How do I know how good a writer I am?
November 30, 2008 8:56 PM   Subscribe

How do I know how good a writer I am?

I'm currently attending a community college for financial reasons, and as a holding pattern because I'm in the "career confusion" stage of college life. I've always thought of myself as a fairly good writer, and I get extremely positive feedback from my professors on my papers (including one who dragged me by my collar to the honors office). It's also something I enjoy quite a lot; I don't take a huge interest in literature, but I'm a great enthusiast of factual and opinion writing both as a reader and a writer.

So naturally journalism, or something in that area, has caught my interest as a potential career direction. But it's one of many options, and it's not by any means a field which is guaranteed to put me somewhere fulfilling and interesting unless I reach a substantial level of skill and accomplishment. I'd be little happier reporting on town hall meetings for a small newspaper than as a janitor. So, then, what can I do other than listening to the feedback of my teachers and friends to get a feel for my potential in this field? Just to address one of the more obvious answers in advance, my college's paper is written at a high school level; I doubt I would find much in the way of valuable feedback from getting involved there.

I suspect that a lot of you will want to answer along the lines of, "you should decide on a career based on what stimulates and fulfills you the most, not based on your apparent skill," but I've been torn for years between several things which are just on the cusp of being career-worthy obsessions. Having a good understanding of where my talents lie is definitely an important element of this decision.

Thanks in advance for your inevitably awesome answers. (It's AskMe, after all.)
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Even if the college paper isn't very good, you can definitely get a portfolio of clips if you write for them, even if it's only for a few months. That will give you a good idea whether or not you even want to go into journalism. If you do enjoy it, then take your clips to the local paper and see if they are hiring.

I will say, though, from what I understand many newspapers are in very precarious financial straits; career reporters are getting laid off everywhere. Just something to keep in mind.

Also remember that there are many jobs that call for good written communication skills, especially if you enjoy writing but don't necessarily want to write fiction. Journalism isn't the only option for someone with a skill set like you want to develop.

Good luck!
posted by sugarfish at 9:08 PM on November 30, 2008

I've always been of the opinion (which many will no doubt disagree with) that the harder writing is for you the better the writer you are. The worst writers I know are those who brag about how easy it is. Thomas Mann once said that, "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." I pretty much agree with that. Chances are that if you're questioning your skill level and competence, you're better than most people.

As to your direct question, "How do I know how good a writer I am?" The answer is, "You never know." Or perhaps more accurately, "You'll never be satisfied with the answer, regardless of what it is or who's providing it."
posted by Manhasset at 9:09 PM on November 30, 2008 [19 favorites]

As far as the level of accomplishment you'll reach, after ten years as a screenwriter I've observed that talent is less of a factor than hard work, networking, and being in the right place at the right time. Which is why there's so much bad writing in the world.

If you want to be a successful writer, it is far more important to start writing than to be good.
posted by Bobby Bittman at 9:17 PM on November 30, 2008 [8 favorites]

How do I know how good a writer I am?

Whether or not you are a good writer is a very different question from whether you will succeed at a writing career.

I believe that there is a certain minimum level of writing competence (which, from your question, it appears you possess) that is necessary to have a writing career, beyond which it doesn't matter all that much how good you are. That standard isn't very high. Lots of newspaper journalists --- for very good papers --- aren't very good writers. Their writing is stilted, filled with cliches. So, I think you are a decent enough writer to have a writing career.

But is a writing career for you? That's a more difficult question. As someone above pointed out, print newspapers are dying, so a viable career option is quickly fading. You could perhaps work in a "new media" writing job, but would you find it satisfying? We don't have enough information to know.

Writers occupy a fairly low status in the educated workforce, both in pay and prestige. Only highly successful creative writers, and nationally prominent journalists, occupy a status more elevated than the typical high-school teacher. Would you be satisfied with that?

So, then, what can I do other than listening to the feedback of my teachers and friends to get a feel for my potential in this field?

The bar for having "potential" in the field of writing is so low that you ought to be able to evaluate your potential yourself. Put yourself into jobs and internships based on writing, and see what your editors say.

Just to address one of the more obvious answers in advance, my college's paper is written at a high school level; I doubt I would find much in the way of valuable feedback from getting involved there.

The fact that you aren't seeking these opportunities out makes me wonder whether you have the "drive" or passion for writing that would be necessary for this to be a viable career option. If you're not actively getting involved in writing, for the love of it, I wonder whether this is the right path for you. (During much of my college career, I sought out every opportunity to write for publication that I could get. I ended up in daily newspapers, a nationally circulated literary journals, crappy suburban weeklies, and of course my college newspaper. Pretty much everyone I knew who went on to a journalism career had the same sort of commitment.)
posted by jayder at 9:24 PM on November 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Rather than journalism, how about considering a career in technical writing? A hell of a lot of user manuals get written every year, and tech writers get paid pretty well.
posted by Class Goat at 9:40 PM on November 30, 2008

There's a big misconception among journalism hopefuls that reporting is about writing. It's not. Sure, you have to be able to take facts and string them together in a coherent way. And, yes, there are reporters who are also beautiful writers. But here are also top-notch reporters who are competent, no frills writers who just dig up the information that no one else can get to.

