I’ve developed a definition of quality for all kinds of work I create. When assessing the quality of an article idea, for example, I look at timing, societal impact, counterintuition, action steps, and prior coverage. I discovered these attributes through noticing what ideas were accepted and rejected, through patterns I noticed in what I liked to read, and through papers I read. I refine the meaning of these words often, based on feedback from editors.
Criteria can be fluid; for me, they’re almost like rubrics, where I consider each of these factors, and I write down guiding questions to help me evaluate or test an idea. They also help me formulate the idea and position it.
For example, if I was looking at prior coverage, I would want to figure out how often this idea has been written about before, and in what ways. Do I have anything new to offer? Can I connect the big idea with a different small event, that’s more timely and relevant? Or is there an event that I can connect with a new idea?
I often write these questions down in second person, as if a writing coach were sending them to me. When I review each piece before I’ve decided that it’s done, I often also go through each of the criteria to make sure I can check it off.
As you develop your capabilities and perspective, you may find that list of questions getting longer. For example, in Let My People Go Surfing, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard writes of his own list of criteria to evaluate potential product ideas: Is it functional? Multifunctional? Is it durable? Does it fit our customer? Will people be able to repair it? Is the product and line simple? Is it an innovation or invention? Is it a global design? Is it easy to care for and clean? Does it have any added value? Is it authentic? Is it beautiful? Are we just chasing fashion? Are we designing for our core customer?
As a starting point, choose a creator in your field that you admire. Learn more about their process, through their own memoirs and interviews, or through other people analyzing their work. Be mindful of the standards that start jumping out at you.
You might also see whether the creatives you admire have written about their own quality criteria, as many have: The 20th century poet W.H. Auden put out his criteria for major poets, Robert Caro shows some of his thought process in his book Working, and Mary Robinette provides feedback for editing articles. If you want to emulate author, programmer, and entrepreneur Derek Sivers, he shows you how. The same with Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. You could also study any other writing you like, and learn how you can improve.
Practically speaking, I’ve found that the best time to strictly apply these standards of quality is in the verification stage of the creative process. I’m interested in completing the idea and making sure it’s polished enough for me to be satisfied with. However, I deliberately do not apply these standards to my generative work, like writing in a journal or notebook, if I’m just taking a note, or writing a blog post for fun. At those stages, I’m still exploring and discovering what I have to say on a topic. The idea is too fragile to go through this process. It still needs to be nurtured and developed.