The heart, mind and murder test for writers

How do we know what's good? Seriously, how do you decide, when you've finished writing, or even when you're smack bang in the middle of whatever you're working on, that what you've written is good?

It's no coincidence that most writers get better the more that they write. We gain experience and with experience comes better judgement and the ability to analyse our own scribblings.

We can also get feedback from other people. That's always a pretty brill idea too, especially when you've invested so much of yourself in a project that you can't see the pencils from the original piece of wood that people make pencils out of.

Don't worry. I know that doesn't make sense.

So yeah, feedback is great, but I'm interested in how a writer can better understand their own work. What system can we use to make these initial decisions about the quality of our writing?

I do the following. Subconsciously mostly, I suspect. But it seems to do the trick.

Run it past your heart

Sometimes you just know, don't you? Sometimes you'll write a paragraph or sentence - even a word - and you'll know that it pushes all the buttons you intended to push.

This button pushing is why we started writing. It's why we continue to write. It's an amazing feeling when you're on a roll and the words are flowing from your brainbox to the page.

But much of the time, it doesn't work like that. You need to think harder and longer to make sure you're expressing yourself in the best way possible. And that's fine. Perfectly normal.

The writer who can sit down and write instant, perfect prose is both rare and probably lying. For the rest of us, the challenge comes when we've finished our thinking and our expressing and we have to make a decision. Is this piece of writing any good?

At this point I run it past my heart. By that I mean I look for an emotional response. If something doesn't sit right, even if I think I know the reasons why, I will more than likely cut, start again or try something different.

If you read your own writing and think, 'I'm not sure if this is up to scratch,' it's almost certainly not up to scratch. Be bold when you know that you can do better.

Consult your mind

Once your work has passed the heart test, it's time to talk technical.

Of course, there are some very simple things you need to do. Like check your spelling, grammar and all that jazz. But more than that, you need to analyse your writing's aesthetics. How are the sentences structured? Do they have rhythm?

I'm going to take a small diversion here. Indulge me for a second.

There's often some debate about whether a piece of writing can survive or be brilliant if it's either a) a great story but technically flawed, or b) technically excellent but slightly tedious.

My view is why be satisfied with either of those options? If you've got a great story to tell, tell it as beautifully and as elegantly as you possibly can. If you're a gifted writer, find a story that allows your prose to shine as it should.

Getting it right is incredibly difficult and extremely hard work. But it has to be worth it. Reach for the stars, you know?

Anyway, back to the system.

If your writing hits the right emotional buttons, but is technically all over the place, something needs to change. Either cut or go back and make some improvements. Do some serious editing.

I'm going to repeat myself. Be bold when you know that you can do better.

Sharpen the axe

Murder your darlings. There, I said it. Two years I've been running this blog and that's the first time I've used that often (over?) used piece of advice. It had to happen sometime.

Even if you're writing passes the heart test with flying colours, even if it sails through the mind exam without any problems whatsoever, you may still need to murder your darlings.

Sometimes, even when we know that something is completely fantastic, when we put it into a wider context or revisit its original aims, we might not be able to use it.

And that's when it's tough to let go. That's when you really do have to be bold. Expect feelings of sadness. Don't be surprised if you cry.

But make sure you hang on to your work. Don't murder your darlings and dump them in the nearest word-shaped canal. Just slap them round the chops and copy and paste them into a separate document.

Good writing is good writing. If you can use a discarded piece of work on another project, then you certainly should. So long as it fits there, of course. It might be that this perfect prose really is destined for the canal.

That's why there are three tests. Only the very best writing makes it through them all.