3 Genius Ways To Tell If Your Writing Is Any Good- Guest Diane Holmes

Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.  ~Gene Fowler

Diane Holmes is my resident genius and she graciously allowed me to re-print an article she wrote over at the Free-Lance Zone a while back. When I say she’s a genius…I’m not kidding. Go make a cup of tea, put your feet up and have a good read! Take it away, Diane-

You can’t prove your writing is any good.

Not like you can in math or computer programming.  Not with a result you can point to and say,

  • That page right there is ‘always true.’
  • It works ‘as expected” and is ‘fit for use.’
  • My project requirements are satisfied.  The glory is now mine!

You can learn and develop powerful skills.  Mad Ninja writing skills.

You just can’t look at the end product and objectively test for “goodness.”

Michelle Davidson Argyle wrote a 2-part article over at Literary Lab on this subject, asking readers to choose between 3 paragraphs in search of goodness and post their thoughts in the comments..

The comments are full of insight on the logic behind the readers’ choices.  A must read on the topic of subjectivity.  And Part 2 is a must read on the topic of reality vs. preference.

And yet…

You can’t say that all writing is good, because it’s all subjective.  Surely there is some difference between those who have developed mastery and those who… have room for improvement.

And surely you can evaluate your own work, right? Just you, alone in a room, evaluating your own work.

But as Nathan Bransford, former literary agent, points out, clear evaluation is not what happens.  He wonders…

What is it about writing that makes people put on the blinders and fail to recognize their limitations and makes the talented unable to recognize their own goodness?

(The comments on Nathan’s post are worth the read!)

The “Someone Else” Solution.

Get someone else to read your writing. That’s often the advice given.  A reader, a critique partner, a teacher, an editor.  If they like it, then it’s good!

  • Ah, okay, first there’s a quality issue. (Do they know quality when they see it or just what they like?)
  • Then there’s a “good match” issue.  (Are they a good match for your topic, style, or genre?)
  • And finally there’s a “will it sell” issue that becomes some sort of defining determination of goodness.  Everyone (especially editors, but even readers) has some sort of criteria called, “You can’t do that because it won’t sell.”  Or alternatively, “It’s not done like that.”  Or even, “Yeah, that seems like all the other books I read.”

Behind almost every single first book is a trail of rejections where readers, critique partners, teachers, editors, agents, and contest judges who  thought it was or wasn’t good.

And then it sold.

The Touchstone Solution

Okay, here’s what I think.

  • I think everything about writing and reading is, indeed, intangible.
  • That you can recognize mastery, even if the mastery doesn’t equate to an excellent reading experience for you.
  • And I think you can find touchstones to answer the Goodness question.

Here’s what I mean when I say touchstone.  I mean someone or some specific works that hold the standard (Ideal Beauty) of where you want to be.

1) Specific Craft Touchstones

I think your touchstones should be narrowly defined if it’s to be of any value to you.

For example:  I admire the dialogue of Elmore Leonard, specifically the way it captures very conflicting personality traits, takes sharp left-turns on subject so that you feel punched by the truth, and is often full of threat yet totally cool and hip.

As I progress in dialogue mastery, I can use the specific aspects of Elmore Leonard’s dialogue as a touchstone to help me assess my own writing.

Not to mimic Elmore Leonard, but to achieve that level of mastery (and delight) of “left-turns” in my own dialogue.

2) Reader Touchstones 

Writing is about delighting a reader. So, yes, other people are involved in deciding what they enjoy reading, what they consider good.

So find the reader (critique partner, teacher, whoever) whose idea of goodness represents what you want your book to be judged against.  Delight that one reader.

You might think this is nuts, but quit trying to please everyone, including those people who disagree with each other.  Instead try to master storytelling for your one right reader.

How this is different from the “Someone Else” solution.

What I’m saying here is that all opinion is not equal.  You should chose the opinion because you agree on quality (not that you agree on their career path in the publishing industry somehow equals goodness).

And that the opinion should become a touchstone for you as you write.  “How much will this particular chapter delight this touchstone reader?”

This is about letting someone make a pronouncement about what you have written.  It’s about writing to delight a reader who cherishes the goodness you’re reaching for.  And then allowing you to evaluate if you’re reached that goal.

3) Vision Touchstones

One of the best things a critique partner (another writer) can do for you is to hold the vision of your story with you, to be able to see how great this story can truly be.

