What if You’re Just Not Good Enough to be a Successful Writer?

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What if you’re not good enough?

What if you enjoy writing … but you’re actually pretty rubbish at it?

What if any success you’ve had so far has just been a fluke?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only writer who’s ever had those thoughts – more times than I care to admit.

Perhaps you feel that way too.

It’s easy – and tempting – to say here of course you’re good enough; who am I (or anyone else!) to tell you that you aren’t?

But I think that invalidates a deep, difficult fear for a lot of us.

Define Your Terms

It’s a good long while since I’ve done any academic writing, but one of the things I learnt when studying English Literature was to clearly define what important words in the question meant.

“What if You’re Just Not Good Enough to be a Successful Writer?”

To answer that, you really need to know what “successful” means – for you. There are plenty of different ways to measure writing success, from “literary acclaim” to “commercial success” to “personal fulfilment”.

Probably, your idea of “success” includes one or more of the following:

  • Having your work published by a traditional publisher.
  • Self-publishing your work and selling a certain number of copies / making a certain amount of money.
  • Making a living from your writing, so you can quit your day job.
  • Getting lots of positive reviews from readers.
  • Impressing your parents (or friends, blog readers etc).
  • Doing what you love – writing – every day.

There’s no “right” answer to what constitutes success, but it’s important to know what it looks like for you. You might also want to consider here which types of success you’re going to let slide. (For instance, if you want to make lots of money writing, you’re almost certainly going to get a few negative reviews along the way. (E.L. James, anyone?)

The definition of “good enough” is inextricably tied up with what you see as “success”. If you want to win the Booker prize, then you probably need quite different writing skills from someone who wants to make a living doing technical writing. In fact, if you’re writing fiction in general, the bar for “good enough” is a fair bit higher than it is for non-fiction.

Are Your Worries Realistic or Not?

Without reading a fair amount of your writing, I can’t tell you that!

I can tell you:

  • Lots of writers worry that they “aren’t good enough”, even when they’re perfectly competent – or potentially fantastic – writers. This can be a form of Impostor Syndrome.
  • A lot of very successful (i.e. bestselling!) writers get critical reviews saying that their writing is poor – e.g. Dan Brown, E.L. James.
  • Whatever the current standard of your writing skills, you can (and will!) improve by writing regularly and by studying the craft of writing.

It can be hard to trust your own judgement, or that of people close to you, when you’re worrying about whether or not you’re good enough.

Some handy external indications are:

  • Fiction writers: Have you ever won a prize, been shortlisted in a competition, or been otherwise rewarded or acclaimed for your writing? (This doesn’t need to be in a big way – that A+ grade you got for a short story in school counts here.)
  • Freelancers: Have you ever been paid for your writing? Clients and editors generally know what they’re doing. Even if one client somehow accepted a shoddy piece of writing, it’s unlikely that multiple clients would!
  • Bloggers: Have you ever received a positive comment or email from a blog reader, telling you how your blog post helped them or came at just the right moment?
  • Anyone: Has a writing tutor or editor told you that your writing is good? Professionals know what they’re talking about (and they won’t lie to make you feel good). Even peers in a writing group will be experienced readers and can give you an indication of how good your writing is.

On the flip side, if your writing isn’t currently good enough for you to achieve your goals, you might have some of these going on:

  • Fiction: Your self-published novel has been poorly reviewed on Amazon (less than a 3 star average). Feedback from writing peers is lukewarm at best.
  • Freelancers: You struggle to find and keep clients; clients often want lots of revisions and still don’t seem happy with the finished product.
  • Bloggers: You can’t get any large(ish) blogs to accept your guest posts. Your own blog seems to have very few readers and little engagement.
  • Anyone: You’ve had little writing experience, and often months go by without you writing anything at all.

Note that these aren’t necessarily problems with your writing (e.g. you could just have crappy clients, or you might have marketed your novel to the wrong audience), but they are potential indications that you need to work more on your craft.

