How Do You Know if Your Work is Any Good?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

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?

35 Responses

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  1. Sarah Thomas says:

    How did I know when my work was ready to send out? Unfortunately, through trial and error. What I thought was “ready” three years ago makes me cringe today.

    My most valuable tool for improvement has been critiques–from the ACFW loop, from friends I’ve made in the industry, from contests (Genesis is awesome for this), from conferences. I let people read my work and listened to what they said. And then I applied what made sense.

    As for validation, I’ve got the agent thing making me feel pretty good at the moment. But before that there were ever-improving contest scores and increasingly positive critiques to boost my confidence. I think maybe it’s not so much about being “good,” as it is getting “better.”

  2. Sarah made a good point with which many of can probably agree. What I thought was ready two years ago I can now see needs major work. Definitely having avid readers tell me they liked my work made me feel ready, as well as the comments from the Genesis contest. I think reading published work also helps me know. It’s the comparison game at a time when it is actually helpful.

    I’ve wondered, though, if when I have a contract (trying to be positive), I’ll feel like my contracted work then will be ready when I reach the deadline. Will it feel finished or just like I’ve run out of time?

  3. Jeanne T says:

    This is such a good post. Defining what is “good” and what “validates” is so individual. I haven’t sent anything out on query yet, because I know it needs more work. I think I’ll know when it’s ready when the feedback from critiquers and contests are strong, and when I sense that the story is “done.”

    I think one of the most challenging things about all of this is seeking validation in the right place. I’ve learned that I am a people-pleaser by nature. So, when I feel like I’m failing in “pleasing” others, or seeming to meet expectations, I don’t feel validated. I’m learning to put my all into my writing and to seek validation from Jesus alone. I want to grow as a writer but I know I can’t always please people with my writing. So, I’m figuring out how to present my very best work to “the world,” but to find my affirmation in who I am as God’s kid.

  4. Rick Barry says:

    I once edited a book for a woman who had a fascinating life story. However, she had a tough time letting go. She kept tinkering and revising in ways that were slightly different, but not better. I urged, “You have to let it go.” With big serious eyes she replied, “But I want it to be PERFECT!”

    No humanly authored book is perfect. There comes a time when you just have to close the file and say, “That’s as good as I know how to make it.” My author finally did, and her book sold.

    • Excellent point, Rick. I am a recovering perfectionist, so I identify with your friend. It took me a while to learn that there is such a thing as revising too much. As you said, we humans are not perfect and it’s unreasonable to think our creations will be. Also, constant revision leads to a never-finished manuscript and a huge amount of wasted time and talent.

      • Jan Thompson says:

        I agree! Hello. My name is Jan. And I am a perfectionist. I once revised — strike that — I currently still revise everything I write, editing it to death, and then some. After the 100th revision, I lost my voice. Thank God for backups. I waded through the landfill, found my wadded-up first draft, and absolutely loved the way I wrote the paragraph/chapter the first time. It was the first thought that captured exactly what I wanted to say.

  5. Larry says:

    I mightily disagree with the notion that there is no objective measure of what constitutes excellent writing.

    While it may be impossible to argue there is something as a perfect story, the belief that there are no truly objective measures for art has led to the current state of affairs in the modern art world.

    A story is ultimately a collection of statements, ideas, conjecture, and logic. (Yes, even those artsy ones which revel in dissonance).

    Therefore by using the objective standard of logic, one can create an argument for whether or not th those concepts / statements / etc. are valid.

    In that sense, the book is objectively not good at one of its most basic purposes / is objectively bad at being what books are.

    But what if the books’ idea / concept / logic is not valid, but the prose is nice? Once again, the book still objectively is bad at being what a book is objectively meant to be, and while there can be objective measures for what makes good prose (the same way one can measure the “flow” or harmony and melody of music, in that there are ways in which the music / prose is constructed which follows objective laws of harmony and dissonance), more often than not one does not refer to objective criteria, but more subjective personal taste.

    Yet what if the logic is terrible, the prose is horrible, but the book is good at communicating its logic / concept / idea? Aren’t books about communicating? So is it not, in some ways, a “good” book, even if everything else sucks? No. One could write a page of a story where one character tells another nothing but “I HATE YOU”, and yes, the idea that one character hates the other is communicated well…..but with books, it is HOW info is conveyed which is of importance: one cannot seperate WHAT is communicated from the HOW (the prose, logic, atmosphere, etc.) This is true of non-fiction as well: the difference between a non-fiction book, and a pamphlet….

    “But gosh golly, I just LIKE this book!”

    Sure. Like it. Just don’t claim it is OBJECTIVELY good if you cannot support it as being so….

    • I agree, Larry. At the same time, I agree with Rachelle’s point that “good” basically a useless term. The term you use–excellent–is a better word since it means “superior.” I guarantee that as an English teacher I can recognize excellent writing and that I primarily use objective criteria to determine its excellence.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m with Larry. There is good and bad. And I’d guess 95% of us would agree on what is good and bad.

