A few years ago when my big muscely boy was a tiny bundle that needed regular feeding (well he still does) and changing, I went to a class for nervous new parents. It was all about infant first aid and how to recognise serious illness in a baby. One piece of advice the crusty old nurse running the class gave us was to dispense with thermometers altogether. We would be able to tell if a child was feverish just by touching their forehead.
Later, she appeared to contradict herself as she went through the symptoms of meningitis (a life threatening disease, characterised by a rapid and sudden decline), one of which was a fever over 40 degrees C. “How could I tell if my baby’s temperature is over 40?” I challenged her. “If I’m not supposed to have a thermometer?”
“Like I said, you can use these,” she responded glibly, waving her hands about.
“Well, you might be able to tell, but I asked how I would be able to,” I snapped (actually, I didn’t, I just thought it loudly).
So I bought one of those strips that you plonk on the child’s forehead. It had five little windows on it, and eventually one changed colour to give you a reading.
My boy became ill a few times over his first year, never serious, but he was the sort of child whose temperature spiked rapidly. And once, it did reach 40. And you know what? He was so damn hot that I didn’t even have to touch him to tell it was high, he just radiated. Nevertheless, I used the thermometer, and it told me what I’d already figured out.
The nurse had been right.
Now, at the risk of alienating my readers into thinking that this blog has suddenly reinvented itself as a parenting blog (let’s face it- these are as rare as writer’s blogs!) there’s actually some relevance. My point was that I had needed to go through it myself to trust that I could recognise a sick child when I saw it. It only took one experience to learn. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all judgements could come so quickly?
How do we recognise good writing? Don’t I wish there was a plastic strip I could place on my own work which will distinguish between “crap”,“good”, “very good” or “smokin’ hot”. How much experience does a writer need to trust their own judgement, and to be satisfied that their own work is even good enough, let alone smokin’?
Taste is a fickle thing. I’ve loved books that others have dismissed as “feelgood rubblish”. On the other hand, I’ve ploughed through tomes, finished them just to see if they actually improved, because people have raved about how fabulous the story was (“Memoirs of a Geisha” and “The DaVinci Code” spring to mind here).
Or am I confusing “bad” writing with “not to my taste” here?
What the hell is “good” writing anyway? Is there a universally accepted definition?
Since I’ve started doing some serious writing myself, I have been trying to analyse books myself – reading like an editor rather than for pleasure - to identify what makes one story compelling and another ho-hum. The more analytic I become, the more confusing it is. I used to be comfortable with my judgement. Now, I’m seeing merit when I previously only saw rubbish, and some "good" stories are seriously flawed.
Please, someone – give me a magical plastic strip to rate the writing so I can compare it to my own judgement!