Reporters spend more of their time talking to people and gathering information than they do sitting down and writing. It is a wonderful way to make a living, if it's for you, but it's not for everybody. And most people do start out covering town hall meetings for a small newspaper. The few people who do land at the New York Times or the Washington Post right out of college most likely worked there as summer interns, and they got those internships by interning at smaller papers before that.
posted by Airhen at 9:41 PM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just to address one of the more obvious answers in advance, my college's paper is written at a high school level; I doubt I would find much in the way of valuable feedback from getting involved there.

Usually learning what not to do is more important. Go out for the paper.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:49 PM on November 30, 2008

Airhen is right, but opportunities for real life papers with journalistic duties are slim. Find something you like writing about and do it for free on the internet in the meantime, for a local entertainment blog or student site or just for yourself. As others have said, you'll never know how good of a writer you are in a objective way. But you can write a lot, and try to get it read by lots of people, and see what happens.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:02 PM on November 30, 2008

A hell of a lot of user manuals get written every year, and tech writers get paid pretty well.

Technical writers probably earn more than journalists at the local weekly free newspaper, but, speaking from experience, technical writers are also underpaid and underappreciated.

It's a little unwise to call yourself a writer: there are a lot of writers out there, and there's no barrier to entry. There's a lot of competition. As a result, wages are low. If you're not interested in journalism or cranking out a novel, it's far better to incorporate your superior writing skills into a different line of work.

Corporate communications is a good place to start. Wages can be low, but if you work on contract, and if you are indeed a good writer, you can complete projects more quickly, and earn more by sheer volume.

But you can also use your writing skills in other ways. Being able to create persuasive copy will help you create proposals that close deals.

While I'm no Hemmingway, I'm a capable, workmanlike writer. I've noticed that it's easier for me to get projects approved than my coworkers. So writing skills can be useful.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:06 PM on November 30, 2008

Bobby Bittman almost says this above, so I'll recurve slightly: decide whether you are asking about being a good writer, or a successful writer.

There is real overlap between the groups, yes, but the answers to your question are different in each case... and so are your next steps.
posted by rokusan at 10:28 PM on November 30, 2008

Sorry if any of the following is redundant, but my advice would be, normally...

Take a journalism or a fiction class.
Speak to a friend in the field, and get them to look at something you've done.
Don't watch the opinions where peopel you're not sure of writingness positive.

Set yourself a writing homework:
• Find a topic you're interested in and which has something timely about it. It's easiest to write about something local to you. Make sure any research you have to do is easy to come by, as the point of this is the writing, not the struggle.
• Once you have your topic, read the section of a newspaper that you think would be interested in an article about it (again, local papers for local topics are easiest) to find out the general length of their articles, and the style (language, tone etc).
• Now you have topic and rules. Do some research on the topic (if you don't have it), thinking about a "focus sentence" which should be a one-sentence description.
• Once you have your FS (i.e. "how thermos mugs are changing the life of taxicabs for the better"), try writing a succinct paragraph in it with as much info as possible, paying attention to past, present, and future (i.e "[PAST] The 10,000 taxicab drivers in Manhattan were once a common sight in Manhattan's gas station toilets. [PRESENT] However, thanks to the invention of the commercially viable thermos flask, a hand-me-down from the monkey-in-space technological revolution that swept America during the 70s and 80s, this sight is almost gone. Happy to drink and pee in the same cup, these drivers no longer need to. [RESULT] In fact, many gas stations are looking for ways to compete, some even going as far as to scrawl jokes on the paper dispenser, buy toilet seats, and, god forbid, actually clean them."

Once you've got your first draft, say 600 words, and you're happy with it, show it to someone you respect/trust (NOTE: not normally the same as someone you're actually friends with), especially in this field. Ask for scathing edits. Make sure they agree to be as blunt as possible.

When you get the feedback, see how you feel. If you're excited by the edits, then journalism might be for you. Otherwise, leave it alone.

BTW, I heard of a journalism professor at my old school teaching a lesson titled "How to survive in this business," or something like that. 50% of your grade was based on actually trying to do things, any things (joining the air force or a strip joint or a choir), giving them a good shot, and failing at 30 of them. 30 fails in one semester, and you're ready to write.

BBTW, Against my previous advice of only showing stuff to people you trust, feel free to send me a message if there's something you want me to look at. Just so you know, I've almost no credentials to speak of.
posted by omnigut at 10:33 PM on November 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry to be blunt, but journalism doesn't sound like a good fit for you. You have to really want it in your blood and bones - even a deadly dull school committee meetings and the cruddy school paper must have allure.
A love for the job is vital, because it's all that you have to set against low pay and venal editors and vast drudgery in the beginning. Your question displays perfectly competent writing but no fire in the belly for what many people in that battered business consider a calling.
Also, as was said above, journalism is more than just being able to write well. You need to be able to report, meet a deadline, sort good information from the bad, know what to cut and what to keep, talk to anyone, and to recognize both a good quote and a charlatan.
That said, it can be shocking to see what the average person's writing ability is, so I would look into tech writing and some of the other suggestions above.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:55 PM on November 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Is it trite to say that if you feel this way about it, and are even asking this question, then you're probably good enough? Sorry if that's not helpful. For what it's worth, the resonance of many of the quotes on this page helped me to clarify how much I like writing and want to include it in whatever career I pursue, even though I often don't "enjoy" the process as such - if you know what I mean.

