seems to be the way you prefer to communicate to fellow humans, good luck.

No matter what, once you're infected, like me, you can't stop writing even if everyone tells you you'll never have readers.

I realized last night that while I haven't "made my living" writing fiction, as I hoped to when I was a teenager, I have, in fact, made my living as a writer of non-fiction, a journalist, for more than half my 30 year career as a journalist.

Because somebody else thought at least my journalism was "good."

So: my advice is keep writing, or if you feel you should stop, stop. But do either because you want to, you've decided in your own judgment to trust your judgment, and not because someone else tells you that you should.

Which is why I still send queries to agents on occasion, even though I've had two agents and never a publishing contract.

In "the old days," it was far easier. I'd put out like a novel a year or so, my agent would read it and either like it or make suggestions to change it, and try to sell it.

That was in the days before readers--not the agents themselves--read manuscripts and judged for the agent whether something, even a query, was worth considering.

Now, there are so many different people whose judgment affects what gets published, I've skipped agents for a couple projects and self-published them.

But I've only self-published, and am self-publishing my second novel soon, books that agents really liked in the past but were unable to get accepted by a publisher for economic (hopefully) reasons rather than writing merit.

So, like everyone, I can't tell if my writing is good. I need someone else to tell me it is.

But I can tell pretty quickly if my writing isn't good. And then, I happily hit the delete key.

But I usually need to (oddly, or because I'm "old school"?) print out my manuscript and go over it word by word in type to catch things I missed on the screen.

And it used to be far more time consuming, typing a novel on 25%-rag content paper, double-spaced, with two inch margins at the bottom for notes and one inch margins at the side and one and a half at the top for the same, with a carbon page in between the original and a flimsy (yellow cheap paper for copying), then going over that, and redoing it all.

Computers have definitely made writing easier. Whether it's made writers better is subjective...like art, or "literature," versus saleable "content."

In my opinion.

bryan allain said...

someone probably already said this, but I KNOW I can't dunk on Dwight Howard or touch Barry ZIto's curveball.

But when I read a great paragraph, or maybe a bad one, I think...hey, I CAN DO THAT.

Bill Swan said...

Basketball players daydream of NBA.
Hockey players daydream about hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Instead of running, jumping, throwing, skating, shooting -- writers daydream.

That's the problem: overdeveloped thinker-upper things.

Anonymous said...

Having studied theatre and music, along with writing, I'd have to disagree with you. There are plenty of people in every field who think that they are gifted and will be famous one day. It doesn't just apply to writers. I've found ego without brilliance everywhere. And all I can say is more power to them. You have got to have a dream. It's our dreams that make us set goals. I just watched the documentary, "This May Get Loud." The Edge said that when U2 started up none of them were able to play. I, for one, am glad that most beginners have delusions of grander. You have to start somewhere.

Hart Johnson said...

Two things: we are too close to it to be objective.

And SUBJECTIVELY the best writing gets across what the author means to and TO US, we've expressed ourselves exactly as WE would... it's a perfect fit.

Time is the best cure for the first--reading a lot of OTHER people for the second.

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