Who Thinks You're a Good Writer?

Oct 272010
 

How I became obsessed with food from a young age. Need I say my mother was an enthusiastic home baker? My uncle Joe (right) always pressured me to read the classics.

What makes a person a good writer? Two people emailed me this week, wanting confirmation their writing was good enough.

The first was a food blogger, who wrote after reading my Beard awards post. She wondered if her blog was “up to standard” or if she was “even remotely qualified” to enter the Beard award for best blog. In her preface, she said she believed she was a good writer and storyteller and had confidence in her talents.

The second, a student in Italy studying for her masters in gastronomy, said she had read Will Write for Food, then attached two writing samples and asked for comments. She wondered if she was good enough to pursue a career as a freelance writer.

I  thought about two replies. Neither had anything to do with their work. On one hand, I thought I should encourage these two writers and say yes, because that is what people sometimes need to hear to move forward. I put that in the “Earth Mother” category of response. On the other hand, I contemplated a different answer, more therapy based: The only opinion that matters is your own.

I went with the second one. So I wrote back to the blogger, “You have nothing to lose except $100 and postage — plus the time it takes to enter. You can enter the IACP awards as well. I think they’re less expensive. You are qualified if YOU think you are. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” I said something similar to the student.

Maybe you think it’s a copout.  For me, I’ve felt insecure about my writing all my life, always looking to others for approval. My career started in 1975 with my first published piece in a daily newspaper (before some of you were born, I know), and I still have days where I wonder  if I’m any good.

But here’s what you can look forward to as you grow older: There are fewer days like that. You get more comfortable with yourself. You believe you can do it. You decide you don’t have to win a Pulitzer. And you care less about what other people think.

  65 Responses to “Who Thinks You're a Good Writer?”

  1. Somehow it’s encouraging that you too feel insecure about your writing…I can’t fathom why you would…but it is encouraging to know I am not alone that even great writers like yourself have doubts. Thanks for your honesty.
    Sheila

    • Oh you are welcome, Sheila. I certainly do not think of myself as a great writer. Adequate, maybe.

  2. Dianne, Thanks for being so candid and bringing to light what I’m sure many of us wonder. I love your conclusion, though, and completely agree: at the end of the day, what matters is what YOU think and feel about what you’re doing. Does it make you happy, fulfilled, satisfied? Did you feel great writing whatever it is you crafted? If the answers are “yes”, then you’re doing pretty darned well.

    • Thanks Stephanie. I just feel that if you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t move forward.

  3. I suppose to me it depends on your goal. If the goal is just see your name on a website, I agree that it doesn’t matter.

    But if you want to grow as a writer — to improve, to expand your skills in new ways — I think you absolutely need to hear what people think of your writing. Whether it’s an editor or a friend who’s good enough to be honest. I have benefited greatly (and continue to!) from the tutelage (both passive and active) I’ve gotten from editors who were honest and thorough. And I’ve grown by hearing students in writing classes critique my work.

    The “it only matters what you think” stance is good for the ego, but I’d argue it’s bad for the growth. See also the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    • I don’t disagree, Derrick. When I teach, I give homework assignments, and then I critique the work along with the students (called “workshopping”). I’ve given constructive criticism to writers for decades, as a newspaper, magazine and book editor. As a writing coach and editor, people hire me to edit their manuscripts, help them write more effective query letters, improve their blogs, etc. So I am perfectly capable of it.

      People ask me for free appraisals from time to time, and I respond in different ways. Sometimes I tell them I get paid to appraise work. Sometimes if I’m in a good mood I’ll give them a little feedback. This was the first time I tried this response.

      I had not heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Thanks for mentioning it!

  4. Thanks for this reassuring post Dianne. I worry about my writing every single day. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something I have posted. I took a couple of classes with writers.com and they were invaluable – whilst it is sometimes hard to hear or read what someone thinks of your work, it’s necessary in order to grown and improve. The truth hurts as they say, but only serves to make you better in the end. Practice makes, well…. you know!

    • I’m sure it has been hard for writers to hear what I tell them also, Mardi. I work hard on being constructive. I’ve had years of publishers telling me that they “don’t like” something without offering any specifics on how to change it, so I’m determined not to be that way.