(I like this one best:

"Writing is like hunting. There are brutally cold afternoons with nothing in sight, only the wind and your breaking heart. Then the moment when you bag something big. The entire process is beyond intoxicating."
- Kate Braverman)
posted by Weng at 10:56 PM on November 30, 2008 [6 favorites]

I am a writer. I now earn my living by writing every day. It hasn't always been like this, and for years, I never thought this dream would come true. And until recently, it wouldn't have been possible.

I have some skill at the actual craft of writing, but am rarely happy with anything I produce. More importantly, I've been able to find an audience — a large audience — that seems to connect with what I have to say. How? With a blog, of course.

My recommendation for you is to start a blog. It may be a personal blog, or it may be a blog devoted to something about which you are particularly passionate. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that if you want to be a writer, you must write every day. A blog is an excellent venue for this. As a bonus, it can also be a way to generate a little income. (In most cases, a very little income; in some cases, bloggers can actually support themselves with their income.)

Over the past two years, I've had a chance to speak with many traditional journalists. Many — not all — are scared. When I ask them how I might start writing for magazines, etc., their response is, "Why would you want to do that? We all want to be where you are." They're afraid their industry is fading. (I don't actually believe it is — I think traditional media is merely evolving — but the reporters seem to think otherwise, so who am I to argue?) Some journalists have found a way to bridge the gap, continuing to write for traditional publications while also establishing an online presence. This seems smart.

So, consider starting a blog. Write daily. If you find you enjoy the work (and it is work, make no mistake), then pursue it in whatever directions may be available. And yes, absolutely, write for the school paper.
posted by jdroth at 12:44 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll try and break your question down into parts. I am a journalist, FWIW. This is my personal opinion. Other journalists may advise you differently.

How will I know how good of a writer I am?
Well, don't discount the people who're telling you how good you are. That's nice and if it's happening a bit, might indicate that you are indeed a decent writer. It might also indicate that the level of accomplishment at your institution of learning is so low that anyone who can string words together semi-coherently is cherished as a rare prize. Rather than focusing on how good you *are*, it might be more productive to concentrate on how good you want to be. Can I suggest you begin to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses? What do *you* think you're good at? What writing skills could you hone? What do you find difficult? Be aware too, the kind of writing you do for a college paper is verrrrrrrrry different to news reporting or feature writing. It's a whole other skill and being good at one doesn't mean you'll be good at the other.

So naturally journalism, or something in that area, has caught my interest as a potential career direction.
Honestly, it doesn't sound like it. Comments like ''I'd be little happier reporting on town hall meetings for a small newspaper than as a janitor'' and your contempt for your school newspaper don't indicate much interest or passion. If you can't see the potential in a town-hall meeting, you're likely to have a miserable time as a reporter I think. The job involves a fair bit of prising out what's interesting and compelling in events that are, as often as not, pretty dry. Not everyday (or any day, really) is Watergate. And it's a rare graduate indeed who lands at the New York Times or similar out of school. You may be that person, but more likely you'll need to start off at a small town newspaper before (if) you go to a big metro. If this is your lot, you'll be praying for a meeting so you don't have to cover the cake stall of the day. And if you're a good reporter, you'll make the cake stall the funniest, warmest, bestest 300 words you've ever written. Along with the other five less than thrilling stories you've been assigned and rushing out to cover the car-crash du jour.

Having a good understanding of where my talents lie is definitely an important element of this decision.
Why don't you see if you can score a week interning at a local paper? Or go in one day a week for a few months? The only way you'll know for sure if you're any good is to give it a go. You'll get some pretty decent feedback from a newsroom experience, too. If you're no good, your stories won't run, or they'll be rewritten so much you won't recognize them. And you never know, you might find a real passion ignited by the experience. (The news, not the rewriting!) It can be pretty heady stuff. Even the town hall meeting. Really.

These comments are not to say you shouldn't be a journalist, by the way. There are plenty of journalists who demonstrate all the passion and dedication of an average garden slug and write about as well too. If they can make it, so can you.
posted by t0astie at 2:34 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks in advance for your inevitably awesome answers.

well, how could I resist THAT ...