Developing Your Writing Skills

If you do feel you need a bit of a boost to your writing skills, here are some of the ways in which your writing might not be quite “good enough”:

#1: Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation

This is the level where your writing can technically be wrong, though it shades into #2 where some issues are a matter of style.

A good editor may well be able to catch many of these errors, and if you’re writing in a second language or you’re dyslexic, they’re certainly no indication that you’re a poor writer – just that you’re struggling with the word-and-sentence level of the craft.

Unfortunately, any errors in these act as a red flag to potential clients, publishers or readers. (I once got a guest post pitch titled “guets post” – an easy slip of the finger, but not exactly a promising start!)

Here’s an example from a self-published novel where a good editor might have helped:

See-You-In-Hell-excerpt

(From See You in Hell, by Oscar Hutson)

Typos happen, but it’s unfortunate to have two in the first paragraph. I suspect the author edited the text at some point and errors crept in:

  • “as small as a butterfly and had in fact been nicknamed the Butterfly” doesn’t work grammatically (possibly the original version had “it was as small as…”).
  • “hover like a butterfly in slow flits in search of nectar moving from flower to flower” – I struggled to make sense of this: removing “in slow” would make it work grammatically though I’m not convinced that “hover” and “flits” are the same sort of movement.

(Quick aside: I’ve a huge amount of admiration for anyone who finishes a novel and publishes it. My use of this example isn’t intended as any comment – positive or negative – on the novel as a whole.)

I won’t attempt to provide an exhaustive list of every possible error you might make with spelling, grammar or punctuation, but here are a couple of good places to start:

15 Grammar Goofs That Make You Look Silly [Infographic], Brian Clark, Copyblogger

Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling, The Oatmeal

#2: Awkward, Stilted or Uncomfortable Writing

Some writers don’t get anything technically wrong (see #1), but their writing just feels off. Maybe they repeat the same sentence structure way too often, or they write as though they’re talking to a four year old – or they go in the other direction and use lots of complicated, Latinate words because they think those will sound impressive.

This can include stylistic (and fairly easily resolved) issues like using lots of “said-bookisms”, such as in this example:

dream-killer

(From Dream Killer by Mike Baldwin)

There are a lot of fancy dialogue tags here – one or two would be fine, but “clamoured” is definitely getting into the realms of the slightly silly. The sentences are perfectly grammatical, but the stretching for ever-different words quickly grates: “said” would have been absolutely fine in most cases.

(Again, my use of this excerpt isn’t intended as any comment, positive or negative, on the book as a whole.)

#3: Grammatical, Fluent But Forgettable Writing

Another problem that can crop up, once you’re writing pretty well, is that your writing is perfectly readable, but it lacks voice. It’s essentially forgettable.

This one isn’t necessarily a problem! For some types of writing, particularly freelancing and technical writing, and fast-paced, plot-focused fiction (e.g. thrillers), an “invisible” writing style is a great thing. Instead of drawing attention to themselves, your words act as a conduit for your ideas, information, or plot.

If you’re writing literary fiction, though, or if you’re building a blog (where having a unique voice can be a big draw for readers), then you might want to spend some time focusing on this aspect of your craft.

Often, developing a strong voice and a unique style goes hand-in-hand with becoming more comfortable with your blog and more willing to take risks or stand out. Charlie Gilkey wrote a great post about this years ago, which has stayed with me ever since I read it: Becoming Yourself and Growing Your Blog.

#4: Great Writing Style, But You Struggle With the Big Picture

Some writers are fantastic at individual sentences, but struggle with the bigger picture of writing. (I think that, in many ways, this is a more difficult issue to have than being poor at spelling and grammar – the details are fairly easy for an editor to fix, but if your whole plot or concept doesn’t work, that’s tougher.)

I’ve known novelists who wrote beautifully – but didn’t have a strong grasp of narrative or plot, so their wonderful writing just meandered around. With bloggers, some have a fantastic way with words, but struggle to create posts that have a clear point – or find it very tough to blog consistently.

How to Get Better at Writing (However Good or Bad You Currently Are)

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters how “good” you are at writing, right now. What matters is how good you’re going to be – relative to your current position – in two years’ time.

