Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Makes Writing Good?

Thank you for all the well wishes and prayers these past few days. Your sweet comments were so appreciated. We are doing well and it sounds like her family is coping, despite the difficult circumstances. Thank you.

Last week my mother-in-law and I were discussing books. We were talking about an author and I said something like: "His stories are great, but I his writing drives me crazy."

She was surprised by this reaction and asked me what makes writing good or bad.

I had to stop and think about it for a minute.

My immediate answer was that writing is subjective, what one person loves another may hate and visa versa, but then I came up with a real answer.

If writing is superior words are never wasted. Every word is meaningful, every sentence is beautiful, every thought is perfectly expressed. An example of this (for me) is THE BOOK THEIF, by Markus Zusak.

When writing is good words are rarely wasted. If there is a page of material, 95% of it is pertinent to the story. The words may not be as perfect as those in a superior book, but they get the story across and don't waste my time.

I get annoyed when books are wordy. Bad writing (for me) is when a writer takes a page to express a thought that could easily fit in a paragraph (or a sentence), or uses adverbs with reckless abandon, or spends forever explaining a room when I REALLY want to know if Don and Harriet are going to get back together.

The interesting thing is, I like more than a few books that are written badly. I also hate a few that are written beautifully. Story trumps all. If the story is good enough, I'll suffer through a thousand page book that should have been two hundred pages, AND I'll tell my friends and family I loved it.

I have not mastered the art of good writing. Sometimes I'm sloppy. Sometimes I use more adverbs than I should. Sometimes I start sentences with and, but, or so. I'm working on it. I want my writing to be good so it doesn't distract from my stories.

Do you agree with my assessment? Do you think I'm a raving lunatic? What makes writing good (or bad) in your eyes?

42 comments:

Valerie Geary said...

I think you are spot on! In addition, I think poor writing is when an author "writes down" to his/her readers, or assumes they are stupid. This kind of writing frustrates me to no end!! Sometimes the most powerful language is also the most subtle.
PS- The Book Thief rocked my world! Amazing book!

Patti said...

I totally agree with you, sometimes the story is so good you look past the adverbs and passive voice. In the end I think as long as we are getting better and learning from mistakes, we're ahead of the game.

Marybeth Poppins said...

I go back and forth. But I must admit that I don't look at any books the same since I started learning the craft.

The first Harry Potter...OMG...I just couldn't read it.

I say it's good writing if I can look past all the adverbs and grammar issues and get lost in the story!

Tamika: said...

I'm dealing a lot with passive voice, I think that makes writing weak. Strong sentences that are sharp and clean spark my attention. That's how I want to write.

Vonna said...

I agree with all of your observations. Also, I love sentences that evoke a clear image, but there is danger in overdoing vivid language.

Suzyhayze said...

I couldn't have disected that better myslef. There was a great story a few years back... a terrific historical adventure... and I cringed at much of the writing, but still enjoyed the ride.

There have been books I adore, and can put down easily even though the words sing....

And then there is that magic mixture of both. It's what I strive for. The bad and the good ;)

Bane of Anubis said...

Clean writing is something I'm pretty sure I'm fairly strong at (even if it doesn't show via my posts and comments :); it's the dynamics of voice that are my bugaboo.

Amy Tate said...

I'm so glad your family is all right! Those wammies are so difficult during these stressful times. I completely agree with you. I love it when a book takes me out of writer/editor mode, and transports me into "I can't wait to find out what happens next" mode. I haven't mastered this art, but it sure is fun learning...well, most of the time!

Jemi Fraser said...

Story trumps all - YES!!!

One of my fave books is Anne of Green Gables. The entire first page is one paragraph - and if memory serves me correctly, it's one or two reaaaaalllly long sentence(s). I'd never write like that. I'd probably never read anything new like that, but I love it :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Oooops - forgot to mention I left you a little blog bling over at my blog :)

V. S said...

I agree with you. If it is a good story, people will read it, regardless if they have to sit through long descriptions of a room. I love a story that places the image into my mind without being too wordy. That is pure talent.

