Over the years I’ve struggled with this question, finding it impossible to judge my own work. Adept at knowing when someone else’s manuscript hits the spot, I finally decided to let others be the judge of my scribbles. Surely they could tell me whether my literary copy was sublime or substandard?
In my quest I took full advantage of reading pieces out at open mics, workshops and writing groups. On one occasion, another participant sidled up to me after my reading. “I love your writing,” he said.
“Thank you so much,” I enthused. “I always think my writing’s crap.”
“Really? I never think that about mine.”
Gobsmacked, I stood meerkat-like for several minutes. I mean – wow! That level of confidence is mind blowing. Maybe oozing self-belief is crucial to being a great artist. In which case, should I have given up on the spot? Or be flattered that he liked my scrawls? Over five years of attending that group I waited for the opportunity to praise his writing but he didn’t share any.
Attending a Guardian Masterclass run by editor Becky Gardiner, I discovered I’m not the only one who struggles to judge her own penmanship. Becky revealed that one prominent journalist hands in her copy with the qualifier, “I’m not sure it’s any good.”
“She’s a brilliant writer,” Becky assured me. I felt enormously comforted by this revelation. To quote Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Thinking your writing’s crap, does not make it so Valerie! Heed Shakespeare.
My most gut-clenching attempt to seek judgement of my work has been attending writing courses. It was both inspiring and motivating to achieve ‘A’ grades on my part-time journalism course at Highbury College, Portsmouth. ‘A’ equals success and, as Paul Weller once said, success encourages you to keep going.
I ‘kept going’ and have knocked out hundreds of articles, blog posts and podcast scripts; written for lifeboat charity RNLI and even had work published in The Guardian. But I still find it difficult to judge my work objectively.
It wasn’t until I began my first novel and asked for advice from novelist Ian Burton that I began to understand what I needed to do. Ian suggested I write a brief synopsis of each scene: characters, setting and what the scene achieved.
Bingo! I found myself asking questions like: What do I want the audience to feel or think? How does this scene move the story along? How have I hooked the audience so they’ll want to read on? If I couldn’t answer these questions, then whatever I wrote was indeed… rubbish! Well… perhaps not rubbish but certainly not ‘fit for purpose’.
I gained further insight when working with radio drama producer and writer Kate McAll on a radio play I’d written. Kate’s ‘objectivity trick’, enabling her to see her work with fresh eyes, is simple: she sits in a different chair. Think about it. What we’re trying to achieve is reading our work as if we’re the audience seeing it for the first time. A change of environment can do that.
For me, I’ve learned that printing off a hard copy and taking myself off to the local coffee shop works. During Covid19 restrictions when coffee shops were out of bounds, I taught my brain to switch into “I’m the audience reading this for the first time” mode. It takes practice but it is possible to shove all that you know about a script into a cupboard at the back of your brain and approach the work as if it’s just being unveiled to you.
The insight and constructive feedback I get from fellow scribblers at my local writers’ group is invaluable and I can’t wait for our meetings to start up again. However, I’m no longer solely reliant on the opinions of others. I now have some tools to help drag myself out of the murky dilemma of ‘Is my writing any good?’
Valerie French is a freelance writer who’s written for the RNLI, interviewed Bear Grylls and followed a bunch of parkour fanatics leaping around Vancouver. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Vancouver Sun and CBC radio. In 2017 she moved into creative writing and has written five radio plays, one of which was a winner in the Penfro Radio Drama competition 2019. Valerie is currently writing about the experiences of merchant seaman in WW2.