  5. I’m sitting in the ‘cop-out’ camp. While I think I see your point, and agree 100% that one’s own opinion is the most important – they asked you for YOUR opinion.

    In the ideal situation, neither of these inquiries would be isolated, and you would give them the answer most useful to them – depending on where they’re at personally and with their writing. That could be to believe in themselves, or it could be a pointed critique. I think Derrick makes a valid point.

    Personally I don’t think the question “am I good enough” is the right question for a writer to ask. Good enough for what – for who? What does that even mean? I think it’s too personal – centered on the writer and not the writing. Also,it makes the writer seem like a machine, turning out pieces of equal interest and value every time… while I might love to be that machine, it’s not how the creative process works. Who produces great work all the time? I am not a Great Writer, but I’m suspicious even Great Writers produce things that can’t or shouldn’t get published (we can all think of examples in this last category).

    And honestly, is being a great writer enough to get published?? Perhaps not – ahhhh perhaps this is what you’re getting at… that it’s about having the self-confidence, the gall to put yourself out there?

    • Yes, they asked for my opinion, and anyone who knows me knows I have lots. I just chose not to give it this time.

      I have seen so many good writers crushed by insecurity. I see it all the time when I teach. These students read beautiful pieces of work out loud to the class, and then they don’t move forward, no matter how much I — and the other students– encourage them. So I think you have to have the “gall to put yourself out there,” as you say. That is why so much crappy writing is published. Because those people believe they can do it. I’d like to figure out how to put the determination into those other insecure writers, because I want their voices heard.

  6. I’m going to have to go with the cop-out camp
    on this one, after all if other people don’t enjoy reading what you have to say then how will you ever get published? And if no one is willing to give you feedback them how can you learn? Having said that, there are plenty of writers/ bloggers out there who have been successful without being good writers and are laughing all the way to the bank.

    • People DON’T have to enjoy reading what you have to say. Not with blogs. I’ve read mind-numbingly dull blog posts. And I’ve read terribly-written books, and books have editors who are supposed to fix terrible writing.

      Yes, you should ask for feedback and learn and grow. Maybe the problem with my answer is that I gave them only part of it, without responding to their work.

      And yes, your last point is valid. How do they do it? Hubris? The Dunning-Kruger effect that Derrick mentioned?

  7. I couldn’t agree with you more. I know I might not be the best writer, but I love food and I love to write about it. If someone doesn’t like my writing, they don’t have to read my blog or the articles I write. Growing older has allowed me to care a little less about what others say about what I do with my time. It’s a great thing!

  8. Great article Dianne.

    The new to writing camp struggles with confidence and many in the experienced camp struggle with making sure they’re still up to snuff after many years in the game. I’m somewhere in the middle.

    I have written professionally, studied writing in Journalism, received high accolades from leading journalists in my area (now former area since I no longer live there), and been paid to write for major companies. Still, I have plenty of days where I think, “Eh. That writer has years of experience compared to mine so they’re better” or “Their education is superior to mine considering I have an A.A. from a podunk community college”. Times like those I have to slap myself into reality and remember my opinion is the only that matters at the end of the day (unless there is a paycheck involved).

    With regards to those who asked, I think a short snippet of your feedback would have been useful as it helps those seeking wisdom a chance to grow. Skilled and/or experienced writers can impact how a fledgling writer views their work and whether they’re at a publishable standard. You don’t want to feed into a potentially huge ego but you don’t want to outright tell them they suck either. Diplomacy; as I’m sure you know, is key.

    A writer is only as good as their willingess to learn and grow, in my opinion. If they let pride and ego dominate their thinking, chances are they’ll never learn and their writing will become stagnant. Those seeking to improve will seek feedback from trusted friends and fellow writers.

    Thank you for your insight. As a side note, I also have to thank you for your writing tips. I am not certain if it is me coming up empty or something else but I have struggled to find good writing sites geared towards a non-fiction writer. It’s certyainly nice to find a site like yours.

