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.

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On Writing Well

This list should be added to from time to time, but today’s suggested writing how-to is by William Zinsser (On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, reprinted over and over again, is now in its 30th anniversary edition, 336 pp., and is published by Collins).

I first read Zinsser a very long time ago, and I have recently rediscovered his very simple, brief, easy-to-read discussion about how one’s writing benefits from 1) being spare with words, and the tip I’ve used with students throughout the years, 2) reading one’s work aloud, because that’s the fastest way to catch your errors, although I’ve found that having someone else read your work aloud is better. Another person will trip over things you’ve said badly faster and more reliably than you will, since you know what you intended to say, but the other person does not.

There are some crucial things beginning writers, indeed, experienced writers, can learn from his approach. One of them is to cut down on the excess verbiage. This is so obvious, and taught so often, we take this idea for granted nowadays. But if you remember the term “purple prose,” or if you’ve ever read something from the 1700s, let’s say, a particularly flowery time in literary history, you know what Zinsser means. He wants to see clear, direct, and purposeful writing. This is a particular problem now that we often (mostly?) compose on computers, because there are studies that show what you already suspect, which is that it’s far too easy to type too many words, and to be verbose, when online. It’s just simply easier to write on a computer, which leads to prose that usually needs to be tightened and shortened.

If you are a technical writer, or work in the sciences, this book will warm the cockles of your heart, because he focuses on focusing. You need to know what he knows, because his perspective is not influenced as much by the expressivists who write creative fiction, as it is by the idea that if you have something to say, you should say it as directly and simply as possible. This means reducing the use of unnecessary adverbs, cutting out tired or useless verbs, and creating writing that appeals because it’s easy to read and understand.

Zinsser holds up well. Whereas many writing “how-tos” are based almost solely on getting fiction published, Zinsser could be read by any student in virtually any field, such as the sciences, medical writing, or business. Zinsser’s approach can be adapted to almost any writing situation, because most writing, after all, is non-fiction. “On Writing Well” is simply the best basic “how-to” for any writer, at any stage in their ability. It’s great for published writers as well, because it’s always good to go back and remind yourself of the simple stuff you might have forgotten, or perhaps never learned.