How to know if your writing is good

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Clients often ask me if their writing is “professional enough.” Here’s how to know if your writing is good enough to make the grade…

I used to read a blog written by someone who had serious writing challenges. I was interested in her content, so I usually forced myself to ignore her writing lapses, even when they grated.

The worst? She regularly used the phrase, “Don’t fall on your franny.” (See photo, above). I winced every time I read her error, and I visualized a poor woman named Franny being crushed by all the people pitching headlong on top of her.

Many readers pointed out the problem to this writer — in her comments section. The correct word is “fanny,” they told her. (And here’s an interesting aside: In the U.S. and Canada, the word refers to your rear end, but in most other countries, it means female genitals. The origin of the term is thought to rest with the name of the heroine in the scandalous 1748 novel Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.)

But instead of politely correcting the error, the blogger delivered a cringe-worthy post, blaming her readers for being so “perfectionistic.”

I unsubscribed immediately. Now, I cannot even remember her name, but in the spirit of mischievousness, let’s call her Franny.

The seven rules of professional writing

Franny disobeyed at least two of the rules of professional writing. See if you can spot them below….

1-Focus on extraordinary verbs

Grade-school teachers often encourage students to make their writing more interesting by adding splashy adjectives and adverbs. When I was in school, I remember doing endless worksheets on this task (and I always hated it).

Then, when I graduated into the newspaper business, I learned that my teachers had been wrong. Good writing has almost nothing to do with adjectives and adverbs. In fact, many professional writers believe these parts of speech simply display amateur enthusiasm. The professionals are the people who concentrate on their verbs.

Look, for example, at these two sentences from the very fine book The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (I’ve highlighted the verbs in bold): “A careful pattern of colored stones decorated the station beneath Lumbly’s farm, and wooden slabs covered the walls of Sam’s station. The builders of this stop had hacked and blasted it from the unforgiving earth and made no attempt or adornment to showcase the difficulty of their feat.”

Many beginning writers have the verbs “to be” and “to have” stuck to their writing like static dust. They don’t know what else to use. If you want to take your writing to the next level, focus on your verbs. And once you’ve done that, attend to your nouns.

Winston Churchill illustrated that plain, Anglo-Saxon nouns are some of the most powerful words in the English language. Recall his famous speech, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…” Those beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets and hills are everyday words that conjure clear images in your mind’s eye. They are words that hold power.

2-Use transitions with aplomb

Bridges, connectors or transitions are the words, phrases and stylistic devices that help direct readers through our writing. Beginning writers seldom use them; professional writers lace their work with them. If you want to learn more about transitions, check out my earlier blog post on the topic.

Know that adding a transition can be as simple as adding a single word — “but” is my favourite. (My post also lists 82 other such words or phrases.) But adding a transition can also be as complex as carefully paraphrasing a quote before you give it. To me, stylish transitions are a hallmark of professional writing.

3-Display clarity with antecedents

I promise, I won’t get all grammar-geeky on you, but an antecedent is a word or phrase that gives meaning to a pronoun. Consider the following sentences: “Mary Ann took her dog for a walk. She found the exercise tiring.” Mary Ann is the proper noun, and “she” is the pronoun. In this construction, it’s very clear that Mary Ann is the person who finds the exercise tiring.

Now, look at this sentence: “The suitcase was on the plane; now it’s gone.” But what exactly is gone? Is it the suitcase or the plane? This is an example of an unclear antecedent. Beginning writers are frequently unclear with their antecedents; professional writers, almost never. (Tip: Before submitting a story or a paper, always search your text for the word “it” and make sure that all of its antecedents are clear.)

4-Lard your writing with stories

how to know if your writing is goodThe human mind loves stories and tension. We are all hard-wired to want to know how any story is going to end — even if the ending is predictable. (Why do you think murder mysteries remain such a staple of literature?)

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see a superb speech, I can guarantee that the speaker stuffed their remarks full of stories. Stories aren’t just for children; if the stories are interesting enough, they’re for adults, too. Notice how I began this post with a story.

5-Use a style that matches your readership

If you’re writing a dissertation, your vocabulary and writing style should be very different than if you’re writing a blog post. This does not make one writing style better than the other — a professional works hard to match the writing to the audience.

Should you use contractions? Never, in a thesis. Always, in writing for a general audience. Should you use acronyms? Perhaps, if your readers are certain to be familiar with them. Never, if your readers will find them puzzling. (Or at the very least, be sure to provide a definition.) Make sure you write to please your audience rather than yourself.

6-Weed out errors 

how to know if your writing is goodI don’t want to be hypocritical because I know my blog posts sometimes have typos, and I regard myself as a professional. Still, I work hard to avoid such mistakes. Part of the problem is that our brains have an “auto correct” function. When we proofread our own work, our brains see what we intended to write rather than what’s really there.

In recent months, I’ve hired a professional copy editor to review my blogs before they’re posted. This arrangement makes me feel so much more comfortable about material that’s going out under my name. Still, despite this effort, mistakes may occasionally slip through. No one, not even a professional editor, is perfect. That’s why point #7 is so important…

7-Accept criticism with grace

Most of my readers are very kind and polite when they point out errors. (And here I give thanks to reader Patty Nestor who kindly alerted me to an error in one of my posts.) But even if readers aren’t as kind, I always give profuse thanks. And I mean it! I’m happy because their effort allows me to correct the error, which I do immediately.

Professional writers never quibble with fixing errors; they know that there’s something much more valuable than their pride in one story: the chance to become an even better writer.

How to know if your writing is good

As you may have guessed by now, Franny’s mistakes were #6 and #7 — her unwillingness to weed out errors and her unwillingness to accept criticism.

They sealed her fate as an amateur. But you don’t need to doom yourself to a similar label. With a little effort, you, too, can become a professional writer.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Jan. 10/17.


My video podcast last week addressed how to make more time for writing. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.


Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.


What do you do to figure out how to know if your writing is good? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. If you comment on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/23 I’ll put you in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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