I smell a story here. are you suicidal? the best writers are. how would your preferred exit strategy compare to those of hemingway or thompson? or let's talk about your self-esteem. do you fancy yourself ugly enough to shy away from photo sessions the way kaufmann does? does the nagging self-doubt make you fear mirrors for all the balding spots and uncanny fat pouches you might find (again kaufmann, that man is a treasure)? or do you feel hunted and persecuted to a degree that you might consider hiding your head in a pyncheon paper bag with a question mark (oh come on, you saw that simpsons episode) or even hide out in a ramshackle hut to write your manifesto? (I hope not because that track led teddie to a supermax cell.) and how about your relationship to addictive substances? have you ever left your kids shivering in a cold car like david carr (see what I did there? me so funny) or lost a couple of teeth in a drunken barfight with a seven-foot transvestite (erm...I forgot who THAT was)? this is rich territory for a talented and masochistic writer.

are you still with me? good, because I have an actual point to make. whether you are a good or a bad writer is not dependent on what anyone else says. yes, it helps if you learn how to type, hold a pen or use a semicolon but really? that's what editors are for. your job is to look at it from a unique angle. it's a matter of how you approach things. you're supposed to be the outsider, the one who perceives things differently. that's what makes photographers, designers, painters and filmmakers interesting and the same is true for writers. that's where the whole "finding your voice" spiel goes to in the end. okay, a bit of hype never hurt anyone either and the screaming hawaiian shirts are somewhat obligatory if you want to be taken seriously, at least in california. you might want to start a trend and invest in a pair of the ugliest shoes on the planet.
posted by krautland at 3:22 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

it's not by any means a field which is guaranteed to put me somewhere fulfilling and interesting unless I reach a substantial level of skill and accomplishment

And it has this in common with every other field. You only ever get out what you put in.

I suspect that a lot of you will want to answer along the lines of, "you should decide on a career based on what stimulates and fulfills you the most, not based on your apparent skill,"

You should decide on a career based on what stimulates and fulfills you the most enough to make it worth your while pursuing, not based on your apparent skills. Skills are what we get by doing stuff a lot, and if we don't already have a career, the stuff we do a lot is likely to be stuff we enjoy at least somewhat. So in fact your present skills are a reasonably good place to start if you're thinking about what to do for a living.

Whatever you decide to do for a living, if you do it with integrity and an intent to get better at it for its own sake, you will reach a substantial level of skill and accomplishment - and the better at it you get, the more flaws you will spot in your own technique and that of your peers.

So, make a list now of writers you think are pretty great, and make a few notes on their particularly good stuff, and why you think it's good, and where you think it's clumsy or less effective than it could be. Do the same thing for some of your own writing. When you get to the stage of finding about as much clumsiness in the work of those writers as you're now perceiving in your own work, you can be pretty sure you're pretty good.
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're going to get a lot of self help crap with this question.

There are a number of elements that make up knowing you're a good writer. Number one is knowing you're a good writer. Seriously, you've got to already know it, and you've got to be correct. Yes, this is counter to a lot of conventional wisdom -- humility, and so on. It doesn't matter because you need that cocky eight-year-old part of your personality that knows you're good at this and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. Number two is accomplishment. Not just friends and professors but real important people must tell you, and prove it by publishing you. Combining those two things, you can feel reasonably assured you're a good writer, but even the best ones doubt it in the end.

You don't have to distinguish between being a good writer and a successful writer. Amazingly, some people have managed to be both. Writers don't occupy that low a status. Plenty of technical writers make good money, albeit boring money; newspaper reporters have a byline and some prestige. Lawyers are writers who gad about in legalese, and they do quite well.

Whatever you decide, aim high.
posted by luckypozzo at 5:00 AM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of stuff on this thread that seems to be more stereotyping about writers (writers are suicidal, skill and talent don't matter, writing is always difficult for the talented writer) than actual, factual advice. I know very little about journalism, and while I do have friends in the field, I don't feel like it's quite enough to give you advice. I can address one thing, though.

How will I know how good of a writer I am?
Well, don't discount the people who're telling you how good you are. That's nice and if it's happening a bit, might indicate that you are indeed a decent writer. It might also indicate that the level of accomplishment at your institution of learning is so low that anyone who can string words together semi-coherently is cherished as a rare prize. Rather than focusing on how good you *are*, it might be more productive to concentrate on how good you want to be. Can I suggest you begin to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses? What do *you* think you're good at? What writing skills could you hone? What do you find difficult? Be aware too, the kind of writing you do for a college paper is verrrrrrrrry different to news reporting or feature writing. It's a whole other skill and being good at one doesn't mean you'll be good at the other.

I've taught writing at two universities. While they're not Ivies, they're schools with solid academic reputations. In my experience, only about a quarter of the students I've taught have a minimum level of competence with the written word when they come into my classes. An even smaller number are truly talented. I think competency in writing is something that those of us here at metafilter take for granted; generally, we're a fairly competent bunch. This is not the case for the general population, or even for student populations, unfortunately. I could digress, could go on a rant about what that says about our academic institutions today, but instead, I'll say this--if your professors are complimenting the style of your writing, and encouraging you to seek out more challenging opportunities (i.e. honors' classes), listen to them. Sure, they might just be excited because you're a rare student of talent and quality, but why discount that? Definitely take any advice for improvement they offer you, but know that their encouragement does, likely, indicate that you have some talent.

I would also take this opportunity to ask them questions you might have about pursuing writing further. They're familiar with the quality of your writing, and there's absolutely no reason why they can't comment on either possible routes toward improvement or possible career opportunities. Even though you attend a community college, there might be internship opportunities you're overlooking--contact your school's English department as well. And don't discount the student paper. I know of two students from my own undergraduate career (who weren't, for what it's worth, awesome writers) who translated experience writing for our school paper into semi-professional journalism careers. At this stage of the game, it's easy to make generalizations about how you'll feel about small town journalism, but there's no way to know whether these attitudes match up with reality until you're actually in that situation. There's also no reason why you shouldn't try--at the very least, it could lead to bigger opportunities that are more to your liking.