Here’s how to improve:

#1: Write Regularly

Between the ages of 10 and 13, I had piano lessons. I’m not naturally musical (I can’t sing in key, I can’t keep a beat) and I practised as little as possible. I progressed slowly and reluctantly before persuading my parents to let me give up.

I can’t imagine I’d ever have been great, but I could certainly now be a competent pianist if I’d practiced for 15 minutes every day since I was 10.

The same applies with writing: you can’t expect to get any better at writing without actually spending some time putting words on paper. You don’t have to write daily, but anything less than twice a week is going to make it tough to build up a sense of momentum and progress.

#2: Get Objective Feedback

It’s very difficult to judge the quality of writing that you’ve produced. Bring in an outsider (preferably not your spouse or close friend) to read your work. That might be:

  • A local writers’ group that critiques members’ work-in-progress.
  • An editor who can provide a developmental review / “big picture” edit of your novel.
  • Beta readers who’ll give you feedback on your writing.
  • Fellow freelancers or bloggers who you’ve met in an online forum (or a community like Writers’ Huddle).

Encourage them to point out what could be better. Spend time deliberately learning more about that aspect of your craft and practicing it.

#3: Spend More Time Planning

If you’re not naturally a planner, try to do a little bit more pre-writing preparation. This can really help if you’re great at putting together sentence but struggle with the bigger picture issues.

Planning ahead might mean following a process along these lines:

  • Brainstorming ideas so you can pick your best one.
  • Jotting down notes and thoughts about what you’re going to write.
  • Collating these thoughts into a coherent, linear form.
  • Expanding on this as you feel necessary (e.g. with a novel, you might start with a list of key scenes or plot points, then work out what else needs to happen around them).

I sometimes set a timer for 5 minutes when I sit down to write to help me focus on planning first, rather than leaping ahead into writing.

#4: Use Simple Editing Tricks

You’ll know better than me what problems your writing suffers with on a sentence-by-sentence or paragraph-by-paragraph level. Once you’ve identified a particular problem, figure out a good way to solve it when you edit your draft.

That might mean things like:

  • Watching out for overlong sentences and aiming to break them into two or three separate sentences where possible.
  • Doing a “find” for particular phrases that you tend to use too frequently.
  • Reading your work aloud to help you spot clunky sentences or grammatical errors.
  • Leaving a [note to self] when you draft, if there’s a particular fact, spelling, etc that you want to double-check.
  • Paying particular attention to key areas of your piece – e.g. the opening and ending.

#5: Consider Studying Literature

While I don’t think this is necessary in order to be a good writer, studying literature can give you an insight into how great texts are put together: how they work on a structural level down to the individual word choices the author made.

Even if you’re going to be writing something very different (e.g. advertising copy), a background in literature can help give you a richer appreciation of words.

If a formal course isn’t practical for you right now, you could simply commit to reading one piece of literature each month. (You might try K.M. Weiland’s annotated edition of Jane Eyre, which is an excellent way to see story structure in action.)

#6: Make Blogs and Magazines on Writing a Regular Read

If you’ve already got a shelf full of books on writing, you might want to set aside time each week to work through one of those – perhaps tackling a chapter at a time and trying out any exercises.

Otherwise, blogs and magazines are a great way to learn more about the writing craft in short, coffee-break-sized portions.

A few great ones for improving your writing are:

Magazines:

Writing Magazine (UK) – great articles on fiction and non-fiction techniques.

Writers’ Forum (UK) – ditto!

Blogs:

Helping Writers Become Authors, K.M. Weiland – start with the “Most Common Writing Mistakes” series.

Live Write Thrive, by C.S. Lakin – her ongoing series analysing the first pages of bestselling novels is fantastic: clear and in-depth.

 

If you’re worried you’re not good enough to see the success you want – leave a comment below, tell us what makes you think that, and what you’re going to do in order to get better at writing.

And if you’re secretly, quietly, hopefully thinking that you are good enough … then I’m pretty sure you are. 🙂 Comment below to share how you’ll move forward, confident in your writing ability.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

21 thoughts on “What if You’re Just Not Good Enough to be a Successful Writer?

