How do you know when your writing is good enough?
This is a question that’s come up a few times of late, via social media, via email, via my Skype coaching sessions. And it’s a big question, particularly when you’re a new writer, wrestling with self-doubt and a headful of words.
It’s not an easy question to answer. As someone who’s been a writer, in one form or another, for my whole working life, it was a question that was often answered for me by other people. By an editor throwing a story back at me, covered in red pen. By a first reader in a writing group, making ‘suggestions’. But, at some point, you begin to find your own way, using past experience to feel your way through your current project, and you just know.
Realising that this may not be helpful, I’ve brought in reinforcements, asking nine Australian authors to share their own answers to this very perplexing question.
How do you know when what you’re writing is good – or at least ‘good enough’ to send to your agent/publisher?
“This is actually something I struggle with a lot – mostly because I honestly NEVER think my writing is any good. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t love writing but ADORES having written. I always feel like a fluke and that my writing isn’t good enough, so I usually end up sending it before I think it’s ready. However, I believe the important things are the characters and the core story – if I think these two things are working, then all the little things can be fixed at the next edit stage with my publisher.
“So what I look at before I submit a book is whether a) the characters have a strong journey/arc – that they have changed and learnt something over the course of the book and b) that the plot makes sense and is believable.
“Sure, readers sometimes need to be able to suspend disbelief a little bit when reading but as I write contemporary fiction about ordinary people facing dilemmas, I want their lives to be intriguing and interesting but also possible.
“Having said that, I’m not suggesting you don’t do a bit of a copy edit before sending. I always print my book out and edit it on paper, specifically looking for repetition of gestures/emotional response, ways to tighten the writing and ensuring the dialogue sounds realistic.
“Then I hit send and try and forget about that manuscript until I hear from my publisher with their response.”
“My moment of readiness is a bizarre double vision. On the one hand, my squinting doubt goes away: I can read without furrows or “hmmm” or “ugh”. It feels like me, right?
“On the other hand, it’s no longer me at all. The words suddenly feel alien: like someone else wrote them. So the voice is mine; the ideas, rhythms, sensibilities. But the writing now has its own distinctive character: it is a work.
“To put it simply: I know the work is done when it stops prompting unease, and gains its own independence from me.”
“For me, because I have such a good relationship with my publisher and because I really value her feedback, I send it to her when I’m ready for that feedback.
“I have a particular redrafting process I go through, which usually means I do four drafts and then a tidy-up, and at that point I mostly feel ready for another set of eyes. Before that it’s too early; I’m usually still unfolding the plot and the story and developing the characters more fully and so I would be wasting her feedback on those elements if I sent it off before I’d done those sets of drafts.
“I really want her feedback about the way a reader would respond to the story, characters, and plot I’ve created, so I need to have these elements in place before I send it. So I don’t wait until it’s perfect; I send it to her when I have questions that I’d like her input on, such as—is the reveal of the secret too slow, too fast, too difficult to understand etc.
“It’s a bit different [now] to when I was pitching A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, which I worked on until I felt I could do no more with it—once again though, I knew it wasn’t perfect; it was just the best I could do at that time.”
“I don’t always know when my writing is good enough to send off. Sometimes I send it off before it’s ready. But usually I send it when I feel excited by it. Even if its not perfect, it still has something in it that’s working. Some spark.
“And I’ve usually done a few drafts before I find that.”
“Short answer, you don’t and have to take a shot at some point and hope for good editors.
“But time is important. Always put something aside, then look again with fresh eyes some days or weeks later and redraft. When it’s as good as you think you can make it, have some trusted beta reader friends go over it. And in truth, the more you do, the better you get at judging.
“But everyone always needs an editor.”
“I send it to a trusted writer friend, and if she likes it, I know I’m on to something.”
“My answer is: when it feels ‘good’ or ‘complete’. It’s a bit ephemeral. I don’t try to compare it to another admired author’s work, but I try to take a step back from it and read it objectively. That often means putting it in a drawer for a while (as long as possible).
“I think everyone has their own understanding of what’s good writing and what they admire. I just aim for that – and occasionally I get there.
“It doesn’t always work. Sometimes it doesn’t feel good to me, but my publisher likes it. Or vice versa (which is worse).”
“I am never sure that it’ s good enough which is why I love deadlines because at that point I just have to send it off!! I sent my new book to my publisher last week, and the days that I had to wait for her to read it and give me her feedback were like torture. It was such a relief when she rang to say she loved it!
“Reading aloud helps me to hear how [a manuscript] sounds. When I feel it’ s just about ready I give it to my two trusted readers – my husband and my daughter to see what they think (not that they’ve ever said they hated anything!).
“Most of all, though, I trust my publisher, Zoe Walton at Random House to tell me if she thinks anything is not working.”
“When you discover the heart of the story beating strongly through the pages, read the first page out loud. If it sings, then you may just pass the first audition of a publisher or agent.”
For more fantastic writing advice, tips and industry insider information, don’t miss the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast every week (and it’s FREE).