    • I can relate to your response. I’m somewhere in the middle too. I can always compare myself to someone who writing is better than mine or who is making more money, and I often do. But there is little point in it, other than to feel bad about myself, and then it’s harder to get through the day unless I can toss it off. Fortunately, with age I am better at not having a pity party. And it’s more useful if I can figure out how they are doing whatever it is, and try to apply their techniques to my own work.

      Diplomacy, as you say, is the most important thing in constructive criticism. I have spent years honing my delivery. Let me tell you, I have toned down my comments from my days as an employed editor. In the old days, writers worked for me; now I work for writers, and I am much more respectful. Still, I tell them the truth, because that is what they pay me for.

      Sometimes it irritates me when people ask me for free feedback; sometimes I give it. Sometimes I try something new.

      I’m pleased that my writing tips have something to offer an experienced writer, Kim.

  9. This is wonderfully worded and thoughtful, as always, Dianne. I’m struck by people writing to you to ask if they are good enough to enter a contest. It says volumes about how much people respect you.

    Doubt is always part of the process, isn’t it? If we walked around all the time proclaiming to ourselves and others, “I am a glorious writer!”? Well, I’m not sure I’d want to be around that writer often. But I think at the base is a rock-sure belief in the process, in the sitting down to grapple with the words, in the feeling alive in the doubt. The rest sort of works its way out.

    I love the ending of this piece.

    • Thank you, Shauna, I was thinking of you last night and wondering what you would think of this post!

      Yes, good point. We all have doubts. The challenge is not to be overcome by them, but to accept them and keep writing. And maybe we have days where we DO proclaim “I am a glorious writer!” (I could use a few more of those.) The challenge is not to be overcome by those thoughts either. We strive to stay in the middle. Maybe it’s boring, but it will serve us better.

      I like the idea of “feeling alive in the doubt.” It speaks to a new way to deal with doubt. Now, to put it into practice.

  10. Good answer. I wax and wane with my writing confidence, but in the end I believe that it’s one of my strongest talents. Still, though, there are days when I want to burn it all before I put myself out there for criticism. Thankfully, that’s why god made tranquilizers. ;)

    And I love the “Earth Mother” category. I’ll have to remember that.

    • I may have used the Earth Mother approach on you already, Steph! Your moods sound typical for a writer. Like I said, hard to stay in the middle.

  11. A great post.
    While I agree that it is true that the only opinion that matters is your own, and you are good if you think you are, because beauty is really in the eye of the beholder and each person has a different perspective. But there’s a flip side to it.

    The 2 bloggers must have thought they were reasonably good if they were thinking of sending in their writing for competitions, but maybe weren’t confident enough about their writing, not having been published before. Or else wanted an expert or more knowledgeable opinion about how/ what they could do to improve their writing.
    Sometimes, constructive criticism makes all the difference when one is unsure about one’s writing.

    • Yes, but I do that for a living, so people when people ask me to provide constructive criticism for free, I am not willing. If I decide to be nice and offer just a tiny bit, I’m not sure how helpful it is. I suppose better than nothing.

      Only 1 blogger was confident enough to want to enter Beards. She researched prior winners and came to a conclusion. The other wanted to know if she was ready to be professionally published.

  12. I applied for the Greebrier scholarship not expecting to even hear a response and, to my surprise, I received a special mention for one of the rewards. I could have counted myself out from the start, and not applied until I thought I was “better”, but am glad I put myself out there. Aspiring writers should put themselves up for contests and awards, or send their work to publishers, and keep putting their stuff out there and see what spaghetti sticks to the wall. Sorry that was bad- but I am leaving it in as an example! :) That will keep them doing the work, and possibly garner them some useful external validation.
    A useful mantra someone gave me recently is “Feel the fear and do it anyway!”

    • Okay. I have applied for awards myself. I was a finalist for Bert Greene Food Journalism in 2007. But on the other hand, applying for awards and contests is relying on external validation, which in the end, is not sustaining.

      • I agree that external validation is not sustaining. And I certainly didn’t mean to boast in my comment, and hope it didn’t come off that way. Sometimes external validation can be nice, to feel less alone in what you are doing, but I agree that one writes to satisfy one’s self, first and foremost.