I'll say this, though. You're using semi-colons correctly. In my experience, that indicates that you belong among the elite of college writers.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:00 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

....There are a lot, lot, lot, lot of different kinds of writing. And, along with that, there are a lot, lot, lot, lot of different opinions about what constitutes "good writing." Honestly, the working definition of "talented writer" I use is the one I heard Stephen King uses: "If you wrote something, and someone paid you money for it, AND the check they paid you did not bounce, AND it was enough money for you to pay the gas bill, you are officialy a talented writer."

That is both good and bad news for you, I'm sure -- bad news in that you're probably reading that and thinking, "well, that doesn't narrow things down for me at all!" But good news for you in that - well, if that's the case, then that means you can just go ahead and write, and you and your niche will find each other sooner or later.

But how do you figure out what it is you want to write? ...Just trial and error. Try everything. The fact that you're in college right now means this is the perfect opportunity to do that. It looks to me like you're trying to choose between "fiction or nonfiction", which looks like you think means "either I write books or I become a journalist", but there are so many other kinds of writing than just that: technical writing, medical writing, web content, ad writing, press releases, publicity, legal documents, business writing, educational writing....and on and on and on. I was in the same place as you when I was in college -- there was only fiction and there was journalism -- but since then I've done web content for fishing shows, press releases for a television company, script doctoring, in-house business proposals, educational materials, and scores of things that I didn't even know existed until someone said they needed someone to write thus-and-such, and I tried it. These days, I've gotten a regular gig writing study guides for a theater in Pennsylvania, a niche of writing I didn't even know existed ten years ago.

You definitely have the bare basics down. As to what kind of writing to focus on, just...try everything, keep going with what works, and stop what doesn't.

Also -- i wouldn't discount your school's paper quite yet. on the contrary, I think you absolutely should try to get a position there. You could get clips, yes -- but also, you will get regular experience. Some of the best writing training I ever had was the weekly column for my college paper, because it got me into a regular habit of writing something for someone, which gave me hands-on experience with writing for a client. Also, my school paper would run things I wrote no matter how good or bad they were -- and I had friends who were honest enough to come up to me and say, "....So, I saw your column today. ....Lemme guess, you pulled that out of your ass at the last minute, didn't you?" Trying to shut up my snarky friends was what really got me to buckle down and improve right quick.

You will need the day job for a while, but you can definitely write. What you need to figure out is who to write for, and what TO write, but fortunately it is a very big tent, and you have a lot of time to figure that out. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:41 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

follow-up from the OP
Thanks to everyone who answered so far. Some clarifications to those who asked questions: I'd be just as happy--happier, probably--in new media stuff than in print media, and not only because the print media is dying. I love the web. I do, however, suspect that--for now--there are still way more paying jobs in the old media than the new. Admittedly, a higher ratio of them suck, but still. As to "Only highly successful creative writers, and nationally prominent journalists, occupy a status more elevated than the typical high-school teacher. Would you be satisfied with that?" -- I'm not sure. Certainly in new media you can reach a higher strata (in the cultural sense, if not the financial) by being well-known among people into a certain topic. I certainly wouldn't mind that ;)

As to the "writing is hard for good writers" bit: I've certainly got that part nailed down.

You can email me at (would you believe that was taken?) if you have any private comments, etc. Thanks again.
posted by jessamyn at 8:04 AM on December 1, 2008

I agree with others that -- based on what you wrote -- you don't sound cut out to be a journalist, not because you're a bad writer, but because you don't sound like you're into the non-writing aspects of journalism. However, you still might enjoy some kind of writing-based career.

I'm going to interpret your question as two questions: (1) how do I know if I'm a writer? (2) how do I know if I'm a good writer?

You're a writer if you must write. Let me explain: I'm lucky enough to get paid to write books and articles. However, lately I'm grown bored with the topic I'm paid to write about (having written four books and countless articles about it). So I've decided that my current book will be my last on that topic for a while. I have another book that I want to write, based on a totally different topic. I may not be able to find a publish for it. I don't care. I am going to write it anyway. Getting paid to write is fantastic, but I don't write principally for the money. I write because I can't imagine not writing.

(I'm not making a lofty claim that writers shouldn't care about money. I love money. I'm materialistic and I want to get paid for my work. My point is that even given my desire for riches, I'll write for free if I have to. Shh! Don't tell my publisher!)

When I was in elementary school, one of my best friends was a girl named Meggin. She was constantly writing. We were close throughout our childhoods and even for a while in college, but though we spent years together, I never had any idea what she was writing. She wrote volumes and volumes and then locked them up in a big chest in her bedroom. Why? Because she "wasn't good enough yet." She wasn't writing for an audience (which was astounding because she was a huge show-off). She wrote because she had a writing demon in her, and because she was seeking some sort of elusive perfection. She's now a best-selling author ("The Princess Diaries"). But she put in a multi-decade, self-imposed apprenticeship before she became who she is today.