  1. Interesting post. Although I have written a million draft words and published a short story-book ( Ywnwab! – in 2013 ) I decided last year I wanted to write and read for pleasure rather than endure all the hassle of publishing. Some days I think about bringing all the million words up to publishable standard but time is against me now.

    • There’s nothing at all wrong with writing purely for the joy of it! And of course if you do want to publish in a low-key way, you could potentially start a simple blog and post your work there.

  2. Hi Ali,

    I’ve published several articles in two small newspapers years ago. My goal for 2016 is to write on a regular basis so that my guest blog posts are good enough to get accepted. I have a niche. I just need to practice capturing and writing ideas and developing the confidence to pitch. So far I haven’t nailed down the markets I think I can manage. These are what I call my “low-hanging fruit.”

    • Anne, just from reading your comment (and taking a sneaky look at your blog) I can tell you that you’re going to be way ahead of 95% of guest post pitches!

      (I used to edit DailyBlogTips and got a lot of guest post submissions. Trust me, you would’ve stood out in my inbox as a shining beacon of clarity and competent writing..!)

      While some very large blogs are tough to get a guest post slot on (they often work by invitation-only), many more are very open to new writers. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t had much experience before. Don’t feel you need to wait to be “good enough” — chances are you already are, and there are probably some editors out there who’d be very grateful to have a post from you.

      Good luck!

  3. This is a very good post! Re knowing you’re not much good if you have a 3* average, though – even the most awful books have 5* reviews from all the authors’ friends! Which brings the average up. The lack of blog views is a good indicator, though, yes. Professional critiques can be misleading; you might be told you are good simply because the critic wants to hang on to your business, or get recommendations via you. I’ve reviewed a couple of books that were seriously awful, that had been through the critique process. And members of writing groups can sometimes have other agendas. Oh dear, am I a bit jaded?!

    I agree, though, that some people just aren’t very good writers. I’d love to be a terrific painter, for instance, or a great photographer, but I just don’t have much talent, and you do need innate talent to be really good at something creative. It all comes down to whether or not you have the gift for forming sentences that make the reader want to keep turning the pages. Working hard can make you competent, though; yes, you’re right. And there’s nothing to say you can’t keep writing just because you enjoy it; just tuck those ‘bestseller’ fantasies away!

    • Good point about authors with 5*-reviewing friends! I suppose if you can’t even get a good review from friends, you know you’re in trouble… 😉

      I’m not sure I totally agree about innate talent. I suspect some people are more suited to writing than others, but I think that anyone who loves it and is willing to work at it can get good at it.

  4. I’ve been writing for years and I STILL worry I’m not actually good enough to be a success! Luckily I have an awesome editor, and I pay attention to where she says I need to improve, and I try to learn from it so I cover that issue in the next story without her needing to tell me…but I do sometimes wonder if it’s easier for other people.

    Still, it is sometimes easy to assume that if you can write, then it must be easy, so why should you stand out from the crowd?
    Icy Sedgwick’s last blog post ..How can freewriting help writers with plotting or blocks?

    • I still worry too. (And like you, I have an awesome editor.)

      One of the difficulties is that if you’re a decent writer, you can also spot the flaws in pieces of writing (including your own). Often, these are things that a “normal” reader wouldn’t even notice.

      My sister paints (beautifully, I might add!) and she was showing me one of her paintings a few years ago — she pointed at a bit where she said the brush strokes were all wrong and I really couldn’t see it. It looked perfect to me. (I should add I don’t paint or draw or anything, I’m a words-only artist!)

      I think that must be how readers sometimes experience our writing: they just don’t see the things we agonise over.

