Thursday, November 12, 2009

How Do You Know You Write Well?

That title is meant to be sung to the tune of ENCHANTED’s “That’s How You Know,” by the way. Just in case you were wondering…

Anyway, measuring your own writing skill is tough. Giving something someone else has written an honest critique isn’t too difficult, but how can you be objective about your own work? You can write and rewrite and re-rewrite, but how do you know, once the words finally settle, whether they’re any good?

Turning to friends and relatives doesn’t help. While their opinions and encouragement are, well, encouraging, deep down inside, a teeny, tiny voice reminds you they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Well-meaning English teachers aren’t much better. They get pretty good at spotting tolerable writing, since most of what they spend their lives reading is barely tolerable crap, but that’s about it. By the time I was in junior high, my English teachers had stopped marking up my essays because they were convinced they were fabulous. But let me assure you, those essays were anything but.

Other writers’ assessments are helpful, even essential, but it’s still not quite the same. Sometimes you just want to know for yourself that these words you’ve been smashing together aren’t drivel, that you know that you know that you KNOW what you’re talking about.

Well, I haven’t figured out how to do that. (Sorry.) What I have figured out is how to measure my own relative writing skill--that is, how much I’ve improved. And that all comes down to reading.

When I was a teenager, I devoured books by a particular author. Of course I’m not going to mention a name, and I doubt that many people would recognize the name, anyway, but suffice it to say that she (that’s not too much of a confession, I guess, to let that pronoun slip) wrote the books that made the teenage Krista read. After a while, her books started exploring themes that I had no interest in, so I stopped reading them. But I still thought back on those first few books with fondness.

Now fast-forward nine or ten years. When a friend recommended another of her books to me, I decided to read it. I’d long since abandoned that genre, both in my reading and in my writing, but since my friend had suggested it--and since I still thought of this author as a generally good writer--I decided to give it a try. So imagine my surprise when, mere paragraphs into the novel, this author launched into a four-page-long info dump that was one part back story and two parts telling, not showing.

I couldn’t help but gasp. Was this the great novelist of my youth, the woman whose stories I couldn’t put down? Had she really written this? Had she really written all of that other stuff? After mulling it over for a few minutes, the answer came to me: Her writing hadn’t deteriorated over the past nine or ten years; mine had just improved.

To be fair, her characters were as engaging as they’d ever been, and because I wanted to know what would happen to them, I kept reading. But I was disappointed her books weren’t everything I remembered. I was disappointed they never had been.

So there you have it, another one of my solutions to everything. How do you know whether (or not) you write well? Just keep reading. Sooner or later, you’ll figure it out.