  6. This is tough. When I look back at the first few drafts, part of me wants to hurl.

    And not a caber, like Scottish men do for fun. In KILTS!

    Anyway, squirrel, I’m had a comment yesterday that bolstered my nerve and helped me to think, MAAAAYBE I can query now.

    I’m still not sending anything to Mom, though, cuz, the amount of money I spent on chocolate was ridiculous.

    My crit peeps think I’m ready, my gut tells me I’m ready, so now I just have to tweak the query letter. And pray that I act like a grown-up when 8 agents call and BEG to let them represent me.

    A girl can dream.

    FIne, then. 5.

  7. Like others, I think it’s just a matter of doing all you can to improve–learning craft, getting critiques, entering contests–and when you feel you can’t improve something anymore, then it’s finished. Of course, sometimes something being finished doesn’t mean it’s ready…it might just mean it’s time to move on from that project. That’s what I did with my first book. And I feel pretty good about that decision.

  8. What a great post and interesting discussion. For me, my WIPs usually make it through my critique group twice. Most of my manuscripts go through probably five or six edits based upon feedback from my critique groups and my own tinkering. The final edit is one that focuses solely on punctuation. Once that’s done, and I honestly feel there is nothing else I can do to improve it, I send it out. Like Lindsay said, that doesn’t mean it’s ready, but by that time I am ready to work with an editor to bring the project to publication.

  9. Tiana Smith says:

    As writers, we have a really hard time determining the worth of our own work. I know it’s something I’ve thought about too (I even just posted about this subject on my own blog, ironically) but I think the important thing is to keep trying, growing and learning. Stay optimistic and do the best you can. There’s not much point in comparing yourself to others if you’ve found that your happiness depends on doing better than them. On the other hand, if it helps you try to be better, then by all means, get the validation you need!

  10. I am blessed with wonderful, supportive critique partners who are willing to read chapters over and over again and brainstorm plot and character all night long. But sometimes the critiquing process can make you lose perspective. Not that my partners would say, “Your work is perfect, of course you should submit it,” without really believing that. But they have seen the bits and pieces so many times. They know the story as I’ve spoken it to them, not just as they’ve read it on paper. So as valuable as they are, they’re still a piece of the process.

    How do I know when I’m ready to submit? I send my novel to two very special beta readers outside my critique circle. They’re both very intelligent, well-read women who are not afraid of hurting my feelings. If they like it, I know I’m almost there.

  11. Navdeep Kaur says:

    I know my work is ready to send when I pull out a manuscript that has been sitting away for several months, take a red pen to it, and find very little to mark. What hinders me from submitting something even after my routine is the fact that I don’t always know if others will enjoy or value my work. I’ve just gotten into the mindset of doing what I feel is my best work and letting fate and destiny do their miracles after that.

    Like Evangeline Denmark said, critique partners are an integral part of the writing and revising process; I find validation for my work through workshops, long before it’s ready to be sent out into the world.

  12. Jim Gullo says:

    Philip Roth said something in an interview once that I’ve always taken to heart. He said that there comes a point when you’re writing a novel where you have to step back and read it as a reader, not as the writer, not as the person who fills it up with his/her hopes and dreams and aspirations. Read it like it’s a book you picked up off a library shelf, and see how it reads to you in that detached, objective mode, and then you’ll know if the book is ready or not.

  13. Rachel, I really do appreciate your reminder that “good” is a subjective term. A “good” book in the world of romance fiction won’t get a nod from your professor if you’re working on your master’s degree in creative writing. The arts are a difficult world to inhabit. I especially appreciate the question regarding what kind of validation I’m seeking when I wonder if my work is “good”. It’s a lot like seeking “success.” Well … how am I going to define “Success”? What’s the goal? Yes, there are principles of writing that do apply across the board. But we’ve all read books we considered to be “badly written” that were wildly popular. To those readers, those books were “good.” IMHO, this is why we need agents and knowledgeable critique groups who know our genre well. If the goal is traditional publishing, then we all need help defining “good” for the audience we’re seeking to reach.

  14. Samuel says:

    I know my work is good because I like it. I said what I wanted to say, in the way I wanted to say it.

    anything else is gravy

  15. Gut feeling, for sure.

  16. Jenny says:

    I took some advice once, probably from a post like this one which said, “You’ll know you’ve worked on your book long enough when you can’t stand to read it one more time.” My friend/editor and I got to that point. Neither one of us can stand my story anymore, so I’m always happily surprised now when someone tells me they loved my book and couldn’t put it down. 🙂

  17. don Kimrey says:

    I appreciate what you and your friends say. Do you have time or interest in taking a look at a manuscript? I need assistance in editing, formatting, etc.

    • Jenny says:

      Don, I wasn’t sure if you were talking to me or Rachel. If you want me to look at your manuscript, you can go to my website and leave a message under the “writer/author” tab so we aren’t communicating on this post. You can ignore this if you weren’t talking to me.

