A fellow writer sent me a segment of his writing this week along with this question:
Is it good?
I responded about why the question is so potentially harmful to writers. Then the more I thought about the question, the more I wanted to share my warning with other writers:
First of all, "Is it any good?" is too open to individual interpretation and taste to be useful. Someone might say it's good simply to please you. Someone else might not think the story is good because it's not what he/she likes to read. Someone else might say the story is good, because she thinks good means okay, as in mediocre, when what we hear is good as inready to submit!
Secondly, whereas all stories have the potential to be excellent if given the proper treatment, most stories are not particularly good until we work on them, a lot. If we ask "Is it good?" too early in the story's development, the answer might be, "No," which might discourage us from continuing the rewrite.
If We Ask the Question, What Responses We Can Expect?
The odds of this response occurring are 1000 to 1, yet writers hope against hope to hear that very word, which I think is the biggest reason they ask the question. Google, for example, lists hundreds of thousands of entries from writers who have posted their work and asked, "Is it good?"
If they do hear that response, the odds are 1000 to 1 the responder is someone who loves the writer and wants her to be happy, or at least not mad. While a touching and understandable white lie, this kind of false opinion may give the writer the idea no further work is necessary. She'll send out the work before it's ready and thus foil her chances of getting the piece published.
While this answer seems straightforward, it isn't. What we're asking the person to do is read the piece and judge it according to his perception of what's good and bad. Unfortunately, we don't know what standard he's judging us against. We could have handed him a conceivably award-winning literary book, but because he enjoys hard-boiled detective novels that fit within a certain well-loved know-what-you-get formula, he finds our book boring.
I don't know.
This response seems equally straightforward, but isn't. The person may instinctively appreciate that the word good is vague, and so not understand how we want her to interpret the term (i.e., good in what way?). Or she may not have any interest in reading, and so have few samples by which to compare our book.
This tends to also be the response given when a person has a strong negative opinion she doesn't want to share for any number of reasons, including: she doesn't want to discourage the writer; she assumes others will have an equally positive review and so render her opinion moot; or she doesn't believe she's got the credentials to properly evaluate the story.
I don't read that kind of thing.
At least this response is honest, unless the person fits the above category and is looking for an acceptable excuse for hiding a negative opinion. But it does at least acknowledge that one person's good is another's nightmare.
What do you mean by good?
This is the best response we could hope for and indicates the reader realizes he does not have enough information to properly answer the question.
The question can also lead to a helpful discussion that results in a more specific question that then leads to a more accurate and helpful reply.
For example, when I asked my writer friend what he meant by good, he said he was looking for a strong response, either positive or negative, rather than indifference. Therefore the revised question would be, "Do you feel strongly about what you've read, either positively or negatively?" That would give the responder the leeway to determine if she felt strongly, and if so, in what way, and if not, why not.
Protect your writing and your psyche by asking a specific question rather than one that may set you up for failure.