3 Ways to Determine if Your Writing is Crap

I have a new favorite writing book: 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected (and how to make sure it won’t happen again) by Mike Nappa.

Out of the blue, I received a complimentary copy in the mail a few weeks ago. Up until that point, I didn’t even know the book existed. So kudos to whoever is behind the marketing of the book (your strategy worked!). Because after reading through some of the book, I really liked it and think it can be a great help to writers struggling to break in to traditional publication.

Mike is the founder and chief literary agent Nappaland Literary. He’s worked as an acquisition editor for three publishers. In addition, he’s published more than forty books. At the same time, however, he admits he’s personally received more than 2000 rejections for his book ideas.

It takes less than a minute to reject your book.” Yes, that’s Mike’s first statement in his introduction. He goes on to list all of the reasons why various agents and publishers reject manuscripts in short, easy-to-read chapters.

The No. 1 reason why books get rejected (at least from Mike’s perspective) is because “Your Writing Is Crap.” Although he readily admits crap does indeed get published, he argues that it won’t happen to most writers. In his candid style he says, “If you send me crap writing, I’m going to reject you. And I’m not even going to feel bad about it. I’ll feel like I’m doing humanity a service by keeping your stinky excrement off bookshelves everywhere.”

Mike defines crap writing as:

• Sloppy thinking
• A vain or irrelevant message
• Content that is poorly organized
• Presentation that is clunky
• Word choices that are abysmal

But the question most writers have is this, “How do I know if my writing is crap?”

I struggled with that question before sending my manuscript to agents and editors. We usually finish our books, sit back and wonder, “How does the quality of my book compare with others? What is my skill level? Am I good enough to get published?”

Most of us don’t want our manuscripts to arrive to an agent, publisher, or even a reader smelling like excrement. So, here are 3 ways we can begin to determine our skill level:

1. Find Beta Readers who are willing to “test” your book or idea.

The readers can be anyone really—friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and family—yes, even your mama. At this point, they don’t have to be skilled writers or editors. You’re merely wanting to get feedback on the story itself and the ideas you’ve developed. Let the beta readers know the purpose of the read is just to test your story. They’re not correcting typos or grammar or the nitty-gritty. They’re providing big-picture thoughts.

The most critical aspect of getting feedback from beta readers is this: they must feel free to be completely honest. Often friends and family are afraid to hurt our feelings by telling us the truth. But getting feedback from beta readers won’t do any good unless they know they can be upfront in telling us if our book is indeed crap. And how many people will really feel comfortable being that honest with us?

The best way to solicit some modicum of truth from beta readers is to provide them with a way to give anonymous feedback. Hand them a sample of your manuscript and attach an anonymous questionnaire with easy-to-answer, big-picture questions like: Did you like the characters? Did you like the direction of the story? Would you keep reading? Why or why not?

2. Find other skilled writers who can offer objective feedback.

Feedback from other writers can come in many forms: critique partnerships or groups, blogging, and even contest judges (who are usually other writers or published authors in the first round). Recently, the creators of Ladies Who Critique contacted me to let me know about their new critique matching service. While I’m not using the service, I think it looks like a fantastic resource for writers searching for critique partners.

This week, I'm sharing about my critique partnership in one of my blog tour stops at Keli Gwyn’s blog. Keli critiqued The Doctor’s Lady (my new release), not once, but twice—and in some places even three times. Although I’m a published author working with a top-notch editing department with a large publisher, Keli’s help and advice in shaping my book was invaluable.

3. Use a freelance editor.

Michelle DeRusha had a recent post in which she explained her choice for using a freelance editor. She said: “Let me tell you, that $450 was the best money I ever spent . . . The editor I hired read and reviewed my manuscript and provided eight pages of chapter by chapter notes on sections to cut, rewrite, repurpose and reorganize.” She eventually went on to land her agent and said, “I don’t believe it would have happened without the help of a professional editor.”( Read the full post here.)

The bottom line is that we can’t see all of the problems in our work on our own. We just can't. (Read this post: Why Most Writers Are Blind to Their Own Faults.) If we want to know if our writing is crap, we’ll have to be open to letting others tell us that painful news.