        • That’s exactly the point that I was trying to get across. But we writers are an insecure bunch, so it sure feels good to be recognized.

  13. Sigh. I meant a special mention for one of the “awards”, it’s not like I was a special informant or returned a lost cat or something.

  14. After going and reading about the Dunning-Kruger effect, I’m feeling that it’s not a good idea to reassure or offer a dodge to a poor student who has paid for a critique by saying,”Your opinion is what counts.” If people really want to succeed–and their skills are going to prevent that–they need to know what skills they need to “fix” before they can have any hope of succeeding. In the brutally competitive writing world, other people’s opinions will count, whether that seems unkind or not. I’ve known and critiqued dozens of writers & I’ve found that a big key to success is being able to listen to criticism and then actually respond by taking appropriate steps.

    • Absolutely. I would never say that to people who pay me to show them how to improve their work. In the end, however, my clients decide what to do. If someone refuses to revise her proposal the way I’ve suggested, and then wants to use my name as a referral to agents, I don’t agree.

      I learned long ago that I can’t control what people do with the feedback I give them. The best ones listen and revise. The rest, well…

      You will find this amusing. As a result of this post, someone sent me a blog post to look at. I decided to look and give constructive criticism. So I took a look, and sent her my comment. The writer wrote back and argued with me! I suppose it is a non sequiter to decide that because a person receives constructive criticism that she would have to listen and take appropriate steps.

  15. Agreed. I do not think I’m a great photographer, but OTHER PEOPLE DO, so I have to go on the assumption that I’m heading in the right direction, and that I’m just as qualified as the next person to enter an award contest. (Not that I HAVE, but if I had the time, I WOULD.)

    Someday, hopefully we will all learn to really love our own skills, with no insecurities at all. It’s hard, though. I’m amazed when I talk to people, how many people I consider “experts” who still think they have a long way to go.

    • I am in that category. In many ways. I think I have a long way to go, Jackie. I am still learning all the time. It is nice that people say I am good at what I do, and people hire me for my expertise, but ultimately, I am the one who determines my success.

  16. Quite simply: “Like.”

  17. I know I am not, but I try anyway….

    • Who says so? Love that last post about the veggie pancakes. I’d love to try it so I could take off the pounds I put on at BlogHer Food.

  18. I don’t think you have to ask if you are good. If you are good, and your work circulates, you will get enough unsolicited positive feedback (along with the criticism) to be assured. Good enough is another question, and by whose standards is yet another. I remember being absolutely blown away by David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” in Gourmet magazine. To my mind it was brilliant writing, but to an outspoken group of Gourmet readers and food industry insiders, it was an abomination. Needless to say, it was not a Beard winner. If you are good, and you want to make a living writing, I think you owe it to yourself to become better through classes and developing a network of peers whose critiques you respect. To enter contests, it might be helpful to familiarize yourself with award winning work. Wow, Diane, I guess the floodgates are open. You have officially arrived! I imagine now the chances of anyone getting a freebie are probably slim to none. Hope the paying client floodgate has been thrown open equally wide.

  19. I think that most women have a degree of insecurity about their skills/looks/abilities – I’m just not too sure why.
    I know that when I started writing my blog I didn’t actually tell anyone i was doing it for some time as i was unsure of my writing ability and wondered if anyone would want to read it. Eventually I decided that I should take the plunge and I showed it to a couple of my very closest friends – with whom I felt safe – and it just sort of took off from there.
    I am much more confident in my writing now, but still have days when a post just doesn’t see to be up to scratch to me – and often those posts are the more popular!

    • Funny how the ones that you didn’t like are the most popular. You just never know what’s going to work, unless you want to be controversial. Usually that gets people going. Or honest, or funny. A whole bunch of things, actually.

  20. Dianne: I have found that men generally feel more confident of their skills (whatever the arena) than women do. Or is this just my imagination? A guy who coached both male and female teams mentioned this in an article, saying: “If you say ‘Not everybody is working hard enough’ to guys, they will all think you are talking about somebody else. But if you say it to girls, they will all think you are talking about them!”

