How Do You Know You Can Write?

That is not a facetious question. I’d like your thoughts on this.

How do you know you can write?

As an editor, I run across many styles of writing, but I’m not talking about styles. I’m referring to the ability to construct a clear, grammatically correct sentence that tells the reader something and moves the story forward. Because isn’t that what writing is? A bunch of sentences that relay dialog, describe locations, and detail actions. Read enough sentences, and you get a story.

But what about those writers who can’t do that? Maybe their grammar sucks. Maybe they have no idea how to punctuate. Maybe they can’t properly describe a room or a city or a murder. They spew all this shit out, and in their minds, it’s beautiful prose telling a magnificent tale, but a reader sees garbage they can’t make heads nor tails of.

Can writers be blind to whether or not they have talent?

So how do writers know they can write? Is it something they recognize in themselves, or do they need friends to tell them, “Yo, dude! You should go pro. Put that shit on Amazon, man, and make some money.” Never mind that your sentences don’t scan, commas are missing or in the wrong places, and you couldn’t write natural dialog if someone lit your butt on fire. Your friends are telling you you can write, so it must be true.

Do you have talent, or are your friends lying to you because they love you? Maybe they can’t recognize good writing from bad either. Both are excellent possibilities, as the current bestseller lists often illustrate.

How do you know you can write?

All beginning writers make the same mistakes. This is a given. Someone at the start of their career is going to write more poorly than they will a few years down the road. BUT the raw talent should be evident. They should understand how a sentence is constructed and punctuated even if eyes occasionally fly around the room, their hands are doing things they should be doing, and their narrative is lacking.

In other words: writing basics need to be understood and utilized. If you stick two sentences together with a comma, are you lazy or just stupid? If you don’t know how to punctuate dialog, same question applies: lazy or stupid?

Whatever your answer, do it right or don’t do it at all. Good punctuation is required to tell the story correctly. It’s the difference between Let’s eat grandma and Let’s eat, Grandma. If you don’t know how to use punctuation, the reader is going to get some weird shocks. And don’t expect editors to fix your shit either. My example was obvious, but what about when it’s less clear what you, the writer, wants to say? Do you expect readers and editors to guess what you meant? Everyone’s moving too fast to figure out your convoluted sentences. If they don’t understand what you write, they’ll toss your book aside and go to the next one. They also won’t buy anything from you ever again.

How do you know you can write?

Okay, say your punctuation is damn near perfect. But what are you punctuating? Do your sentences flow? Does your description of that stinky back alley tell the reader how much it really reeks? Do you know which details to hit and which ones to skip to avoid slowing the pace and boring the reader to death?

This is where reading comes in. Read read read! And be selective about it. Don’t pick up the latest potboiler about the billionaire’s mistress unless it’s written well. As mentioned previously, a bestselling book doesn’t automatically mean soaring prose. I’ve read some incredible garbage in books that hit #1 at Amazon. Good writers can teach you stuff. Pay attention. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Styles change, but good writing is forever.

How do you know you can write?

Maybe the real question is: do you care if you write well, or do you let the words come out however they want whether or not they make sense? Do you use ten words when one will do? Do you never read your finished manuscript before submitting it to a publisher or editor because hey, your shit don’t stink and everything you write is golden? Then you’re not a writer. You’re a poser. You’re not willing to do the hard work it takes to get better at your craft.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Let ‘er rip!





About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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29 Responses to How Do You Know You Can Write?

  1. Helena Stone says:

    I am probably the wrong person to ask. While I catch a lot of mistakes they need to be very abundant in order for me to get irritated and if the story is good, I’m a very forgiving reader. Having said that, I know I see more now than I did before I started writing.

    How do I know I can write? To be honest, I don’t. I do indeed trust friends to tell me whether or not my words work as a story. Then again, I pick the friends for this task carefully; they only get to sit in judgment of my work if I’m sure they’ll give me a good kicking when I’ve messed up.

