If you’re reading this, then you’re probably looking for some way to have well-founded confidence in your work. Or, more likely, you’re afraid that you suck.
Take heart. While it’s impossible to bottle whatever makes a great writer what they are, anyone can go from being a bad writer to a good one. Honestly.
But, to do that, we have to first clarify how to know if your writing is bad.
Bad writing doesn’t get read. For one reason or another, it loses the attention of the reader. Another way of saying this is that it’s not worthy of being read. At least, not yet. It’s important that we contrast “bad” writing not with “great” writing, but with competent writing. Great writing is another thing altogether.
The good news? Bad writing doesn’t make you a bad writer. If you compare your first draft to other people’s published work, you’re missing something very important. Every published piece — and every published author — has likely gone through multiple rounds of revision to get to where they are.
Bad writing is like any other poorly crafted piece of art. Misused language stands out like a misplayed chord. Poor conceptual flow is as much a problem in writing as it is in a song. And, just as with a bad musician, a bad writer — in any genre — is simply one who hasn’t mastered the tools of the trade.
Revision is to a writer what practice is to a musician. The only way to improve is to start wherever you are. Instead of asking how to know if your writing is bad, look for the features that set good writing apart.
How do I know if my writing is good?
As a writer, you’re your own first editor. That means you have to have a good idea of what to look for in your own work.
Here are some (objective) ways to check the quality of your own writing:
Is my writing structurally sound?
It may be a bit obvious, but it’s the best place to start. Really, it’s the only place to start if we want to approach this comprehensively.
You’ve got to master the rules first; then you can break them.
I hope the words of my high school English teacher serve you as well as they’ve served me. At the time, I was a bit overzealous in my attempts to express myself. But the message stuck with me: One must cement their mastery of the basics before beginning to experiment.
5 common structural pitfalls
Before even thinking about style, make sure that your writing is structurally sound. This isn’t about being nitpicky. It’s about crafting a pleasant experience for your reader. There are universal turn-offs when it comes to the structure of your writing. Additionally, lots of spelling and grammar mistakes can distract from your message.
Here are the most common structural pitfalls to look for:
1. Run-on sentences
There are few things as frustrating to a reader. We’ve all had to go back and re-read a paragraph because it didn’t sink in the first time around. Don’t try to pack too much into one sentence. It just makes it easier to get lost on the way to your point.
Many of us develop bad habits as we struggle to meet page and word counts. Our writing becomes verbose and clumsy. Get your point across with a handful of the right words. Avoid the impulse to fill out your writing with unnecessary language.
3. Misused words
These may be the hardest to spot on your own. In my experience, it’s when people are trying their best to sound credible that they use language they aren’t fully comfortable with.
Deft usage of vocabulary can make your writing shine. Poor usage is sure to make it dull.
4. Clumsy transitions
Don’t force your readers to make huge logical leaps. Just because the ideas are all written on the same page doesn’t mean the connection between them is clear to the reader. Make it so.
5. Abstractivitis (also known as “word salad”)
Another way to lose your reader is by talking around or about the topic without actually getting to the point. Readers are looking for something when they read–be it information or entertainment. If they don’t get the sense that what they’ve come for is forthcoming, they’ll stop reading.
Forming a cogent whole
To make sure that your readers get the most out of your efforts, you’ll need to do what bad writers avoid. Edit.
It’s not enough to avoid pitfalls. Zoom out to make sure that it makes sense on the whole. Here are a few questions to guide you, and how you’ll know that your writing is ready to publish:
1. Do all the pieces fit together to form a coherent whole?
Like a completed puzzle, there should be no gaps – and no unnecessary sections – in your writing. Be open to adding, removing, and shifting sections to find their best configuration.
2. Does each idea/section flow naturally into the next?
Good transitions are like mortar. No amount of mortar can solve the problem of a mislaid brick. In other words, lay your ideas out methodically and in a way that makes sense for the reader.
3. Is my argument clearly stated and where it belongs?
Many of us use writing to process our thoughts. This is the source of a common mistake. Avoid having your introduction only crystallizing at the conclusion. If that’s the case, go back and make your point clear right from the beginning.
4. Does it give the reader what they came for?
Don’t betray your reader’s trust. You have their attention, and it’s a pretty rare and precious gift. By the end of the piece, whether that’s a novel or a blog post, you need to tell the story or answer the question you promised them.
At the end of this process you’ll find you have a piece of writing that is competent. In other words, not bad. Learning to go through this process will become second nature after some time, and it’s one of the ways you can get better at writing.
Find your audience
Stop writing for “everyone.”
To illustrate my point, I’m going to be very honest with you.
I couldn’t get through Moby Dick.
As someone who adores fiction, and one who doesn’t shy away from a long book, this bothered me for a long time. I gave it several good tries. In the end, it just became painful. Even though my reading time often turned into nap-time, never did I conclude that Melville must be a “bad” writer.
Melville isn’t for me. Doesn’t matter how famous his writing is, or how long it’s withstood the test of time — I get bored when I read it. As a writer, it’s easy to imagine that you’re writing for “everyone.” This is an illusion and a trap.
And that should be a huge relief.
Good writing doesn’t mean everyone loves it. Not everyone is going to enjoy your writing or even care what you have to say. Accept that. It will do wonders for your peace of mind. Much of writing anxiety comes from worrying about what others will think of our work.
At the same time, we can’t let that be an excuse to let our writing skills stagnate. You’ll know your writing is good because you’ll know that you put the work in to make it accessible. At the end of the day, a strong piece of writing conveys its message clearly, and maybe even makes the reader think.
You’re not as bad as you think
As you develop your skills, it might be helpful to separate the writing from the writer. The best words may not immediately jump out of your head and fall onto the page in captivating prose.
But you know what? The same is true of even celebrated professional writers. A great writer isn’t one whose every written page is gold. They are one who trusts in the writing process.
Take the time to polish your draft, and it can shine as brightly as anyone else’s. Hone your craft, and one day you’ll wonder that you ever asked yourself if your writing was bad.