Along the same lines, you should read Charles Stross's comments here:

Meg and Charles are fiction writers, but a writer is a writer. I'd bet my teeth that if you told Meg and Charles that they would never earn another cent writing, they'd shed a couple of tears and then pick up their pens.

You might wind up being lucky enough to be able to pay your bills via writing, but that's fairly rare. In any case, there are much easier ways to make money. If your feeling is that you're only willing to write if you get paid for it, you're not a writer. You're a writer if you MUST write. Needing to write doesn't make you a good (or bad) writer. But it does make you a writer.

How do you know if you're a good writer? That's an excellent question, but it's very difficult to answer, especially since it's ultimately a subjective call.

I spent ten frustrating years at three colleges trying to improve my writing. What I discovered was most teachers are overworked trying to cope with thousands of terrible writers. Once you reach a certain level of competency, they file you away as "good enough" and you get no help from them. I got endless A's on my writing assignments, usually with no suggestions about how I could improve. That sounds like bragging, and I guess it's nice to get A's, but I knew my writing wasn't perfect. So it felt like hollow praise.

Finally, I decided to stop waiting around for That One Special Teacher to find me. I sought her out. I asked everyone I know who the biggest hardass was when it came to critiquing writers.

Eventually, I found this woman who worked in the Writing Center -- an office that helped remedial students learn to string words together into sentences. The Center was not there to help advanced students like me, so I hired the woman as a private tutor. She was merciless, which was just what I needed, but it was a bitter pill getting seeing my papers covered with red marks after all those years of A's. She helped me immensely and I'm grateful. Bottom line: you need to find a hardass critic, one that will force you to dot all your i's and cross all your t's.

You're a good writer when you're at least as good as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Insanely high standards? No, because good writers know they're never good enough. I guarantee you that Hemingway and Fitzgerald thought they sucked most of the time. (If you ever get to be as good as them, you'll still suck until you're as good as Dickens or Shakespeare.) Good writers are never content. They care deeply about words and sentences and metaphors and rhetoric. They are constantly drafting and redrafting. The are seeking a holy grail that they'll never find -- that they know they'll never find. Good writers are addicted to the search itself.
posted by grumblebee at 8:12 AM on December 1, 2008 [6 favorites]

Hmm. Define "good."

I ask because well, to me "good" is incredibly relative. I say this after 4 years of pondering my own abilities. I've been trying to become a better print journalist for the past four years. I've noticed that I define myself as "good" when I've recently written a piece. Give it a few months and in retrospection, I realize that I was missing a particular point or had phrased something just slightly too vaguely. People tell me I am talented and while I value their judgments, I also realize that writing is incredibly subjective. Just because Editor from Straight-Up News thinks one of my pieces is good doesn't mean Editor from Emulating Harper's Magazine will. Sometimes I'm convinced I have talent. Other times, I'm so embarrassed by my writing I start hacking my portfolio.

You want to be a journalist? Okay. I don't think you know enough about the journalism industry to make that call just yet -- let alone ask if you're a good writer. Before anything else, you need to figure out which field you would fit best in.

Start exploring your writing opportunities. Re: your college paper... Do you have any other colleges in the city with student newspapers? Had I gone to my rival school, I would have never written for their paper -- it's disturbing how bad it is for a school that's supposed to have Canada's "best" journalism program -- and I probably would have volunteered for the paper I ended up working at anyway. Keep your options open. I don't know what it's like where you live, but look everywhere. Ask people. Look online, too -- there's plenty of blogs looking for contributors.

And perhaps consider NOT giving up on your college paper. It sucks that it sucks, but what's stopping you from walking in there and changing it the fuck around? That is far more impressive on a resume than showing off your lede-writing abilities. Being a good journalist takes more than proper sentence structure, creativity, wit, or the ability to write quickly and coherently. It takes tenacity, a willingness to seek out the truth, and the bravery to interview people about subjects they would never normally talk about, let alone on the record. You have to be more curious than a cat on steroids. And keep in mind that I'm not even a news reporter -- I write in a section typically geared towards fluff pieces. Even in arts journalism, these qualities are necessary. It's easy to talk about them, but way harder to say, get answers out of people who hang up on you.

Have you ever considered becoming an editor (in any field)? If you have a love for writing, you may have a love for editing as well, because it's much more focused on the skill of writing and improving it. Since you are so concerned about being "good," you may enjoy it. Sure, you live vicariously through the writing of others instead of your own, but it's challenging, fun, and offers a niche perspective on writing.

At this stage, with little to no writing experience in a field you actually want to explore -- academic essays don't count, btw -- you shouldn't worry about "good." You should worry about getting out there and trying different styles of writing and going after the venues you enjoy. Go above and beyond journalism. Technical writing, PR, creative writing, publishing, speech writing, academic research ... I could go on. Worry about "good" AFTER you've done it for a while and believe this is something you'd like to pursue.

