Imagine you are at a cocktail party. A stranger making small talk asks you “What do you do for a living?” Innocent question or time bomb? Well, that depends on your answer. There are two professions it is dangerous to admit in any social situation without a foolproof exit strategy. These are jobs which are only glamorous to outsiders and for some reason cause strangers to feel entitled to monopolize your evening and attempt to wring every bit of free professional advice out of you that they can.
Which two jobs?
Doctor and, believe it or not, Writer. Admitting you’re a physician is too often followed up with a list of physical ailments or an insistent invitation to look at a stranger’s mole. “Does this look like cancer?”
So what do writers have to complain about? The same thing actually. The unsolicited demand that we examine and diagnose everyone/anyone’s literary moles.
I have taught, published and edited writing for two decades. I’m proud of what I do. Still I’m tempted to make up answers for the casual inquisitor. “What do I do? Let me think…” Government cheese inspector? Assassin? The inventor of bikini wax?
Me: Okay you caught me, I’m a writer.
Them: I write too!
Me: (glassy eyed nod)
Them: Would you take a look at my writing and tell me if it’s any good?
For some reason this request always comes out as one question. Sadly, the more aggressive the request/er, the more likely I will not enjoy their work.
Truthfully, they are asking the wrong question. And definitely asking it the wrong way. When a student or colleague asks “Is this story/poem/whatever any good?” I answer them with a question of my own.
“Good for what?”
All writing has an agenda: to persuade, to entertain, to inform, etc. Here’s a quick grammar lesson. Every sentence must have at least two components: a subject and a verb. Persuade, entertain, inform: these are all perfectly lovely verbs, but they require more than the subject (your writing) to complete their sentence -and to fulfill their purpose. They require an object. Persuade, entertain or inform whom?
Sometimes we become so obsessed with the technique of writing we forget its purpose: to communicate ideas between the author and the audience.
Is it any good? Good for what? Before you can answer those questions ask yourself this one: Why (and for whom) did you write it? The right question is not is “Is this writing good?” The right question is “Is this writing successful?” Does it do what it set out to do?
If a poem was written to commemorate your parents’ wedding anniversary or seduce a lover, your intended audience is clear. If you are looking for publication, then you must ask yourself market by market: is this poem/story a match for this audience?
When you meet me at a party, ask me instead “Should I submit this poem to the New Yorker?” The answer is usually “No.” However, if you ask me “Is it publishable?” The answer is always a resounding “Yes.” In today’s market, where publishing is cheap and accessible everything, literally EVERYTHING, is publishable. It’s just a matter of finding the appropriate audience.
Stephenie Meyer did.