Bethany Mattingly said...

I think you're right. I had an English teacher who said the first person who can find a single sentence to take out of the Scarlet Letter without affecting the story in the slightest will get a hundred dollars and an A+. Not one of us got it right, he said there wasn't one. I don't know that I believe him...I didn't like the Scarlet Letter so for me, there was more than one highly qualified choice.

melane said...

Your assessment is a good one. I've read books in which the writing was not great, but the story just sucked me in. I've also read some that had beautiful wording, but the story itself bored me to tears. To me, a captivating story with memorable characters is what makes me really like a book.

Jessie Oliveros said...

I agree. I see my writing has changed over the last year by the fact that I do waste less words, although I have a ways to go. I'm so sorry about your cousin.

Jade said...

Wasted words are a crime. I HATE when an author spends ages describing the setting. I think that if they are a good writer they should be able to do it in a paragraph or even a few sentences.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I've been killing passive voice in this past revision. I was having a hard time spotting them the last go-through, but now the little buggers are jumping out at me. At least it makes it easier to kill them.

Adverbs too. Those two have got to go!

kathrynjankowski said...

If the writing's truly bad, I'll eventually set the book aside. Strunk and White's said it best: omit needless words! Even so, I'll give just about any author some slack as long as the words aren't too jarring. After all, we want our readers to be "lost" in the dream world we're creating for them, don't we?

Dawn Simon said...

I feel something is well written if the book takes me away, making me less conscious of the physical pages, the author, and the mechanics. Writing has definitely changed the way I read.

I'm glad you and your family are hanging in there at such a sad time.

Tracy said...

While I believe that writing well requires good storytelling abilities and knowledge of craft, the fact that there is a lot out there in print that could be considered sub-par tells me that subjectivity reigns supreme in the industry.

I'm not complaining - I just think that's the nature of the beast. As long as an agent likes something enough to represent it, and editors like something enough to buy and print it, every kind of book imaginable will be in bookstores.

It all comes down to someone's personal taste. Sometimes the masses agree, and less than stellar writing (or stories) become global bestsellers. Sometimes it doesn't matter what anyone thinks, because Oprah features a book on her show and sales go through the roof...haha.

As a writer, I can only improve myself to the best of my ability, and tell the stories that I feel need to be told. Hopefully, one day, my writing will resonate with several someones in a position to get my work into book stores. And hopefully the people who buy my work will like it enough to be repeat customers. I don't think that's too much to ask ;)

And that's my two (times 10...) cents.

storyqueen said...

I would say that I don't like books where I notice the writing too much,and not in a good way. When the writing gets in the way of a story, or calls too much attention to itself, well...I guess I don't like it much.

Shelley

Heather Sunseri said...

Wow, you put that so beautifully, Natalie! Story does trump all, but wouldn't it be nice to think I also followed most (maybe not all, b/c where's the fun in that) of the rules and wrote a clean, well-crafted book? That's what I'm shooting for, but I think it's going to take several rounds of edits.

Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought said...

Fluidity. When you read a book and you get the sensation you're floating down a river on a raft. You await the destination, but are basking in the beauty of every twist and turn.
~ Wendy

Candice said...

It's so funny that you bring this up because I read a certain book, which will remain anonymous, this weekend, and I was so frustrated that the author didn't do the story justice! I wanted to rewrite it. LOL!

Linda Kage said...

I agree with you. I read a book for the story first, and if that keeps me captivated I can overlook writing styles I might not particuarly like. I can't overlook a bad plot even if the words are brilliant quite as easily though.

I keep hearing so much about "The Book Thief," I'm really getting curious to read it. I even asked for it for Christmas!

Erica said...

I agree. Nothing like a bunch of adverbs and a one page description about a room to turn you off! I also think story is king, also I need to have some type of romance in it. I'm a sucker for those. I need action too.

