The Amazing Ever-Changing Yardstick!

by Chris McMahon

Since I have been struggling for writing output this year due to a number of life challenges, I have been thinking a lot about judging what I do produce. The most common way to judge progress is to look at the word count, but this can be very misleading.

For example, if you take two hours to write 500 words, you might immediately assume this is not that great. But what if you take half-an-hour to write the same word count, yet have to redraft this five times? What if those words represent a departure to the plot? Or take the character out of the arc you originally imagined? You might spent hours on those 500 words only to discard them later.

This is where I started thinking about the issue of quality. How do you judge it? This is where the Amazing Ever-Changing Yardstick comes in. What is right for your story? Your market? How does it match the sort of work that is produced by the publishers you are aiming at?

The same piece of work can attract almost diametrically opposite reviews. If reviewer A (who hated your book) was the editor you subbed to, your manuscript is in the bin. If reviewer B (who loved it) was the editor who read it you are the next golden child.

Being a strong advocate of banging my head against brick walls, I tried sending work to one particular editor for years before I realized there was a reason I did not like anything that house published. There was just a complete miss-match there. No meeting of minds was ever going to happen.

I spent years going to critique groups before I realized that I really should not have listened to almost everything I was told. Anyone can have an opinion on your work – but is it right? Is it right for your work? It’s rare to find writers who really understand your story and ‘get’ where you are coming from. And after all –they are not the editor who could be buying it. One thing is for certain – anything that shuts you down creatively and stops you from getting your first draft down is BAD BAD BAD!

So what I am saying? I guess that in the end you need to be the judge of your own work – and to be extremely cautious about what criticism you seek out – and what you choose to act on. The creative impetus is king – let it drive you where it will.

How do you judge the quality of your work?


  1. Once upon a time, I was part of an excellent writer’s group. They helped me immensely, but finding them – and being invited to join them – was a chancy bit of luck. Now that the group is mostly defunct for all the right reasons, I have resorted to somewhat less useful methods of telling. I asked for beta readers on FB and was startled to discover some of my family reads SF, however, only two of the half-dozen people I sent the story to acutally critiqued it, and they were both Barflies from way back and their advice was invaluable. I have found that letting my SO read my work always results in great atta-girls, but the only time he’s said something that made me sit up and take notice was for the story in progress, where he told me it was addictive and to please finish it…

    Things I do not do to judge my quality. I don’t try to judge it myself, at least not right away. I like it too much when i have just written it. I did find while reviewing some stories I had written years ago and not read in that long that I was able to be objective. That method is too time consuming, though. I don’t hand my stories to friends and family and expect to get useful critique from them. They love me, ergo they love what I write. And only two of them have the credentials to critique, anyway! I do not submit my stories and expect to base their quality on the amount of rejections. I hear too many people talking about how often their story was rejected before it found a home to allow rejections to discourage me.

    As a writer-seeking-publication, I am a fledgling. I’ve been writing for twenty years, though. As I told my boss yesterday when he asked me to form a writer’s group at the library, do you know what Heinlein said about writing?

    1. Hi, Cedar. My throw-away question was a bit cheeky since I find it very hard to judge my own work. I love it when I am writing it, and then think its crap when I go back to read it. Somewhere in the middle, when I have re-written a few times, and lose myself in it – a get a good feeling about it. That is as close as I come! My readers are either very enthusiastic, or don’t get it. Reviews come in both categories as well.

      I know what you mean about the citique group. I also lucked out – not at the beginning – but relatively early on. I have not found that balance again.

      Good luck putting together the writer’s group! What did Heinlein say about writing – you got me curious now:)

      1. Do it in private and wash your hands afterwards!

        I am dubious about this writer’s group. I have a feeling it will be more social/networking than actually writing critique. But it would be nice to get together once in a while with my ‘own kind’.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I think seeking outside advice is the weakest area of my writing. I’m just so lazy about it, even though I’m passionate about my writing. And Cedar is absolutely right about not judging the quality of the writing base on rejections.

    I submitted a story to a SF/F magazine recently and was told that not only was the humour forced, but IT WASN’T EVEN SCI FI. The next SF mag I sent it to accepted it straight away.

    And my bestest, most favourite story I’ve written in the whole world has been rejected several times, granted with nice notes, but a rejection’s still a rejection on my spreadsheet. Some stories are just very difficult to slot in anywhere and when I’ve written something I consider awsome, I send it to the most difficult markets – hence more rejections.

    I’ve thought about talking to people online and perhaps starting a group that way, but I always thiink face to face would be so much better. I guess that’s my excuse for doing nothing.

    1. Hi, Chris. Subbing shorts always does seem to be hit and miss. Since I have been working mainly on the longer work over the last few years, I have not done the big submission mail-outs (email outs these days!) that I have previously. The one or two markets I pick often seem to bounce & I got sick of the whole thing. I could take this personally but I seem to have had quite a few Aurealis Awards short-listings for the work that does break through, so I guess it must just be the editor’s likes/dislikes.

      Nowdays I tend to wait until I see an anothology open up that has a theme that matches my story and send it off. It’s a slower route to publication, but seems to have a higher rate of success.

      I would definitely go for face to face. People are busy these days, so you can resort to swapping crits electronically, but I think you need that face to face establishment. Good luck! I have found doing a local workshop through a writer’s centre is a great way to meet like minds.

  3. “I spent years going to critique groups before I realized that I really should not have listened to almost everything I was told.”

    Of course you should listen to everything. The trick is interpreting correctly. 😉

    My theory is that most people have not a clue why what they thought didn’t work, didn’t work. So you have to go for the tea leaves or animal entrails and interpret for them. (It’s a fabulous idea not to explain this part of the process past saying “Thank you.”)

    People tend to tell you how to fix a problem instead of telling you what the problem is. An example I like to use from my own experience (since it doesn’t take much explaining) was once being told I had too many characters introduced too soon. The real problem was that people in my crit group couldn’t keep the characters straight. That there were “too many” was a suggestion for a fix. The fix I employed that worked was to attach a brief physical description to each character, maybe only a word or two. This turned out to solve the problem wonderfully and when I brought it back to the group a couple of people insisted that I’d cut back the number of characters. I had not. What I did was solve the actual problem, which was keeping them straight. (Reducing the cast list might have also solved the problem, but too many characters would still not have been the problem.)

    1. I had this problem with a short story, where they told me that the story was slow. Synova, in the first three pages a woman was attacked, killed her attacker, hid the body, cleaned the room, changed clothes and went on a spying mission. BUT I was tired and it was ALL passive voice. I changed that and all of a sudden it was “Oh, you changed the action.”

  4. Hi, Synova. I know what you mean. So much comes down to personal taste – so I guess I should qualify that you should listen, but think about the perspective of the person offering the critique in terms of their likes and dislikes when interpreting.

    Such a wonderful thing this writing is! Certainly enough to keep anyone on their toes. I guess we all don’t need to worry about exercising our brains:)

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