    By the way I just posted a part 1 on the value of literary agents (next part will be on how to get one), and one comment was quite negative. Would appreciate any input you have.

    • Yes, we women need to work on our confidence. A fascinating example, Nancy.

      Will go take a look at your post and see what’s up.

  21. Dianne, I must confess to still being a bit in the dark on this one. Asking if one’s work is good enough is puzzling to me, unless that person is asking if their grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, etc. is “correct.” The rest of the story, or more appropriately here, the rest of the question must surely be “do YOU like my style? do YOU like my delivery? do YOU think anyone else would read it if not asked to do so?” There are quite a few writers who have not yet mastered the basic skills of composition, much less the finer points of viewpoint, style, delivery, and substance of subject. I have seen many examples of what I consider “good” skills being used to deliver boring subject matter in a less than exciting manner and this would be considered good “writing.” But, is good what we are really seeking? Is it not really that we seek more interesting, exciting, captivating, mind-boggling, participatory, and attracting writing? Are we drawn back onto the page long after we have finished the read? Or are we closing the book before we turn the page? That would be my question – not that I am asking, mind you, just thinking out loud again…

    • You always ask good questions, Karen. And since we have worked together you know that the question of whether you are good enough is irrelevant. We just get to work.

    • Karen, I totally agree with you. When I saw that BlogHer Food was offering a panel on storytelling alongside the usual (for food blogging conferences) writing talk, it got me to thinking about the difference between being a good (or great) writer and being a great storyteller. There is indeed a difference and being a good writer does not necessarily make one a good storyteller. The world of food blogging is filled with excellent writers, writers who masterfully describe smells and sounds and tastes but who, in my opinion, do not write stories. Or whose stories sound forced. I love the fact that food blogging has evolved so much that writers are working harder on passing the line from being great writers to being great storytellers. I like Karen’s description of being drawn back to the page…

      • Hey Jamie, I chaired that session on storytelling at BlogHer Food. I’m not sure that there is a difference between a good writer and a storyteller. In my mind, they are linked.

        • I think you are right, Dianne, that there is a link between a good writer and a good storyteller. But while I believe there is a link, I also believe that being a good writer does not automatically make you a good storyteller.

          Not all good writers can effectively tell a story nor do they always have a story to tell. I think we are creeping into the shadow of creativity when we discuss the good writer vs. the good storyteller. Some good writers can take a good story (and they know the difference between a story and a good story) and take it to the next level. They create an aura of magic with their words which are delivering the story. That magic is what keeps us actively engaged with the story and it is that magic that draws us, the reader, into the shadow also.

          The good writer with the good story lures us into that shadow of creativity and we become active participants. We begin to elaborate and build onto the story ourselves. We are engaged in a way that calls out our own creativity. Our thoughts run alongside the words of the storyteller. Not all “good” writers can make this magic. And just maybe not all readers are “good” readers. Perhaps it takes a good reader to find a good writer…or not. Here I am again, just thinking out loud….

          • Maybe technical writers are not storytellers, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any other kind of writer who isn’t.

          • Dianne – yes I know that you chaired the session on storytelling and I really was sorry to have missed it. I will attend a conference one day where you speak!

            And Karen, you have put it perfectly! A great storyteller takes great writing one level higher. “The good writer with the good story lures us into that shadow of creativity and we become active participants.” This, in my opinion, is what makes a great writer a great storyteller. Thank you for saying it so well. Where food blogging is concerned, a great writer can magically make the food they have presented come alive for us, bringing the smells and tastes out of the screen. A great storyteller makes us forget we are on a food blog and takes us somewhere else, into some parallel world where we get lost in a great tale, emotions and memories of our own. And at the end, we are led smoothly and surprisingly into a recipe. Karen says it so much better than I have!

  22. Dianne, I also read your post on the Beard Awards, and these have both sparked some great discussions. Question: You recommended applying to the IACP awards. That competition appears to be open only to professional food journalists. Would the blogger who asked for your advice qualify?