The writing can be mediocre, but I don't like a lot of description and self reflection stuff :o)

My thoughts are still with you and your family.

Jennifer Shirk said...

LOL! I hope you're not a lunatic because I feel the same way!
Gosh, sometimes I can't even put my finger on why I like certain writing and why I don't.

CKHB said...

Right there with you! Twilight is a perfect example of a book that had, to my mind, very weak writing, but I needed to know what happened next!!! And there are other books that are lyrical and luminous and... okay, there's nothing happening, I have to move on.

I'm a Hemingway fan because he never wasted a word. I'm also a John Irving fan for the same reason, but WOW they have totally different writing styles! Tricky stuff.

Janna Qualman said...

I had a very similar conversation with my sister. And I largely agree with you. While I appreciate the story more often than not, I don't always follow or appreciate the writing itself. And for me, it comes down to difference in style and voice.

Jill Kemerer said...

I have to understand and sympathize with the characters. They have to be believable or I won't like the book.

Jessica said...

That sounds about right to me. I still want to read the Book Thief, but I forgot about it. Thanks for the reminder!

Paul Greci said...

I think voice trumps all. That's what either draws me in, or makes me set the book down.

Susan R. Mills said...

I agree with your assessment. I'm also working on making my writing better. That's the name of the game.

Jody Hedlund said...

This is a tough one. Because even though the story might be good and holding me, I still might not be able to wade through too much description or the wordiness. Of course no one is perfect (or very few!), so I think we need to show grace as we read, but good writing and good story-telling are both necessary to keep me turning the page.

Thomas Taylor said...

Yes to your comments about story, and yes to much of what others have written. I would just add that over writing bothers me a lot, not just wordiness, but anxious attempts to cram too much into once sentence. Sometimes it really does take two.

I like to see a little of the poet's art in prose writing -- syllables finely counted and stresses balanced. That's when writing really sings for me.

Sande said...

Give me a meaty truth to identify with, some honest, transparent characters to respond and a salting of unconditional love; you have me coming back for the sequel.

Terri Tiffany said...

Great way to put it! But I have been told it's ok to start a sentence with AND:))

Chuck Dilmore said...

hey, Natalie.
i enjoyed your assessment - and agree.

everyone has their own tastes...
some, for depth
some, for fun
sweetness
sadness

it's just gotta resonate!

peace~
Chuck

Lisa and Laura said...

Oh, The Book Thief is perfection, isn't it? I think that book is a masterpiece.

Laura Martone said...

Note to self: Must read THE BOOK THIEF.

Ahem.

I don't think you're a raving lunatic at all, Natalie. Story does trump all, but clean writing doesn't hurt either. At the moment, I'm struggling with the balance between substance and style - and I must admit, to my chagrin, that my novel is completely overwritten in its current state. Please don't hate me because I favor adverbs. I'm trying - really, I am.

Suzette Saxton said...

Your blog has such a real-life feel to it... the texture of the paper background, the lovely font... I love it.

Great post. For me story doesn't trump all. There have been a couple of mega bestsellers I've tried to read, but unfortunately I can't get past the crappy writing.

There are other books that don't have much of a story, but the writing is so stellar it *feels* like there's a story going on. (Now that's a good writer!)

So I think good writing comes first, story second.

L.T. Elliot said...

I pretty much agree with your assessment. Don't be too hard on yourself for those "and, but" beginnings. Sometimes, a purposeful fragmented sentence does a walloping amoung of good to the reader. =]

MeganRebekah said...

Know what's funny? I enjoyed The Book Thief, and passed it along to my brother in law, who also enjoyed it, but we both agreed that it was the concept and story we enjoyed. Neither of us liked the writing style.

So when I started reading this post, when you mentioned a good book with writing you weren't crazy about, my mind went immediately to The Book Thief.

Can't say it enough - taste is subjective!