What if You’re Just Not Good Enough To Be a Successful Writer?
This post was originally published in June 2016 and updated in June 2020.
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.nBut I think that invalidates a deep, difficult fear for a lot of us.
What Does “Success” Mean for Your Writing?
To know whether you’re good enough to be a successful writer, you really need to know what “successful” means – for you.
There are plenty of different ways to measure writing success. Some writers would definite it as literary acclaim; others as commercial success. Some simply want their writing to be a source of deep personal fulfillment. All of these are equally valid.
Your idea of “success” will likely include 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 and write full time.
- 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 about your literary worth 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 About Your Writing Realistic or Not?
Without reading a fair amount of your writing, I can’t tell you whether or not your writing is good enough for you to see the type of success that you want.
However, I can tell you that:
- 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.
- Many bestselling writers get critical reviews saying that their writing is poor – think of Dan Brown, E.L. James, or Stephanie Meyer.
- 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 – it could simply be that you’ve had positive comments on your work.
- Freelancers: Have you ever been paid for your writing? Clients and editors generally know what they’re doing. Even if one client reluctantly 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. 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:
- “a highly sensitive flying robot as small as a butterfly and had in fact been nicknamed the Butterfly” doesn’t work grammatically, unless we take it that Gerald Mason is the one nicknamed the Butterfly. It seems clear from context, though, that it’s the robot.
- “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 some 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
30 of the Most Common Grammatical Errors We All Need to Stop Making, Hubspot (a few things on this list are fairly subjective,
#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, an “invisible” writing style is a great thing. It’s a real asset for a lot of freelancing, especially technical writing. It’s also very common in fast-paced, plot-focused fiction (e.g. thrillers). 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.
In some cases, developing a strong voice and a unique style goes hand-in-hand with becoming more comfortable with your writing and being more willing to take risks or stand out.
#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. 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: Make Time to Write Regularly
Between the ages of 10 and 13, I had piano lessons. I’m not naturally musical (I can’t sing in key or 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 improve as a writer 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.
If you’re struggling to make much (or any) time for your writing, you’re definitely not alone. This is the biggest writing problem I hear about … and definitely one I’ve had to struggle against myself. If you join my free newsletter, you’ll get instant access to my mini-ebook Time to Write, with lots of practical tips for making time for your writing.
#2: Get Objective Feedback on Your Writing
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 a Facebook group or other online forum.
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
Planning is one of the four stages of writing … and the quality of your planning can make a huge difference to the quality of your finished piece.
If you’re not naturally a planner, try to consciously make time to prepare before you write. 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. You’ll learn about 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: Deliberately Study the Craft of Writing
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, some great (and free!) places to start are with:
- K.M. Weiland’s “Most Common Writing Mistakes” series of blog posts.
- C.S. Lakin’s series analysing the first pages of bestselling novels.
- This index of my posts on writing great dialogue.
Ultimately, remember: the only way to get better at writing (and see the success you want) is to actually write.
Want something more in-depth? Try my self-study seminar packs. Quite a few of the seminars in there deal with the craft of both fiction and non-fiction.
You can currenty get the whole set of seminars (eight packs, four seminars in each … that’s thirty-two seminars in total!) for just $50. All the seminars have a full, nicely edited transcript, plus a summary worksheet to help you put what you learn into practice in your writing.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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