How Do You Know Your Writing Is Good?

By asking the simple question, “How do you know your writing is good,” I opened up a Pandora’s box of responses I hadn’t expected or prepared for.

Many years ago, in graduate school, I conducted a small empirical research study inspired by a quantitative study done by researchers Michael Palmquist and Richard E. Young. Their study was titled “The Notion of Giftedness and Student Expectation About Writing.”

In the introduction to their study the authors said, “It will come as no surprise to those who teach composition that a large proportion of students enter the classroom believing that the ability to write well is a gift.” Unfortunately, it turns out, that belief is pervasive, and it doesn’t solely reside with young, inexperienced student-writers.

Editors of the textbook in which Palmquist and Young’s study appeared introduced their research with the assertion: “The [theoretical] claim made by romantic literary theorists that the ability to write well is a gift that can’t be taught” has “found its way into folk wisdom.” Giftedness is related to the Romantic idea of ‘original’ genius, from which we get much of our attitude about writers and writing.

Palmquist and Young asked their respondents a long series of questions intended to show a relationship between a student’s fear of writing (writing apprehension) and the belief that the ability to write is a gift. One of the ideas on their survey piqued my interest. Students were asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “My writing is good.”

The researchers didn’t ask, “How do you know if your writing is good?”, they just wanted to know how the student would assess his or her abilities, on a scale of 1 to 10.

My survey differed in many ways from Palmquist and Young’s. For one thing, it was qualitative and really only asked one question, since the scope of my research had to remain small, and you can mess up empirical research studies by creating too much indecipherable data.

However, my survey, aimed at graduate students and faculty in the English department at my university, taught me that there is a relationship between self-assessment of one’s ability and a very interesting facet of human behavior: attribution theory.

One aspect of attribution theory tells us that where we place our locus of control—externally or internally—determines our perception of self-efficacy, the knowledge that you can complete a goal or task you set for yourself.

It turned out that a whopping majority of respondents (75%) said that the only way they knew their writing was any good was if someone gave them a high grade or praise of some kind.

These answers bothered me a lot.

For one thing, it meant they were abjuring inner locus of control. Having an inner locus of control is one marker of high self-esteem; it’s also a factor in low writing apprehension scores. The greater your inner locus of control score, the less likely you’ll be devastated by a bad grade, a bad review, a bad opinion.

In non-academic parlance, high inner locus of control means you’re tough enough to take it and bounce back from rejection letters. It also means that you tend to believe in your own ability to do something, to effect change.

Crucially, this includes your ability to learn a skill or talent, such as writing. People with an inner locus of control feel like they have control over their lives. They’re less likely to think that their writing skill was given to them by the gods, in other words, since, unlike those with external locus of control, they don’t see the world as inherently out of their control. Believing less in luck or chance, inner locus of control people put their faith in hard work, for without it, they know that they’ll likely get nowhere. They do not trust to chance, luck, or fate, in other words.

Simple question, or so I thought.

Having a strong score in an external locus of control goes along with believing that writing cannot be taught. Believing that the ability to write well is a ‘divine gift granted by the gods’ is an example of external locus of control. This places writing ability in the realm of chance or luck, something only a very few can be born with.

Respondents to Palmquist and Young’s survey who, across the board, came up with responses that indicated that they considered their writing to be anywhere from bad to not very good, also tended to believe that writing is a gift; that it can’t be taught. It seems therefore that there is a correlation between thinking badly of your writing ability and believing in writing as a gift.

However, my survey was given to writing teachers and adult students, not to the age group or population Palmquist and Young studied. Although I wasn’t specifically looking for correlations of self-assessment and writing apprehension, I was, nonetheless, surprised to see that otherwise sophisticated adults, most of whom were published and experienced authors, claimed that they had to hear their writing was good from an outside source.

That’s when I knew that the issue is much more complicated than simple belief, or lack of same, in myths we’ve been told about writing.

If you don’t know, through your own self-assessment, using tools you were taught when you learned how to be a writer and then an educator, that you’ve produced a good piece of writing, something is wrong, in my opinion.

There are larger ramifications for society, which clearly encourages times of inner versus external locus of control. In a time when society teaches us to rely on external authorities, our ability to trust our own inner knowing will be squelched. During periods when we’re encouraged to listen only to our ‘inner voice’, external authority will be distrusted. Essentially, then, society itself goes through periods when one locus of control or the other is enforced and augmented by societal values.