    I’ll be following this post/discussion with interest. It’s a good question and I can’t wait to see the answers other people come up with.

  2. Echo what Helena said.

  3. wulfginn says:

    You know what, this is so interesting. When I started off, I couldn’t spell or grammar to save my life. Hell, my high school teachers told me; due to my poor language skills, I won’t graduate. I started writing in ’09 and wow, I can actually spell now, somewhat. (Still, grammar is evil)

    But regardless, I can reflect on each manuscript I write, see and understand how much I have grown from the previous to the present. I wonder how many authors can say that? The thing is, I’m still learning, from Betas, authors and editors, I keep learning, and I fear the day will come when I stop learning. Because that will be the day I stop writing.

  4. K. Z. Snow says:

    If “proficiency blindness” didn’t exist in editors and readers, it wouldn’t exist in writers. That’s the bottom line. As long as consumers are willing to buy a product — any product — regardless of its quality, the producer has no incentive to improve it.

    • Exactly right. I know when something is not up to par, and if it’s in my writing, I fix it. If it’s in someone else’s and they pay me, I fix that. But if it’s in a book I bought, I pitch it and never buy from them again. There are standards in spelling, grammar, and writing, and if you don’t bother learning what they are and adhere to them, shame on you.

  5. Jaycee Edward says:

    I *don’t* know I can write. I know I’m better than I was when I first started. I know when I plug my words into Edit Minion now for the the first time, I get all green lights more often than not. I know “well written” was said on some of my books’ reviews. But how do I know THOSE people recognize what’s well written and what’s not? *shrugs*

    Someone I really admire (who criticized my early writing) said something I latched onto. I have it right here on the wall beside me:

    “All writers start out writing badly, but with diligence and determination, we all get better. It’s then that writing becomes truly fun and always engaging. When you no longer have to worry about how you write, you can start thinking about what to write.”

    Profound, huh? ;o)

  6. Dreamer9177 says:

    I believe that if you write, you will get better at it. It is entirely different to write for a living and be under a deadline, with an editor to please. But for the initial question, of course you can write. The result will either give you pleasure or it will not. If the answer is no, then you probably will not want to explore writing any further. If writing sparks a fire within you, then you should pursue it and let things evolve as they re meant to without an ingrained fear of rejection.

    • I respectfully disagree. Not all writers get better. Some are downright awful, and their writing should never see the light of day. These people are missing something, whether it’s attention to detail, the “writer’s ear,” or basic knowledge of grammar and punctuation. Some of them might be able to learn, but a few will never manage it.

      • Dreamer9177 says:

        I accept that, but I counter that everyone does not have the desire to write. Those who do will accept constructive criticism and continue onwards, those who don’t feel the urge to write will give up because it gives them no pleasure. Like I said, those who write for a living are of a different mindset because it is their livelihood, and that is fine. Those who attempt to write either find joy or emptiness, and it was to those that I was referring.

        • Noted. 🙂 Thanks for clarifying.

          The problem lies in people who want to write, think they can write, and it turns out they can’t, but they don’t let it stop them. 😉

  7. I’ve always done well with grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I “get” the fundamentals. I’ve been told that I’m a good story teller. To be a writer has always been a dream floating around in my mind. A few years ago, circumstances aligned such that it was a good time to try it out. I’d been crafting a story in my mind for years, so I put the thoughts to paper (which is to say, “computer screen and magnetic storage device,” but that’s just a detail).

    When I stopped and read what I wrote, I realized that it was word-for-word what had been developing in my mind. It was horrifying. I’ve not since entertained the thought of writing as a profession.

    How do you know if you’re a good writer? In the end, I don’t know. Clearly there is more to it than having a solid foundation of fundamentals, and even being able to tell a good story.

    • I know how to write but I’m not sure that makes me a good writer because other things come into play. Do I tell an engaging story? Do I say anything a reader wants to hear? Do I put things in a way that is exciting? Are my characters interesting and compelling?

