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.

Creativity and individualism, and how education squelches it

Creativity is a huge subject for me; I think about how to inspire it in writers a lot of the time.

One of my ‘rules’ about inspiring writers is to encourage them and provide open doors, rather than closing doors by telling them what they cannot do, or criticising them.

I am rather adamantly against criticism for the sake of critcising. I can understand wanting to make something you’ve done better, but if all you’re really doing is telling someone they’re deficient according to your idea of perfection, could you keep that to yourself, please? Because all we do when we criticise someone is let them know about ourselves and our needs, rather than help them. This includes yourself. Let yourself off that hook, okay?

I’ve worked with far too many aspiring writers who tell me some version of, “When I was a child, my teacher/parent/friend told me it would be pointless to continue writing, that I didn’t have what it takes,” etc., largely because the person doing the criticising of your early efforts was caught up in the ancient paradigm of what I have learned to call the Divinely Inspired Author myth.

The individual who wants to write is too often challenged in this way, and therefore might never pick up her pen again, only to regret this choice later in life. Believing it to now be “too late,” she will give up on her dream of writing “someday.” If there’s something I don’t want to see people doing, it’s giving up on their dreams because one time when you were twelve, your English teacher gave you a ‘C’ on a paper you thought was pretty great—until you got that ‘C’, of course. Many years ago, I worked with one man in his 70s who never forgot the ‘C’ he received in high school; that’s how powerful authority figures are in our young lives.

I’d like for you to watch the following video, because Sir Kenneth Robinson, an English creativity expert, discusses the ways in which education discourages children from holding on to their creativity.

Why don’t we get the best out of people? Sir Ken Robinson argues that it’s because we’ve been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Students with restless minds and bodies—far from being cultivated for their energy and curiosity—are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences. “We are educating people out of their creativity,” Robinson says.

This loss of one’s belief in their own creative ability is my primary concern as a writing coach, because my focus is on how to get adults to reconnect with the creativity they were once forced to abandon in favor of scholastic achievement.

In this talk, Sir Ken discusses the needed revolution in education; his perspective is that it’s time to reform educational practices so that people will learn to be themselves and do what they love, not what’s practical. We have to change our industrial model to an agricultural model, he says, and change the metaphor we use to create our concept of why we need an education from mechanistic, based on the needs of a bureaucratic society, to organic, based on the needs of the individual.

He thinks we’re obsessed with getting people to go to college, as though going to college now is the answer to everything, which isn’t true. I learned as an educational consultant and teacher that students too often attend college or university for someone else (usually their parents), and that it wasn’t the right choice for them. Sir Ken agrees that college isn’t necessarily the best choice for everyone, and it isn’t something everyone has to do at any one given time (e.g. the moment you leave high school or secondary school, for those readers not in the States).