You keep trying to do it, and it’s not working. You’ve read the books, followed the prompts, done the research, and yet, you still wonder: Am I a good writer? Do I really have what it takes? It’s time to stop this nonsense once and for all.
For years now, I’ve seen writers do this to themselves. I’ve done it myself. We kill ourselves trying to achieve something, trying to become someone, and it never works. Even when we do make it, we never allow ourselves the satisfaction of arriving there. We place impossible standards before us, race towards the prize, and when we do achieve the goal, we just move the finish line out a little further.
What a miserable way to live. To always be striving. To never feel good enough. Of course, this is a universal feeling amongst artists and writers, but I’m talking about more than the typical “taste-talent gap” where your skill just hasn’t caught up with your preference. I’m talking about that gnawing feeling we all get on occasion, the sense that something is missing:
We’re not what we hoped to be.
We’re not what we wish we were.
And we don’t know how to fix it.
Why do we feel this way?
Because the thing we’re chasing is an illusion.
Don’t be good, be effective
Here’s the solution: Don’t be good. Be effective. Stop trying to be a good writer, and start trying to be effective.
Why? Because “good” is subjective. It’s meaningless. “Good” is an artifact from long ago when writers needed gatekeepers to determine the value of their work. In today's creative landscape, the goal of writing is connection. Not lukewarm approval. “Effective,” on the other hand, defines a clear relationship between you and the reader. The goal is to be heard, to communicate a clear message to a particular audience.
Recently, I wrote about why you really can make your writing perfect, when you redefine “perfection” as “wholeness.” You can create perfect work, as soon as you stop trying to make it “good.” Good never works, because everyone has a different definition of what it means.
Is Ernest Hemingway a good writer? What about Emily Dickinson or J.R.R. Tolkien? Is Anne Rice good? What about Jane Austen or E.E. Cummings?
All of these writers had their fans and their enemies, so when you throw around a word like “good,” at least when referring to art, it is practically nonsensical. Which is why I like the word “effective” much better.
Because that’s what we’re really saying, isn’t it? That these writers we deem “good” were really just effective at reaching their audiences, whether those were literary critics, a certain type of reader, or the masses.
So, “effective,” it turns out, is a better target than “good.” Granted, these are just words and may seem like semantic differences to you, but I don’t think so. When we say something is “good,” behind that is an assumption of a universal goodness.
Who doesn’t want to be a good writer? Who doesn’t want to be told their art is good? We all want that, but the problem with “good” is that it’s unclear. What you like and what I like are going to be different. So instead of shooting for “good,” why don’t we shoot for “effective”?
“Effective” assumes subjectivity. For example, if you ask if a piece of writing was effective, you then have to ask a handful of other questions, like:
- Effective to whom? Who was this intended for?
- Effective how? What were the standards against which you were measuring the work?
- Effective at what? What was the goal of the piece? What were you trying to accomplish?
It is not worth your time to try to be good. We must aspire to be effective.
The benefits of being effective
The best part about being effective is you can measure it. When you're clear on your answers to the questions above, you'll know whether your writing is effective. You'll know what to do next if it's not. “Good” doesn't work this way. There's no grading matrix, which means you never know if you've hit your goal.
Understand that your goal as a writer is never to reach everyone. That person doesn’t exist. If you try to reach everyone, you’ll end up reaching no one. Because nobody wants something for everyone. We all want something written for someone—that is, us. Your writing, if it’s going to be effective, must be personal. It must resonate with the reader. And that will never happen if you’re trying to write for everyone.
Effective writing begins with the question: Who is this for? Once you get clear on who the audience is, you will have a better idea of what success looks like (i.e., what it means to be effective). It’s effective if the message was received. If the person took action, responded, or did whatever you wanted her to do (even if that was something like smile or cry or simply say thank you).
It’s ineffective if the message wasn’t received. If you don’t hear back from the reader, if the book doesn’t sell, if people don’t take action, then it didn’t work. You failed, at least at communicating a message. Time to try again. And that’s why this is so important. We can delude ourselves into thinking we are effective writers when we may merely be “good,” chasing some invisible idea of quality—an illusion.
Let’s not do that. Let’s be practical. Writing is about connection and communication. So figure out what it takes to connect your words to the right people, and don’t sell yourself short trying to be “good.” It’s a waste of time and will surely only make you miserable.
(Need help knowing when it’s time to hit publish? Check out this free tool.)
To go deeper in this subject, check out the following:
- Don’t Hit Publish. This is a free web app I developed with my friend Bryan Harris. It’s a questionnaire that allows you to grade your writing each time you write a new piece—whether that’s an email, blog post, article, or some other short- form piece of writing. You answer a series of questions, it gives you a grade, and tells you if you’re ready to publish or not. I use it all the time.
- Don’t Hit Publish (Until You Answer These 5 Questions). An article on five questions that will help you know when it’s time to publish your work.
- 7 Tips for More Effective Writing. A quick article with some practical tips on how to make your writing more effective.