Wouldn’t you much rather have someone tell you your book is crap before publication rather than after?

How open are you to feedback? Are you willing to take the good AND the bad from beta readers and critique partners? 

Don't miss out on these blog tour stops! You can WIN my book at both places!

Friday 9/9:  Jill Kemerer is sharing 5 Reasons to Read The Doctor's Lady on her blog! (Pick up Puzzle Piece #4 there!)

Saturday 9/10: Kristie Kiessling asks me what preparation I did for the writing of The Doctor's Lady on her blog! Did I take my family on a covered wagon simulation trip as part of my research? Come find out!

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  1. It's definitely best to receive feedback before the book is published! If you show it to a good critique partner, they'll know how to give constructive criticism that'll actually help your story be better.

    Thanks for the book recommendation! And congrats on your book release, Jody!

  2. Now if that title doesn't get someone's attention, I don't know what will, LOL! Great post, Jody. It's so easy to wonder how our writing really stacks up. You've listed some great ideas to get objective feedback.

    Have a great weekend!

  3. This book definately sounds like a fun read and very useful. Thanks for mentioning it, otherwise I probably wouldn't have known about it either. I will add it to my to-be-read list. I am signed up with the Ladies Who Critique. I'm not finished my first draft yet, but I will check it out in more detail when I'm done.

  4. Oh Jody! The title of your post made me laugh before I read any further. The book sounds great! LOL! I should probably pick up a copy.

    You said that most authors send their manuscripts off wondering whether it's crap or not. I remember wondering about my earlier manuscripts, but with this last one, the one that landed a contract, I didn't wonder. I KNEW it was the best thing I could write. And I KNEW that I was writing at on a publishable level. Yes, there were still unknowns. I didn't KNOW I would final in several competitions or that my agent would LOVE my ms and read it in four days. But I KNEW my writing and story were solid.

    Maybe I'm the only writer out there who thought "I know my work is ready" before it sold. But I really believe that unpublished writers who work hard enough get to a point where they KNOW they're writing is ready attract industry attention.

  5. Okay - I totally want this book. Sounds hilarious.

    I think the biggest roadblock to knowing whether our writing is crap or not is ourselves. I think all of us, to some degree, have that little voice inside of us saying our writing is brilliant. Why else would we have the guts to send it out if we didn't think this in some fashion? We all need the wake up call - you know, the one where somebody gets honest with us and says, "Um, this is not very good.'s how you can improve!"

    For me, that voice came from a critiquing service I paid for. It was just the first 15 pages of my 2nd novel. Disillusioned me quickly discovered I was....disillusioned. My writing wasn't as brilliant as I thought. Which led me to devour craft book after craft book. And now my writing is brilliant...HA! Totally kidding! But it's better than it was when I sent those pages in for critique!

  6. Feedback from multiple sources you can trust is certainly important to do before you submit.

    As I wrote in a very similar blog post earlier this week on Pubmission's blog ("What If You're Writing Stinks and You Don't Know It?"), another important aspect of gauging the quality of your writing is being receptive to criticism...taking your fingers out of your ears if you will. I've been working with writers for a good chunk of my life, and one of the biggest obstacles to improvement is an unwillingness to take negative feedback to heart.

  7. I've never heard of this book either and I thought I had about all of them! :) Great and fun post!

  8. Thanks, Jody. Good, practical points as always, but did anyone else note the irony of this:

    "...keeping your stinky excrement off bookshelves everywhere.”

    ...appearing just before:

    "Word choices that are abysmal"

    I thought he might have added another bullet--something like:

    "Keep the tone high, except when quoting, or when the context permits."

  9. My name is Keli G., and my manuscript stunk like. . .well, you know.

    I received an offer of representation from a well-respected literary agent in December 2009 and floated on cloud 999 for six glorious weeks but came crashing to earth when she told me I'd let the tension out of story at the 1/4 mark and needed to rewrite the final 3/4ths. Talk about feeling deflated.

