I've now been at the rewrite and edit of my novel for a week, which may not seem like a lot of time. I admit, I've only gotten as far as the first two chapters, mostly because chapter one was such a horror show. That's my opinion of it; others were far less critical.
The question is this: how do you know what is good, and what is not? How do you edit with any conviction that you are changing things for the better, if you do not know what 'better' is?
This is a question that used to haunt me a lot when I first started editing. I had been writing for years by then, without much concern about polishing anything. I did not yet believe there was any use in polishing, since I was a bad writer to begin with, and since I did not know how to be a better one. I imagine others find themselves in the same boat. The best I can do is offer this three-point advice.
Become a Better Writer
This is glib and will at first sight seem like completely useless advice. I can tell you honestly that in terms of application, it is not advice that you can sit down with this afternoon and apply. This afternoon, you're not going to be a better writer, and that's that.
In the long run, however, becoming a better writer begins with admitting - in all honesty - that you are probably not that great a writer at the moment. You may be good enough to impress your friends, the small collective of writers you meet with once a month or your teachers (if you are young enough to have teachers). I want to go on record by saying that the commendation by those sources is really worth nothing at all. Thirty years ago I was impressing my teachers and various workshops and outside groups with my writing ability - but I look back on that 'ability' now and I wonder how much of their praise was real, and how much was in consideration for my being young and having plenty of time to get better.
I think a lot of the latter. I did have a few persons who came into my life to tell me that I was never going to cut it. They were wrong, but not for what they were reading way back in 1981. Given the crap I was writing then (that some were gushing over), they were absolutely right. If I read someone's work today that looked like my work was then, I'd have been just as frank.
Part of the problem can be that if you have enough people singing your praises, you are not likely to work at improving yourself. So sit yourself down, recognize that the various elements of your writing could use work, and begin to work at them.
Let Others Read It
From the above, it may seem as though I am saying don't bother with the opinions of other people. I am not saying that at all. The effect your work has on others remains important - it will help you adjust your clarity and your delivery, things you can't really recognize without having feedback. A reader may have some help to offer you with regards to quality, but they are much more likely to give you the measure of your readability. If they aren't reading it, it isn't worth reading.
The problem with relying on others to tell you the quality of your work is that in all likelihood they're not a great writer either. There is an old saw about wanting to find just one good critic, someone who can tear your stuff apart the way you need to learn to tear into it yourself. Only thing is, that critic is busy writing, or tearing up his or her own stuff, and they don't have time for you. So abandon your dreams for meaningful criticism. I've been at this for 35 years and I have yet to meet anyone who can usefully rewrite a sentence for me, much less tell me how to better construct the paragraphs that will let chapter three effectively transition into chapter four. That mythical person you dream of having help you is YOU.
Where it comes to the appeal of your work, however, or in terms of technical issues with your work, then yes, have others read it. This book I am working on now revolves around musicians. I have spent a lot of time with musicians, and I have performed as a singer with musicians, but I am not one of them. Having musicians read my work, then, it greatly appreciated. They can tell me when I am missing my mark. They can give me little stories about music I can incorporate. They can't tell me how to write, but they can tell me WHAT to write.
People know what they like. If they are the sort of people you want reading your book, and they express like for it, you're on the right track. One of the most useless things I was ever told by my old creative writing teacher was that "I like it" isn't useful criticism. Bullshit. From other people, it is the ONLY criticism. If you can't get other people to like your stuff, it's time to take up another hobby.
Everyone is familiar with the 12-step program's insistence that you acknowledge that there is a higher power. If you want to write, you could not do better than to acknowledge that there are better writers than you. Unless your initials are W.S., there will always be at least one better writer than you.
Here's a hint: most of them are not alive. People who talk about great living writers have about as much credibility as an onanist telling you about the quality of great porn. There may be a great writer living today, but chances are you won't find them amid all the crap that's being printed all around you. Dickens and Emerson were only two of tens of thousands of writers in their day, and in their day were not seen as truly remarkable and unusual. If we were to ask an English gentleman in 1850 to name the ten greatest living writers of his day, there's a very good chance that Dickens would not have made the list. Most of the time, the people who are alive now and picking writers who are living with them are making their choice based on esoteric, reflective emotional associations with those writers - and not upon their ultimate ability.
The best way to get perspective upon your own work is to read the work of writer who have stood the test of time; writers who lived in an age you are not living in now, and who yet communicate fluidly and meaningfully to you across the gulf of decades or centuries. It will aid you in recognizing the difference between what is important in your writing, and what is really important.
This last point I will speak about in greater detail; but the notes above should suffice. Now, I must go, I am meeting with a musician this afternoon to have him look over my work. I look forward to it.