In my previous post, I was motived by a desire to discuss how to become a better writer but got no farther than exploring the question of what a good writer is. I discussed a few different criteria—the ability to write according to formal conventions, the importance of content, the importance of persuasion, and the ability to produce material in a timely fashion. But it occurs to me that these are all objective or external in the sense that they can be judged by anyone: if you write something, other people can judge whether it has good punctuation or good content. Different people might not agree on whether the work is good, but they have documents/evidence on which to make such judgements. But with respect to the question of what a good writer is, there is another criterion of crucial importance that is purely internal and subjective: the writer’s own experience/self-assessment. What is writing like for you? Is it a good experience or a bad one? From a purely personal perspective, the question of being a good writer could be reframed in terms of whether or not you yourself feel like you are good at it, and whether or not you enjoy it. These two are intertwined, but I’m going to separate them in this post.
This internal assessment of being a good writer is very important. The key to becoming a good writer is that you practice, and your experience of your practice will have a huge impact on how frequently you practice, and thus on whether you can become a better writer. There are, I think, two aspects of this: enjoyment and accomplishment.
Given the freedom to choose, people are going to spend more time doing things that they find enjoyable than they will doing things that are boring or tedious or painful. If an activity is painful or unpleasant, it’s likely that it will be avoided. If we learn through reward/punishment, or are motivated by pleasure/pain, we learn/are motivated to avoid the punishment/pain.
If writing is experienced as painful or a form of punishment, you’ll probably spend less time trying to write. You may struggle to write at all. There is a pretty large subset of people who view writing through this negative lens. One book I read argued that the defining emotion felt by writers is fear. A dissertation-writing book I read argued that dissertation writing is “dull, dull, dull,” because, apparently, it’s necessary to emphasize just how bad that process is. I don’t think that’s an unusual perspective because there’s a decent number of dissertation books that focus on “surviving” dissertations. It’s not hard to find people who think of writing (academic or otherwise) as an unpleasant and unwelcome task. For that matter, I was one such person: I hated writing when I was young.
For a lot people, writing becomes so fraught with anxiety that it is too painful to start. Such anxiety can lead to a negative feedback loop, where anxiety about impending deadlines makes it difficult to even think about the task, which leads to not writing, which leads to further anxiety as the deadline continues to approach. And then, at the last second, the work has to be done in a panic, which is hardly a recipe for developing warm and comfortable feelings about the process.
Part of being a good writer, from a personal perspective, is whether writing is good for you: if you enjoy it, that it, in itself, a reason to say that you are a good writer. There are plenty of people who actually have positive feelings about writing, and about the benefits of writing, so it’s not as if finding writing a rewarding, positive experience would be that much of a surprise. Writing, which combines challenges with the opportunity for growth and success, has the characteristics of activities that lead to the “flow” experience described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the experience that many people (in Csikszentmihalyi’s research) consider the best in their lives.
The more that you feel pleasure in an activity, the more likely you are to do it, and “doing it” is the key for practice: if you “do it,” then you are practicing, and if you’re not “doing it,” then you’re not practicing. So there is a potential positive feedback loop here: where pleasure leads to practice, which leads to greater ability, which helps make the process enjoyable, which leads to more practice. But that’s moving aside from the focus on the internal experience of writing, and the idea that one criterion for being a good writer is to enjoy writing.
Speaking personally, I don’t know that I would consider writing one of the best experiences in my life, but I wouldn’t say it’s painful or unpleasant, even though it can be difficult. There are moments when writing can feel exhilarating, and even when I feel like I’m doing well enough that it feels good. I would say, however, that the good feeling I get is not so much pleasure in the activity itself, but the sense that I am dong something well, which brings me to my other point.
The idea of accomplishment or success is one that can easily be focused on outward success and recognition, a criterion that can be used to identify a good writer (though may not necessarily do so: there are writers who have had commercial or popular success who are, by other criteria, poor writers). There is a different kind of success, however, that is more personal and internal. A personal sense of accomplishment is often rewarding, even if that accomplishment is not recognized by others. There is no question that such a personal sense of success can be supported by external feedback, but it need not require such feedback. In many areas of endeavor, the idea of setting a “personal best” is common. It’s not really an idea with a clear correspondence in writing—a personal best is usually measured with respect to some single measurable dimension—but even without such a clear measuring stick, a writer can feel a sense of accomplishment.
You can believe that you have done good work, even if you have not found anyone who will agree with you. One way to be a good writer is to believe that you have done good work. There are plenty of stories of writers (and other artists, for that matter) who struggled to find anyone who would recognize their work, but who were, in time, recognized for their brilliance. This is, possibly, the most important dimension of being a good writer: if you believe that you can accomplish something, you are more likely to try to accomplish it rather than avoiding it. Therefore a sense that you are a good writer—that you accomplish something when you write—is very valuable. The belief that you are doing work that has quality and value is a crucial support to a writer. I often wonder whether self-confidence is not the most important determinant of public success, especially in academia (which is the kind of writing I think about most).
This sense of personal accomplishment is only one mode of being a good writer, and it’s certainly possible for a writer to have self-confidence that disagrees with the assessments of others. But this essay is not going to try to reconcile the gap between a writer’s self-assessment and the assessment of others. Despite the fact that external assessments might not meet personal assessments, believing that you accomplish something when you write is one important dimension of being a good writer.
I’m going to wrap up this second “what is a good writer?” post here. In pursuit of understanding what is a good writer, I argued that a “good writer” can be someone who thinks they write well—perhaps they take pleasure in writing, or perhaps they think they accomplish something. This internal assessment is possibly more important than any external criteria simply because the internal assessment is a crucial source of the motivation to continue practicing, and practicing is the key to becoming a better writer.
When I started this essay, I was thinking that it would wrap up the “what is a good writer” part of my prospective series on practice and becoming a better writer, but I’m considering whether there isn’t another dimension that I have not discussed–the question of how you write and the impacts of writing, for example, if your writing posture leads to repetitive stress injuries, are you a “good writer?” If you can only write when you’re drunk, are you a good writer? If your writing practices lead to the disruption of personal relationship, are you a good writer? I’ll have to think this through. Maybe my next post will consider whether good practices are criteria for identifying a good writer. Or maybe it will move on to talking about practice and becoming a better writer. When I do get to talking about how to become a better writer, the idea that one can enjoy and feel a sense of accomplishment in writing will be a subject of further discussion.