    In hindsight, that feedback was some of the best I've ever received. I learned heaps during the rewrite, and she sold the story. I'm not done learning, though. Like you, Jody, I push myself to improve. That's why I love reading your posts and getting your feedback. And don't tell anyone, but I study your books intently as I edit, learning how you do what you do. =)

  10. This is a great article Jody! I love constructive criticism and truly believe I need it to make my work better. I was blessed to have a great editor and other mentors and peers give me great feedback - on things that I couldnt see in some parts (POV issues, tension, backstory, etc). They all helped me make my book better. While I loved my book before I love it even more now that I had help to polish it.

    We may think we "write alone" but we certainly can't polish it and market it alone! So YES, we need others to help us see if our writing is indeed "crap" - but hopefully they will also give us advice on how to make roses from the dung!

  11. This is a book I definitely have to get. :)

    I think we all struggle with the emotional pendulum swing from brilliance to crap about our work. A good, honest critique partner (or group) and lots and lots of time dedicated to learning the craft can definitely help a writer improve.

  12. Hey everyone!! Thanks for all of your input today on this topic! I think it basically boils down to all of us developing humility, knowing that the pain of feedback is a necessary part of the growth process. It's hard to hear when our work stinks, but we need to cultivate the attitude of doing anything we can to make it better (including listening to others tell us the truth).

  13. I want that book!

    I've never used beta readers because, let's face it, most of the people we know don't want to hurt our feelings. The anonymous feedback letter is a great idea! Maybe even include a SASE?

  14. I love to provide honest critiques and love to get them in return!

    Sometimes I cringe when I see few red marks. I love me the red.

    Always room for growth! Even after publication.

    Looks like a great find and if the marketing team would like to randomly send me a copy I will not stop them. :D

    ~ Wendy

  15. Excellent thoughts, but may I offer an addendum? Learn to weigh the criticism according to the people giving it. For example, don't hang your writing dream on the criticism you get from Beta Readers. Well-intentioned as it may be, even offered in anonymity a Beta Reader's advice could be way off the mark.

    And while skilled writers can be a wonderful source of criticism and advice, it's important to find one or two who will not only to tell you the truth, but to admit to their biases. Every writer has a unique voice and some of what one writer thinks is great might not be a fit for the next.

    Same goes for freelance editors. If your editor doesn't first take the time to discover and listen to your writing voice, you might end up paying for bad counsel.

    The more you share your words with others (and the more you study the craft, of course), the more you'll learn when to ignore what's being offered and when to send flowers and chocolate in thanks. Meanwhile, don't let anyone kill your dream just because you misspelled six words or your protagonist has brown eyes instead of blue. :)

  16. Yes, it's true. Editors need editors, too. If I could, I'd sneak into the previous comment and quietly remove the two extra "to"s that weren't supposed to be there.

    Let's just pretend I did that, okay? Thanks.

  17. This is why I believe first and foremost a critique group must be built on trust. And good critique groups do not happen over night.
    I also think it's good to find a non-writer or two to read your ms--someone who is well-read and can read your book like a regular person, someone who might pick your book up off the shelf in a bookstore.
    I want feedback. Honest feedback. Doesn't mean it won't hurt, but I want it.
    This also doesn't mean I'll take feedback from anyone and everyone. We have to be discerning. And there has to be a limit.

  18. Oh, Jody, talk about a blog title that gets your attn!! I just had to smile.

    I've read some 'crap' and have wondered HOW that book got published. (excluding ALL of your books of course!)

  19. I definitely have that weakness. Can't see my own mistakes and dirty writing habits, so I have six crit partners who can. ^_^

  20. Hey Stephen, Didn't even notice!! Just shows how much we all need an objective eye for our work!

    And thanks again, everyone for your input! :-)

  21. I hope this doesn't mean I have no sense of humor...but I didn't laugh at the post title. I cringed. The word "crap" is so pedestrian and crude. And to see it pop up again and again was rather painful. For me, that would qualify as not good writing.

    But I think you did make your point, Jody.

    ~ Betsy

  22. What a great book title! The suggestion to use a freelance editor is one I took some years ago. The help and advice I received was invaluable. Yes, it costs money, but it's money well invested.