  5. Great post – thank you! I came here via Averill Buchanan – I’m a writer but I’m also a mentor and tutor to writers of many kinds, and they have very varied levels of talent, experience and writerly education. I think we’ve all had this kind of dark night of the soul every now and again, and this is a very good round-up of what to do about it!
    Emma Darwin’s last blog post ..The Fiction Editor’s Pharmacopoeia; diagnosing symptoms & treating the disease

    • Thanks for all the kind words, Emma! Yes, I think we all go through this (for me it comes and goes — if I stay busy enough writing I don’t stop too much to think about whether I’m any good at it… ;-))

  6. This post is excellent, but it also led me to the one about fiction. I so appreciate both. The fiction one because I have been sincerely wrestling with that – if fiction is so hard for me why am I trying? Thanks for reminding me it’s okay to struggle. I’m struggling! But I still feel compelled to continue.
    Serenity Bohon’s last blog post ..The Relief Behind Door Number Three

    • I’m not convinced anyone ever entirely stops struggling with fiction! I certainly have yet to get there. It *is* really hard, but (I feel) worthwhile.

      (I’ll delete your duplicate comment in a sec — probably a little blog glitch, sorry about that!)

  7. Hi Ali! I really appreciate this post and agree with everything you’ve said here. I started writing about 25 years ago and I readily admit I wasn’t very good. But what did have was a desire and a passion to stick with it….and here I am after all these years. And while I realize that my writing still has lots of room for improvement, I have been published by a traditional publisher (2), have been paid money over the years by regular free-lance clients, have had letters and comments on my blog and from my books letting me know that my words have touched and inspired others, and sold a decent amount of books. But as you say, until and unless you can embrace your own definition of success, the doubt will haunt you. Of course, reading posts like yours help to remind every writer of the what the future holds. Thanks again….and may we all keep writing! ~Kathy
    Kathy @ SMART Living 365’s last blog post ..Julia Cameron, Retirement, and The Creative Journey

    • Desire and passion are worth a heck of a lot — sounds like they carried you along very well indeed.

      One of the lovely things about writing (well, mostly lovely!) is that we’re never done — there’s always room to grow and go further, or to branch out in a whole new direction. I too hope we all keep writing, and hope your future holds even more success. 🙂

    • I think that’s a great take on it, Wendy. Really, there’s no authority out there on what constitutes “good enough” — and for me, anything written, however imperfectly, has to be better than the perfect words that only exist in our heads. 🙂

  8. Hi,
    I’m not an English speaker soy grammar is awful but I reakkt love writing. In fact I started writing novel through wattpad. Through my readers I learned a lot. They corrected me and I’m blessed.

    This blog will help me more.
    Thanks for sharing it with us.
    God bless you!

  9. I’m not good enough for a lot of reasons. I’ve tried everything from blogging about everything from politics to psychology but getting bad reviews for not saying what people want to hear. My stories are never long enough nor anything anyone wants to read. I don’t even get bad criticism. I get no criticism. I’m not generic enough in my topics. My poetry is trying too hard while really crappy, generic poems get read. So yeah I’m an emotional wreck at this point. Sorry.

    • Oh Laura, I’m so sorry to hear that. It sounds like you may not yet have found the right audience for your blogging. Fiction can be really tough to build an audience for, especially if you write fiction of an unusual length (though there are markets and readers out there for pretty much anything — it may just take a while if you’re writing something less popular).

      Poetry can be incredibly tough. I know some wonderful poets who only make a small income from it — and you’re right that some “popular” poetry (particular the stuff in greetings cards!) is often terrible.

      Do keep writing about whatever you love to write about. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried joining a workshop group or similar, but I’ve found it hugely valuable over the years to have the support of, and feedback from, other writers.

      Hope things get easier for you, and sending very best writing wishes your way.

  10. Hi Ali,
    I have been following your blog for quite a while and it’s been amazing.
    I keep learning something new everytime.
    Am I good enough?
    Not as much as I want to. But I am way confident in my writing now than when I started. And I hope to be better at the end of the year than I am now.
    There are lots of areas I need to work on, likewise there are areas I am good at now.
    Still, one can never be good enough or can one?

    • I think we all carry on learning and improving as writers — I suppose “good enough” is about being at the level where you can reach (or at least work towards) your writing goals.

      It’s great to hear your confidence is growing as your writing develops … and so glad you’re enjoying the blog!

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