How Do You Know If Your Work is Any Good?
A question from a reader on Facebook:
I’ll ask the question that’s been asked a hundred thousand times by writers perhaps at all levels. Outside of selling, how do you know that your work is actually good? You may pitch a book, and it might be good but might not be what an agent likes. So how do you validate that what you are doing is good?
Always a good question! And a tough one. Here are some thoughts:
First, there’s the definition of “good.”
Art and entertainment are completely subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While there are certain standards by which many of us agree to judge worthiness, it’s still not even close to being objective. Organizations routinely give awards to books that would bore the heck out of most readers. Meanwhile, other groups give awards to books that the literary types deem “trash.” All kinds of books become bestsellers—from the most intelligent, scholarly masterpieces to more easily accessible stories that attract readers for reasons other than literary excellence.
The question is, what kind of “good” are you shooting for? The “good” that wins literary awards and gets starred reviews in PW? The “good” that attracts readers and leaves them wanting more of your work? Some combination?
Whatever the answer, you’re shooting for a murky target. You won’t find a solid working definition of “good.”
Second, what kind of validation are you looking for?
The question above said, “how do you validate that what you are doing is good?” We’re all looking for validation, but your task is to try and understand what YOU will find validating. A few friends loving your work? An agent taking you on? A major publisher signing you? Or maybe none of those things will happen but you’ll self-publish. Can validation come in the form of thousands of copies sold and lots of positive reviews from readers? You might not know until you’re further along this journey and have some experience with different avenues of getting your work out there.
But let’s get back to the crux of the question: How do you know if your work is any good—by anybody’s standards?
You know your work is good in two ways:
1) Your own gut feeling.
You have to train your gut, however, by reading and writing, and reading more, and writing more. Reading books in your genre, reading books on craft, identifying how you can make your writing better. Putting manuscripts away for a few months and coming back to them later to re-evaluate them with a fresh eye. You will never be objective about your own work, but you can train yourself to assess your work more and more accurately.
2) Outside feedback from others.
In the end, there’s no substitute for getting other people’s eyes on your work. This is why critique partners and beta readers are so popular. It’s also why authors hire editors, consultants, book mentors and book doctors. At some point, you might want the input of someone whose “gut” is more seasoned than yours or your critique partners’.
But still…how do you know when your work is ready to send out?
Nobody can answer this definitively. A combination of your gut and some outside feedback is where you start… then it’s trial and error. Sometimes you just have to send it (or press “publish” if you’re self-publishing) and see what happens.
How do YOU know when your work is ready to send? What do you find most challenging about this?