JM Williams

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Are You a Good Writer? — A Litmus Test


Joel Gordonson, author of The Atwelle Confession, offers an interesting discussion on how to tell if you have the potential to be a good fiction writer. He distills his litmus test down to three items. I only fully agree with one of the steps. Of the other two, one I half-agree with and one I don’t. Let me explain.

His first test is being able to tell a joke to at least four people successfully, meaning getting a laugh. I agree that this is a good test. Storytelling in fiction and prose is not so different from a story-based joke. They both require a good use of language, creativity and timing. If you can keep people following along with your joke, with interest, and hit them with a punchline, then you probably have a good chance of hitting them with a fictional twist or a horrific surprise (if that’s your sort of thing). I also think that humor is important for all writers, whether you actually write humor or not. Prose that is dreadful and serious all the time can wear your reader down fast.

His second test is writing a good piece of flash fiction, though he doesn’t define what “good” means. Does it mean a published piece? Getting a dozen likes? But I disagree with this test for a different reason. Flash fiction is hard. Writing good flash fiction is harder than writing regular short stories. You have to do more with less. You have to be efficient. Each word choice carries much more weight. This is not a good acid test for writing because if you can write a good piece of flash fiction, you are already well past amateur level.

The last test, writing the first and last chapters of a novel, just doesn’t make sense to me as a writing test because there is no way to measure success. Anyone can write the first and last chapter of a novel. There are plenty of people out there that have written whole novels, but are not good writers. Without a feedback mechanism, just writing something is meaningless (for the sake of gauging skill, I mean). And I don’t think there is a way to fix this test, since no one is going to get a publishing deal on a first and last chapter alone.

I would combine tests two and three into a single task: publish a short story. There are so many places you can publish stories now, that it really isn’t too hard. You might not get paid for your work, but you can be published. The important thing for this test is that someone read your work and thought it was good enough to put their stamp of approval on it.

Now, that leaves us with only two steps to our revised test, so what could be our third? I think there are many skills that a writer needs–being able to accept criticism, having a strong work ethic, being creative and inspired–that do not necessarily equate to being able to write well. I think a third thing that is indicative of being a good writer is being able to identify flaws in other people’s writing. Genuine flaws, not just prose you dislike. Grammar mistakes, problems with tense or voice, or even better, knowing when the whole piece should be in a different tense or voice. The measure of success for this test would be having that other writer accept your advice. If you are successful at peer review, it means you understand how language works in fiction. And, I think, peer review is critical for writer’s of any kind.

Well, those are just my thoughts. You can find the original article HERE.

To all my friends out there in the States, Happy Thanksgiving! To the rest, winter is coming, better stock up on hot beverages!


3 Responses to Are You a Good Writer? — A Litmus Test

  1. Hmmm, I’m hopeless at telling jokes so would fail the first! I’m not sure I actually enjoy writing flash much (it doesn’t give me scope or depth), and mainly do so because I feel readers are put off by longer pieces. First/last chapter thing doesn’t make sense to me either. Surely the meat between matters as much. Agree with reading, reviewing, and accepting criticism—reading widely especially. This helps build a good knowledge of the building blocks: POV, setting, dialogue, characterisation, voice, structure etc. which are invaluable.

  2. I don’t buy the idea of a test. I prefer a procedure.
    One: Write. If you don’t like the act of writing, quit. Everyone would like to have written, but if you don’t enjoy the process, get out now before its too late. There is nothing wrong with being a reader only.
    Two: Read what you have written, for the good (don’t be too hard on yourself), the bad (don’t pat yourself on the back too soon) and the ungrammatical. If you don’t enjoy reading what you have written, that might just be a clue.
    Three: Repeat as needed. Decades may be required.
    Remember, good and bad writers get published every day, good and bad writers get rejected every day, and another person’s idea of good writing is unlikely to match yours.

    • J.M. Williams

      I think your number one is probably the most important rule of writing. If you don’t enjoy it, hell if you don’t feel utterly compelled to write, then don’t. What are you writing for? Money? Writing is perhaps the abolute opposite of a get rich quick scheme. It’s a get poor slow accident. 😀

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