Writers struggle with their inner critics more than most artists, I think. But they suffer from outside criticism more than most artists, too. I get asked nearly every week some variation of this question: How do I know if my writing is good? Good enough? Worthwhile? If readers will like it? If readers will care? Part of what makes writing a difficult craft to pursue is that the measures by which we as a culture judge writing are grayer than in other industries.
Consider music. We can listen to a song, and even if we know nothing about music, it's obvious whether or not the musician has practiced her craft. We might not like the song or style, but the expertise shines through if it's there. Same with art, though experimental pieces can leave critics shaking their heads and questioning the artists' merits. But generally you can see a piece of art and at least measure the level of professionalism and artistry, whether or not you appreciate the form. Movies might be the strongest parallel to books. Big studios are comparable to big publishing houses, taking risks on fewer interesting projects and trying to go for the sure bet. The blockbuster. And while indie films are celebrated and honored in a way that far surpasses indie books, with independent film festivals and fan bases loyal to indies, as an art form movies are measurable not just by the quality of the writing, but also the acting, set, wardrobe, and more--all of which boils down to budget. The success of a film doesn't wholly fall on the screenplay writer.
Writing stands out to me as the craft that people most easily dismiss and judge. Because of its accessibility--anyone can do it and everyone seems to be doing it--writing is to the arts what running is to sports. There are elites and there are hobbyists. Unlike music, art, and film, there's a low barrier to entry. You don't need an instrument other than your hand, a canvas other than a piece of paper; nor do you need a team, a budget, or outsider talent to practice your craft. Everyone thinks they can do it, and the truth is that a lot of people do it well. One of the great difficulties publishing faces right now is that there are many many good books worthy of being published, but rather than finding ways to celebrate hobbyists and emerging talent (which is what's happening in film), the industry has instead turned its back and turned up its nose at the very people who make possible what they do for a living: aspiring authors.
So how given this climate, where the odds for success are stacked against you, the industry itself has no vested interest in you until you prove yourself a talent, and everyone thinks they can write, how are you supposed to know whether what you're writing is worthwhile? Here are three places to start:
1. Get a professional opinion.
You have to pay for this, but it's worthwhile to get your work assessed at some point in your writing process, preferably sooner rather than later. This is a high-level opinion, but from someone who knows good writing. People who read for a living are qualified to pick apart your work and tell you what's working and not working. Writing is a craft, and you may be an amazing storyteller with a story that lacks good character development, or a memoirist with an important message who doesn't understand reflection. Your friends and family are not good readers for your work. While all readers are subjective, friends and family are the most subjective. Set a manageable budget: five hours, for instance. You can glean a lot from an assessment prepared on a five-hour read about what you're doing well and where you need improvement.
2. Submit your work to contests and at conferences.
Judges of literary contests are selected because they're readers. They love good books and good writing, and they have wisdom and expertise to impart. Contests are valuable not just for the accolades you might get, but for the feedback. It's a cheap way to see what a stranger thinks of your work. Read the contest guidelines and see what the measures are, and ask what kind of feedback you'll get back from the reader/s. Similar to contests are evaluations that you pay for at writers' conferences, where agents and editors read and evaluate your work. To me, this is more valuable than the pitch sessions, where you get 2-5 minutes with an overwhelmed editor who's just going to say, "Sure, send me your work," but who cannot possibly give you a meaningful opinion of your project or writing based on your pitch.
3. Submit your work to an agent or a publisher.
Many writers I know are so eager to pitch agents and editors that they go out too early, before their books or proposals are fully cooked. But if you're suffering from a need to know whether there's any merit to your project, I believe (though some may disagree with me) that it doesn't hurt to send to a handful of agents or editors (not both at the same time) to test the waters. This can be a futile exercise because it's possible you'll never hear back, but many agents and editors are generous with their time. Many read query letters and/or submissions and can and will offer professional guidance. She Writes Press offers an assessment of 25 pages of writers' work, and there are other presses and companies with similar services, where you get a guarantee that you'll get feedback on your writing.
Outside opinions matter, but you want to get them from objective parties who actually know something about writing. Everyone fancies themselves a critic, and a lot of people really think they're helping you when they give you "constructive criticism." I've seen writers derailed by feedback from writers in their writing groups, hired editors, and especially family and friends, so proceed with caution.
The follow-up question to "how do I know if I'm good?" is invariably "how to I know if I'm done?" Approaching your writing as a hobby is not a bad entry point, but when you decide you want to get published, your mentality needs to shift. You need to approach this as a professional endeavor and seek out support. The more you practice your craft and become a true expert, the better you'll be able to measure for yourself how close you are to the finish line. But if you're struggling with the voices of inner demons who are berating your work, get help. It's difficult to overcome those voices without support.