This is also the person who can discuss with you if you’re reached your own story vision.

And as you write, you’ll have some “other” out on the mental landscape who you know will be waiting for you to create “this page right now” in a way that fully captures that vision.

So you can get real feedback from the writer, but you’ll also have a sense, alone in a room, if you’re fulfilling your vision simply because you’re aiming at the story hopes of another writer.

And that is very cool stuff.

Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in FictionMastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

13 Responses to 3 Genius Ways To Tell If Your Writing Is Any Good- Guest Diane Holmes

  1. Diane Holmes says:

    Thanks, Stacey, for inviting me to the MuseTracks! Always love your and Jenn’s columns.



  2. You are so welcome. I’m glad you stopped in to teach us some words of wisdom!


  3. Sorry to be so late to the party, Diane. Excellent pointers, and something I believe we all struggle with from time to time. There is no easy answer to tell if it’s ‘right’ or not; the best I’ve been able to do is if I make myself laugh, it’s got to be okay. As long as it’s supposed to be a funny part, it’s good. If I’m making myself laugh in a fight scene, well….. maybe it’s not so good and I need to re-think it…:)


  4. I know I struggle with this all the time, Will. My biggest downfall, as you well know, is that I always think the pages I’ve written are a load of crapola! That’s why it is so important to get your material out of your head, off your computer and somewhere others can read them. I love how Diane says to work on delighting that special reader- wish I could be that wise….sigh.


  5. Ann James says:

    Diane, as usual, you are right on the mark with your insightful comments. I think writers always struggle–is my work good enough? Will someone like it? Will they want to publish it? Read it? You have managed to put things into perspective. Reaching one reader, one person who shares your vision will provide the means to ‘Remain calm and carry on.’ Thanks for getting it right.


  6. Diane Holmes says:

    Dear Ann, I love your use of UK’s WW2 motto. It’s amazing how mixed-up it gets inside the mind of a novelist as we strive for a Great Story that readers love. I think people imagine we have this strong creative vision that we never doubt and “our characters just write their own stories!!!” Truth, it’s an incredibly complex art where 100 things can fail your story on every page. Knowing the right vision through the forest of words is why we need a motto to remain calm. 😉


  7. Diane Holmes says:

    Dear William, Hello! You know, I wrote this column because I wanted to HOW to really have insight into my own writing, without, say, waiting a few months “for distance.” So after obsessing on this topic for a while (my favorite hobby = obsession over craft-of-writing), it finally clicked. Oh, I thought cleverly. That’s how you do it. 😉


  8. jbrayweber says:

    Great blog, Diane.
    I have to admit. I’m one who cuts out the chatter and just write how I envision the story to be. If I let in too much noise, I am side railed. Not good for my productivity. So once I’m done with a story, I can be more objective. I can listen to what others say, but I don’t have to agree or disagree. Just listen to their point, take it and roll it around in my head, analyze it, and determine the value.
    Need less to say, I love all your points. Especially about delighting your reader. Isn’t that what its about? 🙂


  9. ravenraye says:

    Love the article. A good crit partner (or group) is worth their weight in gold. I remember all the times you told me to ‘hit the gas.’ Yep, here I am. Because of you all. Thanks!



  10. Diane Holmes says:

    Dear Jenn,

    Drafting a first draft is one thing. All the rewrites? That’s a whole other point of angst. And that’s really where “knowing if it’s any good” becomes “1,000 bits of information and criticism chipping away at you.” Self-doubt and second-guessing becomes a hobby.

    I know how hard you worked on your first book, how many contests, how polarized the feedback was. And then there was all the rejection! You worked for months? years? And at some point, you really did have a great sense of goodness, and you chose the Indy route. This was brilliant. And even traditional, NY pubs have seen the light. 🙂

    Is it possible to shortcut the process. Really KNOW in your gut when you’ve reached goodness? I’d like to think so, that it’s part of mastery and wisdom. (I bottle of Mastery and Wisdom To Go, please!)



  11. Diane Holmes says:


    Hello, Sweetie! So, so excited about your first book release!!! And if I helped encourage you, I’m really happy about that.



  12. Sorry I’m so late. You made some very good points. I’m very thanksful for my CPs who don’t try to change my voice, but point out where I’ve gone wrong.


  13. […] 3 Genius Ways To Tell If Your Writing Is Any Good- Guest Diane Holmes (musetracks.wordpress.com) […]


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