  23. Oh this is loooovely! Thank you!

  24. Fascinating on many levels. I keep a food blog – but don’t want to be a food blog star. I write plays and endeavor to make a living at it. It would never dawn on me to send a play to Tina Howe and Tony Kushner for opinion. But you know – maybe I don’t throw myself out there enough as your letter-writers did.

    I think the nature of doing something creative for a living is riddled with insecurities. Sometimes, you do want affirmation. Often, you want to grow. And always when i am granted a commission to develop a play – I pray to the muses that I will live up to the task.

    In the end though – it wasn’t a cop-out. For what I will leave behind are my words and while I hope they provide enjoyment and sustenance for others – I need to be satisfied before I publish. (And I have published too early and try not to make that mistake again.)

    • How fascinating to hear from a playwright. Maybe you don’t have to take classes or seek feedback. I suppose that’s good. You obviously feel confident enough. I agree, doing something creative is riddled with insecurities. Well said.

      • Oh no! I absolutely do need to take classes and require feedback! There are things in place (classes, conferences, development) to help with that just as you have students who want to learn from you. Confident? Only sometimes. Learning? Constantly. You never “arrive.”

  25. Love your response! You just never know unless you try.

    Many of us undervalue ourselves and don’t realize our talents. I see it over and over on all kinds of blogs and writing forums. Seeing people share their insecurities, who clearly have nothing to be insecure about, has given me more courage to try all sorts of things.

    I also agree with you that it has something to do with age. Getting older makes us more brave. Because what do we really have to lose? Our time on this earth is limited. I’m going to update a post that I recently wrote about how we move through the decades, with a quote from you here. Thank you for these words!

    • Fascinating that reading about others’ insecurities has made you take more risks. Agreed. Life is short. Might as well go for it.

      How nice to be quoted, Anali. Thank you.

  26. Fantastic post Dianne!

    Awards are great for those who feel like a nobody from nowhere, and are hoping for a break :) What’s more, we need them to generate excitement among readers, especially in this social media-saturated environment.

    Cheers,
    Natalie

    http://www.nataliemaclean.com

    • Well, you should know, Natalie, as a multiple award winner of Beards, etc. You certainly got your break years ago. Thanks for this perspective.

  27. I am a writer and have been as long as I can remember. Majored in Journalism back in college. I’m published in many places online and offline. And, I have a book that’s sold in 15 countries. (The topic has nothing to do with food – I’m brand new to that.)

    The best way to get good at writing is to write and read. Read not just other food writing – but all kinds of writing. Then as you develop a style of writing – don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it and roll with it. I wish everyone success.

    • Thanks Denise. That’s one of the most basic — and true — pieces of advise on good writing. You have to do it. I’ve always been a voracious reader so I take it for granted as part of what informs my writing, but good of you to mention it.

  28. (Sorry if this is redundant; I read the post but only skimmed the 63 comments above). Another way to look at this is that it is about finding your audience. Clearly, if your writing is full of unintentionally bad grammar and typos, it can be said to be objectively *not good*. Assuming we are past that point, there may well be a group of readers who love your writing even if others hate it.

    I think my own blog is a case in point. I usually spend just a few paragraphs introducing a recipe and any special ingredients or techniques. I’ll tell a very brief personal story if it relates, but otherwise the writing is mostly just the facts. For my first year or so of blogging I felt insecure about this, especially when I would see the lovely and much longer pieces by say Molly Wizenberg or Shuna Fish Lydon’s impassioned rants.

    Then I realized that while my writing might be a little drier, there are many people who appreciate that. They come looking for recipes, inspiration and knowledge, and while they may want to know a little about me, that isn’t their main interest. The concision is welcome.

    So maybe we can all worry less about whether our writing is great in some general sense, and invest our effort in reaching the people who already love it.

    • Ooh, I learned a new word: Concision. I had to look it up and was immediately embarrassed that I didn’t know it. Thanks for that, Michael.

      Yes, definitely finding your audience is a big part of writing. And certainly, not everyone is going to love it, nor should we expect that.

      You are comfortable with your style now, and you have come to terms with not being Molly and Shuna (the rest of us have had to face this as well). To me, that means you’ve decided you’re a good writer. And that’s what’s important.

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