  23. This was exactly the advice I needed at the exact time that I needed it! Thanks so much for sharing!

  24. I haven't heard of this book either, so I'm glad you mentioned it! Beta readers make all the difference for me. They catch stuff that I was blind to, and then I have the opportunity to return the favor. A win/win situation!

  25. I tweeted this post b/c I loved the title (and I can confidently RT your posts before I read them because they are always that good!), then I came over to read it and loved the post (then I saw that you very kindly mention me, and I thank you for that!!).

    This topic is definitely on my mind these days -- I just wrote a post for the Water Cooler about my best friend's response to the draft of my manuscript (and the post is titled "The Tough Critique" or something like you can guess how it went!). It was rough...but now I can look back and say with confidence that I'm glad she gave me her honest feedback. It helped enormously in the end.

    Great post, Jody!

  26. I sent a relatively short piece around to three Beta Readers. The one I expected the most powerful feedback from gave me a pat on the back and suggested I include content links in the ebook TOC. The other two "less skilled" writers each gave me about 20 suggestions/corrections, with only one overlapping one between them. The more eyes you involve, the better your product and the more likely you are to get all the bases covered.

  27. Feedback is essential; at the end of the day you are writing a book for others to read (not yourself) so without feedback your writing is a pointless feat. I totally agree with the professional editing too -a great post with sound advice Jody, thank you for sharing your insights.

  28. Yep, I'm willing.

    That sounds like a hilariously insightful book. Lucky you for getting it in the mail! lol
    I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

  29. How funny! Mike's sweet, sweet wife works with my salty, salty husband. hahaha. :) I will definitely have to check this out--he is one smart guy! :)

  30. I've been helping a friend out with her beta reading for a couple of weeks now and I'll tell ya, I haven't been afraid to lay it out there for her. It's the nicest thing you will EVER do for someone. Constructive criticism. But then there are some where you scratch your head and go... I'm not sure it's ever going to get there.

    And is it ever really possible to be completely objective about a work of art? Especially one you have created?

    Maybe not objective, but realistic. Thanks, Jody. I'm going to get that book!

  31. Oh boy, do I rely on feedback.

    This book sounds pretty helpful--and quite pointed! I'll keep my eyes peeled for it.

  32. I giggled at this post Jody :-)

    Yep sometimes crap is the only word for some writing.

    It's a shame, because i truly believe that much of the crap i read could be fixed by getting a proper editor and someone to read over the MS looking for glaringly obvious bits that you miss as the author of your precious bundle of joy.

    Great post,

  33. Sounds like a great book! I'll have to check it out, but I don't need a book to tell me the writing I did this weekend stinks!! But I was after word count and kept telling myself, "I can go back and fix this!" I agree, honest critiques are important and I'm still searching for "Ms. or Mr. Right" in a crit partner. ;)

  34. I haven't heard of this book either, so I'll have to look into it.

    You've got some great tips here. Even though I write with a partner, she can be too close to the story so we have several beta readers we can trust to be honest and say 'what were you thinking?'. That kind of feedback is invaluable. And luckily enough, one of those readers is an editor-in-training, so I get that aspect as well, but I have thought before about using an exprienced freelance editor. It can always be made better at that stage, so we're wise to use whatever resources we can.

    Thanks for the book rec!

  35. What a wonderful and resource filled post. Thank you so much for the advice and direction!

  36. BTW it was difficult to read because of the colors and the background of your blog. I had to highlight everything in order to see it. Just FYI :)

  37. Hi Eve! Sorry the post was so hard for you to read. I've had one or two other people mention that my blog is hard to read--apparently the light blue background doesn't show up and they only get the dark blue. Sorry about that!! I'm not sure why that has happened! But, anyway, glad you could figure out a way to read it and that it resonated! :-)

  38. I hate freelance editors! and their despotic rules!

  39. Jody, I agree it's important for another pair of knowledgeable eyes to read the manuscript...maybe even several pair. But consider a writer who is under contract and who hires an independent editor. They'll make suggestions about the manuscript--probably good ones, and the author will react to them. But what if the publisher--in the editing process--requests more changes, changes that reverse what the independent editor has recommended? Then what does the writer do? 'Tis a puzzlement.


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