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:
(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:
(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:
Writing Magazine (UK) – great articles on fiction and non-fiction techniques.
Writers’ Forum (UK) – ditto!
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.