      Knowing how to write is only the first step. There is so much more to consider!

  8. K. Z. Snow says:

    There’s also this thing called “style,” which can’t be taught.

    An excellent motorcycle mechanic can probably take apart and put together a bike with his eyes closed, but that doesn’t mean he has the aesthetic to design a beautiful, one-of-a-kind machine. A lot of writers are like that: good with the nuts and bolts but lacking a feel for the music of prose. (Then there are authors, even within this genre, who try too hard to be literary and end up sounding pretentious.)

    So … superb writing is a tapestry of skills, some acquired and some innate. And it’s mighty hard to find.

  9. dragon says:

    I know I can write. I can put sentences together in paragraphs that make sense and my few readers can follow. I know I can write drek and then I can write things that elicit an immediate reaction. (Like the opening scene where both my readers indicated they should have been warned so they could sit in front of a fan to cool down. Not a bit of explicit in that entire scene.) Do I know I can sell what I write? Gain a following? Not bore people now and again? No. And the answer is different for each project from fan service to original. The answer comes in reviews, in readership. Do I know if I’m a good writer? Not yet. Will I find out? Maybe.

    • Yup! Totally agree. I’ve gotten some terrific reviews the last few years, and I treasure every one of them. They make me think I can write. But omg, the days I struggle to put a good sentence together! Hate it, and those are the times when I question whether or not I should take up goat herding.

  10. Kathi Lilly-Schell says:

    I may have dabbled a bit in the fan fiction world and received decent reviews, however, I know in my heart that I am no writer. Give me a paintbrush instead, please. I love the creative process, whether it be with beads & jewelry wire or canvas & paints. I do love to read a good book or listen to really good music. I have the ability to know what I like and I do love the well-written word. I admire an author who has the ability to paint a picture or can create a certain mood with the words they choose. I love characters that have been well crafted and feel like the author has been friends or enemies with this person for a very long time.

    What totally turns me off is spelling errors, obvious grammar or punctuation mistakes. But the thing that makes me WTF is changing the POV midstream. I don’t have enough writing experience to label these type of mistakes, I just know that it is confusing as hell as a reader.

  11. diannegray says:

    I know a fellow who is quite high up in the publishing business and also a prolific reader. He once told me there are two types of stories. 1. Those that are beautifully written, and 2. Those that tell an amazing story. It’s very rare to find a book containing both 😉

    I actually feel for people who have an amazing story to tell, but can’t get it on paper because they don’t understand grammar and punctuation. Several years ago a met a woman (it was a very random meeting) who had been kidnapped as a thirteen-year-old from a small country town by bikers. She was now about 25 (and still with the bikers) and I was amazed by her story. I told her she must put pen to paper and write about it. It was a long and complicated conversation, but she told me she couldn’t write because she had limited schooling. I thought, I’d love to read it even if it was badly written. I never saw her again and often wonder where she ended up.

    • Everyone has a story, but the difference between the lady with the bikers and you (and me and others) is we can write them in a way that conveys that story well enough to be understood. It makes all the difference. 🙂

      With the rise in self-publication, anyone can tell their story. The problem is, most of them aren’t capable of it.

  12. A.M.B. says:

    “Do you have talent, or are your friends lying to you because they love you?”

    That’s every self-professed writer’s fear. One of the perks of the traditional route is that a neutral party has told you that you’ve written something valuable enough for them to stick their name and logo on it. For those of us who haven’t chosen that path, we just have to hope that our friends love us enough to protect us from public humiliation.

    Grammar is important. Understanding the structure of a story is also important. However, whether or not someone is a “good” writer is subjective. I think William Faulkner is an awful writer. History disagrees with me. 😉

    • I always recommend writers go through a publisher with their first book. They will learn so much from the experience, from cover choice to editing to proofing. And the feeling of signing that contract can’t be beat. 🙂 It validates you as a writer, says “You’re good enough.”

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