I remember very clearly the first time someone told me I was a good writer. I was nine or ten and had to write a biography about a person I admired. I chose my grandpa, a remarkable man in so many ways that would never earn him recognition outside his family. Loyal, kind, hard-working – he’s turning 90 this June and still spends hours doing yard work and fixing things for the widows on his street.
I wrote his biography, and my mom helped me type it up and print it out on her cutting-edge dot matrix printer. I stapled my booklet together, decorated it with my markers, and gave it to Grandpa the next time he and Gramma came over.
The only other time I’ve seen my grandpa’s eyes well up was on my wedding day.
He read through my story, shaking his head, grinning and murmuring, “My my.” He never once called me out on all the things I’d made up or guessed at – like what the weather was like on the night he was born (my opening scene).
Poor research skills aside, for the first time I felt like I could do something special. I could touch someone’s heart in a way no one else in my family could. They’re not writers, my family, so they made a very big deal of my creation.
For years afterward, “good writer” attached itself to my identity.
I’m guessing most writers have a similar story. You probably didn’t know you had a talent for story-telling until someone pointed it out. Let’s face it, not many six year olds sit back from their first crayon-scrawled story and think, “That’s some damn good stuff. I totally nailed what it was like to be a T-Rex in the Cretaceous period.”
The problem is that we quickly learn the equation “praise + recognition = good writer”, which means we convince ourselves the opposite is true: “no praise + lack of recognition = bad writer”.
As someone who’s writing novels with the goal of getting published, I often fall into this trap. Being named a finalist in a writing contest means I’m a good writer. Being rejected by an agent means I’m a bad writer.
But I also make my living as a professional writer, and that’s helped me learn there’s more to the equation.
Satisfied author + satisfied audience = job well done
I’ve tried to stop asking myself whether I’m a good writer. Instead, I’ve started asking whether the thing I’ve produced is effective, and if it isn’t, how can I improve it?
A lot will depend on my audience’s reaction. If I’m trying to get an agent but my queries are met with form rejections, does that mean I’m a bad writer? No, but it means my queries aren’t being effective. It means I need to work on them, get other writers’ opinions on where I can improve, and try again.
If I publish a novel but the reviews suck and no one buys my book, does that mean I’m a bad writer? As heartbreaking as that would be, no it doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer. It means that one novel I produced didn’t connect with audiences the way I wanted it to.
If I publish a novel and readers tell me it made them cry, does that mean I’m a good writer?
Being a successful writer is not all about external praise and success, as wonderful as those are. It’s also about the process of improving. Of struggling to express yourself and not giving up until you’ve got it right – and recognizing that you’ll probably never get it exactly right.
When I wrote that biography of my grandpa, I didn’t do it thinking “I want him to feel so loved that he cries.” I did it because so much love bubbled up inside me that I needed to let it out, and the biography assignment gave me the perfect opportunity. Grandpa’s reaction wasn’t a consideration.
Too many of us forget why we started writing in the first place – not for the agent who will surely scream “Eureka!” after reading our query, nor for the longtime fan who’s sobbed over every one of our novels and named their children after the characters of our first novel (what, am I the only writer who has these aspirations?). We do it because we have thoughts and emotions we need to express. A huge part of being a good writer is satisfying ourselves.
The brilliant thing about writing is that you can usually start over again. You can write a new novel, where you improve the things that held your last one back. You can even rewrite term papers – you just might not be allowed to turn them in for a new grade.
Writing is not tightrope walking. One bad experience doesn’t mean game over. And as long as you’re struggling to improve your skills, you’re heading in the right direction.
Do you remember the first time someone told you you were a good writer? Do you over-rely on other people’s opinions to determine whether you’re a good writer? What would your equation for being a good (or effective) writer be?