Are you a good writer? (I hope not!)

Word count: 496 words

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

Let me give you the reasons why you shouldn’t be terribly eager to accept the label “good writer.”

Our society is pretty funny (funny-strange, not funny-ha-ha) when it comes to the word “good.” This one-syllable, four-letter word is both vague and imprecise and yet it’s jam-packed with assumptions.

For example, what is a good mother or father? Do we mean people who make their kids happy? Or do we mean parents who help prepare their children for the real world? Or do we mean something in between?

I can ask exactly the same questions about good husbands and wives, good sons and daughters, and good employees. And I’d expect that every one of my readers would have a slightly different definition. Somehow, we’re not particularly good – yikes! there’s that word again – at being clear about exactly what we mean.

This namby pamby-ism is particularly troubling with the phrase “good writer.” For example, many people call Ernest Hemingway a good writer – yet I don’t enjoy reading his books (although I’m resolving to read A Moveable Feast before this summer ends.) So does that make him a bad writer – or, at least, a bad-to-me writer?

Sometimes, I’m tempted to call John Grisham a bad writer but even though I find his sentence structure repetitive and his characters wooden, his books are bestsellers and, on a beach in sunny August, I’ve been known to find his plots at least mildly engaging. So is he a good writer or a bad one?

I simply adore the work of British novelist Salley Vickers yet I know many readers would find her too literary and, perhaps, too dull. So is she good or bad?

Do you see the problem? The word “good” is not only imprecise but it also seems to be attached with bonding cement to the word “bad.” So if we allow it into our vocabularies, we also run the risk of being saddled with its opposite.

First, logic tells us that so-called good writers, must inevitably have bad days.

Second, the good-bad assumption takes it for granted there are only two ways of looking at something. I know this from my history as a journalist, when I was always instructed to “get both sides of the story.” Early in my career, I realized that situations often had far more than two sides. Our world is far too complicated to fit neatly along good-bad lines.

So, instead of wanting to be a “good writer” I urge you to seek another label. How about: Writer?

Here’s what writers do:

  • They write every day.
  • They read a lot, and they read mindfully, looking for techniques and strategies employed by others.
  • They always revise what they’ve written, sometimes profoundly, to make it richer, more meaningful, more understandable.

Are they any good? That’s not for them to judge. Writing is not about judging; it’s about producing.

The judgment always belongs to the reader.