I’ve been writing for three decades, having published more than a dozen novels—one of them traditionally (and that was more than enough for me). I’ve also spent more than 10 years studying and teaching literature at a university level, including getting a PhD in English. Still, it took me all this time and more to figure out something both intriguing and essential to know: Nobody can gauge my own writing but myself.
People can have ideas or opinions, and they can even be good ideas or informed opinions. Very often, when a knowledgeable person with writing experience offers you a piece of advice about your writing, it’s actually a rather accurate assessment.
But that doesn’t necessarily make it true; not until the final authority on the matter—the author of the work—decides so. That’s why they call it… author-ity (yeah, stand-up comedy is not for me; got it).
In the end, writing is a fundamentally solitary endeavor. True, there can be other people involved—advisers, supervisors, editors—but the core of the work is made by one person, the author.
As a result, you are the only one entitled to say whether you’re getting better, in which areas of your writing you’re improving, and by how much. So, it’s worth learning how to do it in a way that serves you and does your writing justice. That’s precisely what I’ll be sharing with you in this post, hopefully inspiring you to look at your career with new eyes.
As a very first thing, let’s lay the theoretical foundations—which is a fancier way of saying, let’s agree on the words we’ll use.
By self-assessment in writing, I refer to the process of looking at your writing and finding evolutionary patterns in it. In simpler terms: seeing your past work and noticing how some things got “better” in time, how some things got “worse,” and how some things remained the same.
The quotation marks I used above indicate a certain problem point in the whole process, perhaps even a paradox: better/worse in which sense? By whose standards? By what reference point?
Remember what I said about writing being a solitary endeavor? Well, it’s also a subjective one. With very few exceptions—say, a purely technical paper on mathematics—the vast majority of writing out there lies along a very long, hazy continuum of subjectivity.
In other words, some kinds of writing (say, experimental fiction) might be more subjective than others (say, a blog post on a programming language), but still, they’re basically all subjective: Their better/worse status can only be an arbitrary opinion—even if it’s informed—and it can only be in reference to an arbitrarily chosen group of other texts—even if it’s representative.
The takeaway of all this is, precisely because there is no objective way of determining whether a text is good or bad, you might as well declare yourself, as the author, the final authority on the matter.
You can—and should—still hear others’ opinions and feedback, especially if they’re specialists. But you have unique knowledge of the context and circumstances of your writing, so quite by definition you’re the best judge of whether it worked or not.
Let’s pick a couple of the phrases I used in the previous section, as they’ll be important for understanding self-assessment: “evolutionary patterns” and “reference point.”
As the perceptive reader that you are, I’m sure you realize these two phrases are related: A pattern cannot exist without a reference of one thing to something else, and as for evolution, it inevitably introduces the idea of time. In practical, graspable terms, this has an interesting repercussion—which assigns the whole process its paradoxical essence, as I described in the previous section.
We can’t assess our current writing without reference to our past writing.
This means that, as an author, I can’t say “The novel I just finished is good/bad.” The only thing I can say is, “The novel I just finished is better/worse than the one I wrote three years ago.”
Knowing you’re getting (hopefully) better is a start. But it’s not very useful in understanding in which way you’re getting better and, more importantly, what you can do to improve further. Let’s take a closer look at this, with a more hands-on, practical approach.
If you remember my post on how reviews can improve your writing, I mentioned that simply stating “I liked this author/book” is meaningless in the context of a review. People would like to hear why, because that would be more useful.
The same thing applies here. Knowing—even somewhat subconsciously—that you’re getting better as a writer is of course great, but it’s useful only insofar as it can guide you to improve further and more methodically.
The specifics will vary from author to author and from work to work. The dynamics involved in writing a romance novel will not be the same as those required in an academic essay. Nonetheless, the following tips will give you a direction:
Reflect on your current work, comparing it to your past work—ideally, of the same kind. No point comparing your current essay on social issues to a poem you wrote 10 years ago, unless it’s all you’ve got. However, the conclusions would be more limited in that case, as they could only be about the few common elements—such as vocabulary, suitability of words, or similar.
This sounds as if you’re about to sentence your text to eternal damnation. The truth is, everything you write is useful, because it has led you here, today. Still, identify some basic evolutionary patterns, trying to be specific: “The flow of my text started to get a bit better by that time; my character descriptions a lot better.”
Go in-depth. Understand what got better and why it got better. Ideally, you should try to approach your writing production as a whole to do that. One example could be: “My character descriptions got a lot better at that time, as I learned to be more patient. It was the first novel that featured what would become my authorial trademark: ambiguous characters that reveal little to others.”
Chances are, if you’ve learned to self-assess your writing the way I described above, you already know what to do next: implement the lessons. One tricky point is learning to also ignore issues. Identifying that your descriptions of settings are a bit weak doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a problem. You, as the author, must decide whether in the greater scheme of literary things it needs fixing or not.
Besides this last point—that is, learning when to ignore problems—are there any issues with self-assessment you need to know about? Indeed there are a couple of important ones.
The first thing you need to know about self-assessment and getting better is that it’s not a linear process. In other words, if you assess your writing to have been “bad” six years ago, “average” four years ago, and “good” two years ago, this sadly doesn’t mean you will necessarily find it “great” at the end of this year.
Indeed, as I’ve also learned the hard way, there’s another paradox in getting better: The better we become, the less likely we are to see any drastic improvement. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any, only that it will be less drastic and harder to discern. This can be a bit troubling to realize.
It can also be particularly problematic in the context of the other, somewhat related thing you need to keep in mind: Improvement in writing can be frustratingly fluctuating.
Examining your writing, you might notice that it got better six years ago, then it got worse four years ago, and then it got better again. More realistically (and maddeningly), you might notice some things got better while others got worse. The subjectivity involved—not to mention, your imposter syndrome kicking in—might cloud your judgment and make things yet trickier to gauge.
Be kind to yourself if that happens. There can be many reasons—going through tough times or trying something that just didn’t work are two likely culprits—but remember: Everything you’ve ever written, from your childhood scribblings to your first attempts at blogging, and from your first poems to that awesome novel you finished, has brought you here. It has taught you something. It has made you the writer you are.
It’s impossible to deal with problems we don’t recognize. Therefore, it’s impossible to address what we perceive as problems in our writing if we’re not aware of them. To do that, we must also know ourselves, as authors: what we like and don’t like, what we’re rather good at and what we’re unhappy with. Self-knowledge leads to self-assessment.
But here’s the trick: It’s a two-way street. Self-assessment also makes us better at understanding our authorial priorities.
Perhaps you’ve spent much of your writing career feeling bad about yourself because you can’t spend three pages describing a brick wall (I always bring this up; it’s my favorite example of what not to do). Well, what if that’s not you?
You can only find out by self-assessing your writing production as a whole. Comparing, judging (kindly), understanding, and implementing the lessons, you can become a better writer because you can understand what works for you and what doesn’t.
As an author, you are the final authority on your work. It took me three decades to learn that; I’m sure you can do better!
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.