Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What Exactly is Good Writing?

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Whenever agents talk about books they're looking for, most of the time, they specify one that is well-written, and I’ve always wondered what that actually was.  According to readers on goodreads, Twilight was poorly written and The Da Vinci Code and even, dare I say it, Harry Potter.  I’ve always wondered if this was just something associated with writing styles because I have my own personal preferences when it comes to writing styles, but I don’t think that makes other styles wrong.

 So is being well-written subjective, or is it being confused with style and/or voice?  Maybe style, voice, and how the book is written are just so intricately connect that they can’t be separated.  Maybe, but maybe not.

 I recently came across this post by ex-agent now author Nathan Bransford.   He wrote this post in response to his blog readers questioning his claim that Fifty Shades of Grey is “not that badly written.”  He talks in the blog post about how he defines good and bad writing. 

When I talk about "good" writing and "bad" writing, I mean the prose. Is it readable on a sentence-to-sentence level? Is there a flow? Is there a voice? Do I get tripped up by a lack of specificity in description or are the details evocative? Is the hand of the author too apparent or am I able to lose myself in the world of the book?”

I think this is the perfect definition of good writing.  It really gets to the heart of what is important in writing, and it separates, as much as it can be separated, the very subjective style and voice from the writing itself.  And I’m not entirely sure if my interpretation is correct, but this is my take on the points he makes and how they relate to good writing.  

“Is it readable on a sentence-to-sentence level?” 

 I think clarity is the key here.  The sentences need to be free of grammar mistakes, and they can’t be too convoluted or poorly constructed.  The reader shouldn’t have to struggle to understand the sentences.

“Is there flow?”

It isn’t enough to have clearly written sentences, those sentences need to connect to each other.  The ideas need to logically flow from one sentence to another, and then from paragraph to paragraph.  In good writing everything is connected to what came before with smooth seamless transitions from idea to idea as the story progresses.

“Is there voice?”

Voice is kind of this nebulous thing that agents and editors seem to want but no one really understands.  I know that voice is far more complex then I'm going to get into here (and Melanie gives a great definition of voice here), but I think an important aspect of voice is consistency.  There needs to be a consistent style throughout the entire story that holds the writing together.  It doesn't have to be a specific style.  It just has to be consistent.  

“Do I get tripped up in lack of specificity in description or are the detail provocative?”

I think this has to do with confident writing.  Vivid details help the story and the world feel real, but I think there is more to it than that.  I think there is a confidence that comes from writing that is very specific, and that confidence in the prose makes us readers more willing to trust that the writer knows what he/she is doing.

“Is the hand of the author too apparent, or am I able to lose myself in the world of the book.”

I think this is the most important aspects of good writing.  Good writing shouldn’t get in the way of the story.  It shouldn’t be awkward or repetitive in structure, ideas, or words, but it also shouldn’t stand out and steal the spotlight from the story.  It should paint a scene, evoke emotion, and put images and ideas into the readers mind, but the words themselves should be invisible.

I think these things, clarity, flow, consistency, confidence, and invisibility is what makes up good writing.  Honestly, I’ve never read a traditionally published book that I didn’t think was well-written on some level, even Twilight, The Da Vinci Code, and Harry Potter.   

So what are your thoughts?  What is good writing to you?



  1. I don't know that personally I am a judge of great writing. I am not an English major and was always disinterested in grammer, which is too bad for me. I have read about what agents are looking for too and they always say good writing, but it does seem even to me that a lot of crap gets published. I don't include Twilight or Harry Poter they obviously have great appeal too lots of people. I read the first Twilight and I read it quickly. Stephanie pulled me in, even though I don't love the story and I would have read them all if they weren't movies. I believe it is about good storytelling which has always been around even before the written word. I believe that good writing helps with story, because it someone is confused and doesn't understand the story then it is a failure.