  18. Bah and humbug. You never know what is good. People may lie and tell you it’s good, but they are probably just being nice. Some days I think what I write is art and truth and beauty. The very next day I think it is worse than pig swill. You just do the best you can and learn to live with the uncertainty.

  19. Even if you find someone else who likes your work, it won’t get sold if you can’t find an editor who agrees. Perseverance says, find an editor who likes your style and be consistent with submissions for everything that editor wants!

  20. Sarah Grimm says:

    Great, encouraging, truthful post. I was struggling with this very question the other day (not for the first time LOL) and emailed one of my very honest crit partners to see how she felt about me pursuing publishing.

    The hardest part is the rejection because it breeds doubt. You search for that right person to rep it. You follow them on twitter, blogs and facebook, and read all those interviews they’ve done all over the internet and you’re like, yeah! That agent will LOVE my stuff. And then they pass. And you were so sure. And now you’re so bummed because your match made in heaven wasn’t. Then you doubt yourself all over again.

    But your gut says it’s good. Really, really good. And your betas and critters and class instructors and published authors and even an agent you met who doesn’t rep your genre (not that you subbed to her!) say it’s good. And you reach out for your courage again and find your determination right where you left it, and you close your eyes and pray and hit send again … again … again … as many times as it takes.

  21. Dale Rogers says:

    I go through my work with a fine tooth comb, and I keep reading it, sometimes putting it away for a while. I ask my husband to read it also, and I now have a CP who gives me suggestions. When I finally go through it without making many changes, that’s when I think it’s ready for submission.

  22. Great post. I do a few things to make my work as ready as I can.

    I didn’t put it on the list, because it’s constantly happening every step of the way, but I immerse myself in whatever genre I’m writing. Reading, reading, reading. Also, I read a lot of writing craft books and take notes on the really good ones.

    1. I try to get it to be the best it can be on my own. This takes some time. I try not to be in too much of a hurry. I want a chance to let it sit so I can see it with fresh eyes before I give it to someone else. (I think, write, rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite.)

    2. I run it by my family. They read a lot and are used to being my first line of readers. They often like my ideas, but they aren’t afraid to point out issues they notice. (More rewriting.)

    3. Next I take it to my critique groups. They often catch things that I’m blind to, and I look especially at any suggests that two or more of them make. (More rewriting.)

    4. When I feel it’s ready, I research to find who might want to publish what I have written and begin to submit. For each rejection, I re-evaluate the manuscript, trying to make it tighter and better. Sometimes I get personal comments. Sometimes I don’t. I rewrite it anyway.

    5. When possible, I try to win critiques from authors, agents, and editors. In one case I took a webinar that came with a critique. I consider the comments I get carefully and try them out to see if the story can be better.

    6. I move on, because a writer can’t sit around waiting for something to get published. You have to believe that whatever you learned in this manuscript will help you be better next time you write.

  23. . . . the spirit of the muse inside – tells me. It’s the spirit, holy it may be or not.

  24. Tim Klock says:

    That’s the proverbial $64 question. It took 11 years to finally send off my first story. I made countless changes to it, hopefully all for the better. When I realized that I just couldn’t change it much any more on my own & others read it and gave their two cents worth, I finally sent out a query. Now I guess I’ll find out if the professionals think it’s ready.

  25. While Rachelle has some good things to say about the personal evaluation of one’s work, I nevertheless think her overall approach to the issue is mistaken.

    Good art is not “subjective,” as she argues. There is nothing subjective about the greatness of KING LEAR. Nothing subjective about the greatness of DAVID COPPERFIELD, Eliot’s poetry, or Wodehouse’s comic writing. What IS subjective is a particular audience’s response to a work of art. A teenager may be bored to tears by a performance of KING LEAR, but this subjective reaction does not touch the greatness of Shakespeare’s play.

    In evaluating one’s own work, or the work of others, the main thing to keep in mind are the principles of craft. The writer has to ask himself or herself, “What are the principles of the craft of the novel, or short story, or play? Who are the masters of this craft? Where am I in the process of trying to achieve what those masters achieved, of putting the principles of my craft into action? What are my strengths and weaknesses?” These and suchlike questions are what we should be asking ourselves in evaluating our own work. Seeing ourselves in a master/apprentice relationship within the practice of a particular craft is the way that all other artists proceed, and have proceeded since the dawn of time, and so should writers. No one thinks the evaluation of a well-made table is subjective. There are well-established principles of the craft of carpentry and table-making. When those principles are violated the table is ill-made. Why should a piece of writing be different? After all, it is a “made thing” too.

    (Further on the subjectivity point: of course, there is room for different tastes when it comes to the appreciation of art. We might acknowledge Shakespeare’s greatness, but prefer Dickens. But we have to keep in mind that these sorts of preferences have to do with us, not the works.)

    (Further about craft: crafts have “principles,” not “rules.” A craft is not a cookie cutter template. To say that writing is a craft is to admit that there will be an infinite number of creative expressions of the craft, though all these different creative expressions, if truly excellent, will adhere to the same set of general principles.)