We live in a time that privileges inner locus of control, teaching us to distrust outside authority. It teaches us that we are the ultimate authority, that only we can know or judge. The danger of this perspective is that it can lead us to an overweening inability to accept an external voice of authority. The problem with this becomes clear when we refuse to take guidance or, for that matter, a writing class, believing that the inner muse alone will guide us to the truth.

No way to get writer’s issues back in the box now.

Ultimately, we need to be able to judge accurately for ourselves, to know our writing is good, but not be unwilling to listen to outside sources. You need to know how to assess your own writing. Do you know, from your own inner locus of control, that your writing is good, or do you need to hear it from someone else? It’s not as cut-and-dried a question as I once thought. One’s skill or ability as a writer does not necessarily correlate with belief in one’s skill or ability.

Needless to say, my empirical research study, conducted for one class, and intended to be a short experiment, changed my life forever and made me realise that there is an emotional world no one talks about underlying our cultural beliefs and attitudes about writing. This emotional world has to do with a deeper psychological truth you carry with you before you ever become a writer; it has to do with where you place your locus of control—internally, believing in your ability to effect outcome—or externally, believing that your actions are affected by that which is outside your control? This is the part of the core self we bring to the writing experience, and it influences everything we do as writers.

Grammar as a political act

Link to The Grammar Police, Who Claims "Grammar Saves Lives"!

Grammar is typically taught very much as a form of “inside the box” thinking. In other words, there are rules, they’re packaged and sold as being fairly linear; follow them, and your writing will improve. However, the deeper truth about grammar is that it’s actually extremely complicated, and accurate use (an arguably impossible task) depends very much on who you read and why they wrote their grammar guide. Scariest of all, there are actually multiple grammars.

Let me start with my strangest-sounding proposition first, the notion that there are, in reality, multiple grammars. This statement flies in the face of what we grow up being taught, that there is “one” grammar, one way of doing something, and one true way to write. In fact, grammar use is highly political, it’s fluid, and it changes with the prevailing values of the dominant culture. You are forgetting, even as I write this, the grammar you learned to set in cement when you were a child.

The reason you’re forgetting is because you do not use the grammar you learned as a child. You don’t realise it most of the time, but it’s true. A great deal of what you learned when you were young is probably still valid, but there are once-important bits and pieces that no longer matter, that no one cares about, and that few people, except perhaps die-hard grammarians and linguists, think are important. In other words, the grammar you were taught to cling to as a life raft on the sea of errant words has been over-written by more recent information, and that newer information was written when you weren’t paying all that much attention.

So the concept of multiple grammars starts with the simple fact that there are acceptable ways of saying something and unacceptable ways of saying something. The second aspect to the concept of multiple grammars lies with the inherent politicization of the use of language when a grammar is applied to it; the grammar forms and restrictions determine ‘correctness’ at the cost of meaning, but if you’re representing the dominant voice in society, do you honestly care if a group’s meaning is erased by the power of your grammar? No, you do not. Your concern is to make the group learn ‘the correct way’ to say something.

Unfortunately for those you dominate with your grammar rules, they had their own forms, methods, and ways of saying something, now in the process of being erased by your need to ‘correct’ them. Grammars then become a method of controlling what people are allowed to say, how they are allowed to say it, and who, ultimately, will be heard. In this way, the deep structure of language is controlled by the very few in charge who are authorised by society to make the decision to approve or disapprove language use.

You begin to see the inherent risk of making it necessary to say something in any one way, when you start to realise how rigid, limiting, and controlling the concept of grammar can be. Grammar is never a value-neutral activity; it always carries with it the danger of oppressing the writer’s unique voice, creativity, and style, and replacing it with what you approve of, what the dominant voice in society approves of—this is what makes grammars political. Yet, control constantly slips through the hands of those who seek to manage the unmanageable. The very fluidity of language makes it an impossible quest for lost verb forms to try to tell someone to use the language the way it was used in your Aunt Sally’s era.

Further, the disparity between the grammar that is approved by those ‘in charge,’ and the grammar that is actually used, reveals the divergence between someone’s reality and someone’s ideal, and that territory belongs to philosophy. Grammar exists in that space very uneasily, and should come with a warning label: danger, you’re entering heavily politicized ground! User beware!

Just remember that correcting someone carries with it a tremendous responsibility. Who and what are you turning them into, precisely, when you correct their language use? You? Perhaps they’d like to be themselves instead.