Judging your own writing

Having listened to a Radio 4 programme where Andrew Marr interviews “intellectual superstar” Yuval Noah Harari about algorithms and big data (scary stuff) I wondered whether we are deluding ourselves in many ways, not least regarding human creativity.

Conversely, I read a magazine article about the award-winning author, Kate Atkinson, who says:

You will not know what good writing is until you’ve read a lot of it and then you’ll be able to start judging your own. Having the ability to be the interior judge of your own writing is very important.

About thirteen minutes into the radio broadcast, Marr asks Harari about creativity.  He gives an example of computer-generated music which is pleasant enough but not terribly exciting. Marr’s belief is that computers only generate bland, pastiche, inoffensive art, unlike say, a creative genius such as Picasso. Great point.

Harari, however, counters that most artists are not that good (another great point) so the artistic or creative genius is a rare specimen. Much art and writing, he asserts, is exactly that as Marr has described: bland, dull, nothing special.

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Now, let’s return to Kate Atkinson who says all her work relates to identity and different ways of examining it. It is wonderful to find a theme you can investigate through different milieu, as she has. The British Council writes:

Her books are crowded with births, marriages and deaths, unlikely incidents, outlandish characters and coincidences (and more).

We can if we work at it and want to, use techniques to write mass-market fiction that is bland, dull and nothing special (not all is this, of course). For example, Mills & Boon have a formula which they advise to prospective authors. No one would call their results great literature but they do sell, rather like lowest common denominator newspapers. There is money in the formulaic (watch BBC’s The Press if you fancy some more on that) but there is little scope for creativity.

Atkinson believes that only by reading can we judge what is good.

Not only do we judge, but we need to know why something is good. Why do we read or hear some stories, for example, and think ‘wow’?

While wanting to be confident enough to aspire and work at our writing, we need to be able to judge when we are writing well, badly or indifferently. We need to listen to our own inner critic but also to those external voices which express a view. Some views are just opinion based on thin air, but constructive criticism is worth noting and here’s why: delivered well, criticism can improve our work immensely.

If you do not want to be criticised, then write but don’t edit, write but don’t research, and write without being prepared to throw it all out and start again if needed.

We can all write but the aim is to write well, to create something new, to investigate a different perspective on old subjects, to inspire the reader.

We may not always achieve it but we must aspire to it; otherwise, we are peddling the unsaleable and there’s no joy in that.