Last but not least, seriously think about the challenges facing the journalism industry today. If I was still new to the game like you and wanted to experiment with different writing industries, I probably would have made more of an effort to explore these other fields because they actually have jobs. Print journalism is a K-T boundary dinosaur.
posted by Menomena at 8:14 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

A whole lot of entries - I'm not sure what more I might have to add.

As a blogger that never thought of himself as a writer in college (self-link for example only), I've found myself with an abundance of material living in South Korea as an English teacher. I've since found that travel / travel writing is a passion that I simply HAVE to follow, else I'll have to live with not knowing.

Find that thing you MUST write about. That thing you're passionate about is what makes the best writing. Good luck :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 8:29 AM on December 1, 2008

the harder writing is for you the better the writer you are

My favorite quote along these lines is "poets are people who have problems with words" (something to that effect).

I would say that there are different kinds of writers. For people intent on writing as literature, good writing can be hard. This doesn't necessarily translate to success. Some of the more popular (if frequently derided by critics) authors have pretty rapid and seemingly effortless output. If you went into journalism, you would want your writing to be careful and thoughtful but also very fast. Unless you have the luxury of doing long-term reporting (where you have a month or maybe longer to write up your article) I imagine that most journalists have to push something out in a couple of hours (which is why a fair amount of news stories are repetitive and simply worded).

I would agree with Menomena at this point -- focus on learning how to write, on the techniques, styles, and skills, and less on the quality of the output.

An interesting technique might be to research a subject thoroughly, until you know it well enough to talk about it knowledgeably to someone for 5 minutes or so, and then try incorporating it into a number of different writing formats. Write a short newspaper-style report, an academic paper, a speech, a memo, and a short story all based on the same set of knowledge. See which ones you enjoy and which ones you don't.

I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that it's just your youth that's making you aspire to great things. As I got older I became a little less concerned with being the "best of the best" and more satisfied with just doing things that I enjoyed and was good at. For someone who's perhaps just barely hit 20, town hall meeting could be a pretty boring prospect. Incidentally, they get a lot more interesting when you actually visit them than when you think about visiting them. I never thought I'd find one interesting but found myself transfixed when watching a recent city council session on public access TV. It was mostly just procedural stuff, but for some reason there was a small core group of protestors who were very angry that a motion was being tabled and kept yelling out "Shame! Shame!"

If you decide journalism really is your thing, and if your town really is very tiny, you might want to consider moving to a slightly bigger town, maybe one with a college or two. They might have more papers and slightly more issues to report on.

Also, don't forget that opportunities are rarely handed to people. If you want to report on a big news story, there are two ways it can happen. First, you are already a major reporter and already cover all the big stories. There's no way this can happen from the beginning. The second is that you're a reporter for a small local newspaper, driving back from the monthly town hall meeting, who just happens to be the first person on the scene when X happens in your small little town. Not all news happens in Washington or New York, and local reporters are often best suited to report on it when it happens.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:50 AM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I make a small percentage of my income from writing. I have written fiction, marketing material, reviews, articles and tech stuff. I started off writing science fiction because I loved it but I eventually branched out as I learned that I just plain love writing, and I enjoy challenges. I like what chrisinseoul says: find out what you have to write. There will be your passion, and that passion will come out in your writing. Maybe you are a humorist, like David Sedaris, or a pop-sci writer like Isaac Asimov, or an essayist or a mystery writer. Who can say?

I don't know how "good" a writer I am, but I can tell you that while I've been getting checks for my work since 1973, I am rarely satisfied with my writing. I always think the best thing I've done is what I am working on, which, I have finally realized, means that I love the process of writing more than having written. Words just turn me on and I really love expressing myself as clearly as I can on the page.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:01 AM on December 1, 2008

I struggled with this question myself for a long time, and it's a good one to ask. The nice thing about writing is that no matter what you do to pay the bills you can still practice it every day; this idea helped me to take the edge off of my anxieties about whether or not it was worth it for me to pursue a career in writing, because I knew that I would always be a "writer" even if nobody paid me to do it or praised my work.

I work as a web editor now to pay the bills. I never thought i'd be a web editor, but it's fun and exciting to see content I've written spattered across the universe in an instant. Many professions allow you to work with language in some capacity (and write content) other than journalism.

I would recommend that you embrace your writing abilities in a non-career capacity first (write as a creative outlet for a sense of accomplishment and submit what you think is good to small scale lit mags) and if you feel strongly led to a career that does utilize your writing skills (or fall ass backwards into one like I happened to do), then go for that at that time. For now I would put more of your energy into nurturing your interest in writing rather than stressing yourself out about whether or not you're good enough. Ultimately the only portfolio that isn't good enough is the one that doesn't exist.
posted by RingerChopChop at 9:43 AM on December 1, 2008

Use shorter sentences.

"I'm currently attending a community college for financial reasons, and as [in?] a holding pattern because I'm in the "career confusion" stage of college life."


"I'm in college and confused about my career path."


Get to the point- quickly. This is what employers look for.
posted by Zambrano at 10:10 AM on December 1, 2008

Please don't assume that writing skills must lead to a "writing" job in the media. In fact, you'll probably make more money in a non-"writing" job that happens to rely on writing.