    1. I think that it is about good storytelling, and that bad writing gets in the way of it. Good writing doesn't call attention to itself.

      But I think it is hard for a reader to separate the story from the writing, and if the story isn't working for the reader, it is easy to pick apart the prose. Personally, I only notice the writing when I first start a book or when I get bored, which is never a good thing. :)

  2. I agree with Bransford. Many books have a pretty good stories, but the writing style can be pretty plain. Plain does not equal bad.

    Competent writing should not be looked down upon. That being said I enjoy beautiful prose. And my definition of beautiful prose may not coincide with the definition of a teacher or a random reader.

    Recommending a book is recommending an experience - and the writing contributes to that experience and it definitely deserves mention in a good review. It should be put into words and not fall prey to the internet camps of "rulez" and "sux".

    1. I agree. And I think plain can sometimes be beautiful. To me beautiful prose perfectly captures an image or an idea or an emotion, and that can blow me away as a reader. But the writing doesn't have to complex to do that. Sometimes simple sentences can amaze me in the emotion or image they manage to capture in such a few words.

  3. To me, good writing means writing that doesn't pull me away from the story.

    The more educated I get about writing, the more critical I become. It's gotten so bad I can't even enjoy Twilight anymore, which is a pity. Sometimes I wish I could go back to those carefree days when I didn't know so many rules. Of course, I was a lousy writer back then, so I guess there are trade-offs. :)

    1. Same here. I've only read Twilight once (there are only a few books that I'll reread), but I'm guessing once you know what happens little things get more noticed and annoying on a second read. All I know is that a blew through All of the book in the Twilight saga at an amazing speed for me. So the prose had to be readable, and I thought it had a strong voice. So I thought the writing was good.

  4. Enjoyed this. It's like trying to define what qualifies as a good car or how to determine if a house is well-built. So many different things must come together and so many other things must be avoided.

    And I remember that "voice" post Melanie gave. It was a great post. (Told her so, too. LOL)

    1. LOL, great analogy with houses and cars. Yes, a lot of things have to come together, and there will always be those personal preferences.

      I loved Melanie's post on voice too. It was the best definition of voice I've seen.

    2. Thanks Jeff and MaryAnn. That absolutely made my night.

  5. I'm with Melanie. For me as a slush editor, good writing is writing that I don't notice. If I'm getting tripped up on individual words, metaphors, or phrasing, then the writing isn't good.

    Of course, that's one of those annoying statements that is close to useless for working writers, so thank you for pulling all these points together.

    I should say that great writing is something different - great writing will occasionally pull me out of a story, but not in a bad way. More like the moment captures me completely, but doesn't distract from the story.

    1. Yeah, great writing is something different. I've truly been blown away by some amazing writing. Those are the books that make me think I'm such a fool to ever think I can do this writing thing. There are and have been some amazingly talented writers who manage to pull of beautiful evocative prose with an incredibly compelling story and with a profoundly meaningful message as well.

      True genius.

  6. MaryAnn, thank you so much for giving a more specific definition to such a general subject. I wish agents spelled things out this clearly. As usual your post is brilliant.

    And Sabrina, I love your point about the difference between good and great writing. I totally agree.

  7. Nathan Bransford and I might just have to agree to disagree on 50 Shades. I'd say anytime I'm rolling my eyes more than once a page it should knock at least a few points off the writing score. Then again, the story made me so angry that I couldn't judge the writing impartially, so there you have it.

    However, the point is well taken. I don't think James Patterson is a bad writer, at least not in his earlier books, and I've never understood what all the criticism of Twilight was really about (bringing up the same book in two comments in a row... I need more examples!) Most romances I read are competently written but not spectacular, which works in traditional romance because you just want to be lost in the POV characters' heads, not in the beautiful prose.

    1. True. I love Terry Pratchett because of how beautifully and humorously he writes, but I never dig in past the language. I prefer stories that you don't see the words, but I think there is space for both types of writers.


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