I have my own business. A huge part of what I do is writing and teaching writing skills, but I get paid more than many writers do because I don't bill myself as "a writer." I'm a consultant in a business niche where communication is important. I get clients through my writing abilities, I write stuff for them, and I show them how to write their own stuff, but I'm not "a writer" because, frankly, that doesn't get enough respect.

I agree with previous commenters that you likely have the chops. It sounds to me like you really need to find a field that intrigues you. Then you can get a job in that field and turn the job into a writing job.

For example, my college job was supposed to be data entry. I discovered I liked techie things. I quickly started writing instructions for the other data entry people, and soon I was writing and producing several tech newsletters for that employer. After awhile, I moved away from tech writing, but everywhere I went I tried to turn the job into a writing job, and most of the time I succeeded. As a result, I did a huge variety of writing and discovered the kind I liked best.

One way to get the experience is to identify a need and then offer to fill it. Step up and tell your employer, "I can do that" even if you're not sure that you can, and then learn how to do it. You'll develop great skills and get paid to do it.
posted by PatoPata at 12:30 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Look for an office job, preferably at a large company, where you can use your writing skills. You will be promoted because good writers are rare in the business world. DON'T market yourself as a 'Writer'. Writers are underpaid, overworked, and given little respect and practically no decision-making responsibility.
posted by sid at 1:20 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

DON'T market yourself as DON'T market yourself as a 'Writer'. Writers are underpaid, overworked, and given little respect and practically no decision-making responsibility.

So true.
posted by jayder at 1:56 PM on December 1, 2008

On more follow-up from the OP
I didn't mean to repudiate any possible value in covering town hall meetings--I'm aware that those can be very entertaining clashes of wills, with hidden intrigues and barbed exchanges and all that kind of stuff, and layers of interest beyond that. I am impossible to bore; I often forget to skip past the commercials on my DVR because they don't bore me. So despite the tone that I seem to have put across in the original post (hmm, maybe I'm not such a good writer after all ;)), I'm not hostile to this sort of seemingly trivial material. Still, as a lifelong career direction...?

And as to my cynical take on my school newspaper--seriously. It's bad. I think I'd be allowed to think it's a travesty unworthy of anyone's attention even if I were burning to death with the need to write. I don't think it's symptomatic of any kind of general apathy that I don't like it. Still, thanks for emphasizing that it's a good source of clips in any case, and to Menomena for suggesting that I could help to turn things around there--depends on how entrenched the power structure is.

Another recurring theme I noticed in the answers is how many jobs there are outside the media that involve writing. These appeal to me somewhat, though not as much as the media, for mostly juvenile reasons like lower exposure.

It's gratifying to get such detailed answers from such successful people in the field, people I've heard of. I especially appreciated the ones that directly answered my question, and while there were a lot that instead addressed the underlying issue of the career decision, they proved valuable too. t0astle's idea of trying to score a mini-internship at a local paper struck me as especially good; even though it should have been obvious, I didn't really have it on the table. All in all, these answers are overwhelmingly, obscenely great; thanks to everyone again.
posted by jessamyn at 2:31 PM on December 1, 2008

Dear Anon, you know what you're demonstrating here that will go far toward making you a success as a journalist, or any other kind of writer? An open mind and the ability to actually hear other people's opinions. If you go so far as to act on good advice -- not just here, and not just my advice! -- you will be streets ahead of the many students and interns who are blind to their own weaknesses as writers, seemingly unable to act on even the most gentle prod to improve. And your willingness to listen and act will make people so much more likely to help you, whatever path you take!

Re the college newspaper. Oh, I believe you. Mine was pretty average too. But I still did it, so I could take the clips to real newspapers and magazines to get internships. Having said that, if you really *hate* it, well, you do. If there are other sources of clips -- local free music press? -- by all means, go there. If you're asked why you *didn't* go the school newspaper route by an editor, you can say your reportage for the Nantucket Banjo Fancier Weekly kept you busy enough.

One last thing. If you go the news route, and you get a job you love (which I'm lucky enough to have) it's so good, it's insane. Everyone will tell you how hard it is (and it *is*) but I can't think of another career where I would get to hit people up for chats about about death, political intrigue, corruption, man-eating wild animals and cake stalls in one day. And then turn those interviews into something compelling and entertaining (hopefully) for thousands of readers. It. Is. Addictive. I hope you *do* intern in a really great newsroom that will let you go out on jobs so you get an idea of how incredible journalism can be.

Good luck!
posted by t0astie at 4:50 PM on December 1, 2008

College papers almost universally suck. But you learn so much writing your first news articles and dealing with your first editors.
I had to put up with terrible, supercilious editors who patronized me (and later ended up begging me for jobs, hah, suck it). But I was also far more clueless than I realized and everything that happened, in or out of the newsroom, taught me something.

Also, if doing an internship wasn't even on your radar, you need to talk to a career adviser or a journalism prof. That's sort of 101. Email me if you want some off the books advice.

Toastie! I remember you - you got the job, huh? Congrats. I could tell you were a natural from day one.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:34 AM on December 2, 2008

« Older Believing the strangest things, loving the alien   |   anything that can change professional white... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.