Is “Good Writing” Worth the Effort?

Have you ever been surprised to see many 5-star ratings and enthusiastically positive reviews for a book that’s poorly written? Meaning typos, clunky sentences, and weak or repeated words? I’ve seen this often enough to conclude that it’s not explained by authors’ friends doing them favours.

Then I read a post via a link from the blog of the estimable blogger who calls himself Chris the Story Reading Ape. He searches the blogosphere for posts of interest to writers. The one that caught my interest is titled What is “Bad Writing?” (And How Can We Avoid It?)

For a direct link to the post, click HERE.

Janice Hardy’s post prompted the following unvarnished thoughts which I decided to share here. Remember that word as you read: unvarnished. (And maybe a bit snarky.)

The post questions the idea that fiction writers absolutely must produce polished prose if they want their novels to be read and appreciated.

For readers seeking undemanding entertainment, “good writing” (whatever that is) takes a back seat to the combination of good enough writing and a great story that piques curiosity. Quite simply, readers keep reading if a compelling question is posed at the beginning of a story or novel. They really don’t care if there are a few typos, along with “filter” words, words ending in “-ly,” or too many instances of “was.” They may not even care if there’s telling instead of showing, as long as the story being told moves along briskly toward an answer to the burning question. Who is the stalker? What’s in the box? What will X do when Y’s secret is revealed?

Some readers do care about the prose, though. Editors, for example, or readers who are also writers. These people read a lot and pay close attention to what they are reading. They notice sloppy sentences, bad habits, and careless use of language.

Some writers may wish to be strategic with their writing efforts, tailoring them for their intended readers and not bothering with effects those readers don’t appreciate. For self-published authors, that means potential book buyers; for writers seeking traditional publication, it’s agents and editors.

A successful self-published author of genre fiction knows that the most important element to attract readers is the urgent question, irresistible puzzle, or imminent threat. Plot is king. Next in importance is an amiable main character or engaging narrative voice. Less important are detailed descriptions, and possibly unimportant is artful prose, otherwise known as “beautiful writing.”

This author would direct their primary effort to devising irresistible situations and setting them up in the first few pages. After that, it’s a matter of structuring the plot in such a way that the reader is always thinking “What next?” And an ending that elicits a gasp or a sigh pretty much guarantees a five star rating.

The writer who intends to engage in querying traditional publishers must think in terms of creating a saleable written product. That means being aware of both current and recent trends. What might be about to peak, or what’s ready to make a comeback? Or what story elements push the envelope just enough that the gatekeepers will see it as potentially the next big thing?

In theory, the author aspiring to be trad-pubbed doesn’t need to worry much about honing and burnishing their prose, because if a publisher takes on their work, it will be put through the editing mill. What the writer absolutely does need to demonstrate is a willingness to be edited. That’s why a track record of publication in magazines, anthologies, and similar vehicles is advised.

At the same time, the writer’s submission must not irritate the people who read submissions for a living. Consider how many typos these folks see every day, not to mention eye rolls, shrugs, and raven-haired heroines. Clichés, excessive modifiers, typos, and tired tropes are not the best accessories in which to dress one’s original and edgy creation for its trip to the publishers’ gates. Spare and underdone might have a better chance than florid and breathless.

Except in the case of literary fiction, where some form of beautiful writing is definitely required. What that is depends on the tastes of the reader, which is why getting published is a crap shoot. Luck is definitely an element. To help tip the scales, the ambitious writer may find it worthwhile to direct their efforts as much to making personal connections with published authors as to polishing their prose. This is where pursuing an MFA in creative writing may pay off, or at least superior schmoozing skills deployed in carefully chosen workshops, courses, or retreats.

Setting aside all those tedious considerations, what about the personal standards of the indie author? Should we not aspire to produce gripping plots, relatable characters, intriguing settings, and artful prose? Aren’t these all necessary elements of good writing?

Yes, they are. And most authors at least intend to incorporate them all in their works. Exceptions may include successful authors who crank out several books a year to satisfy the many readers for whom they are an auto-buy. Their brand sells enough books that they don’t need to twiddle with every sentence.

To sum up, good writing isn’t always worth the effort, but often enough, it is. The wise writer will recognize those situations and act accordingly.

Fellow writers and authors, do you ever decide that “good enough” is good enough, or do you always strive for perfection in your published works?


  1. Great observations, Audrey. Just yesterday, I was at the dentist, and they had a Tom Clancy novel in the waiting room. I’d never read one of his books, so I gave it a try. As I was reading the first few chapters, I thought “there’s an awful lot of telling, not showing, here.” But did it matter? Nah, I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen next.

    I always strive to make sure my books are as well written as I can make them. But at some point, I have to decide there’s nothing more I can do, and go ahead and put them out there for folks to read. There’s an old quote that “films are not released; they escape,” and there’s something similar with books. One could spend forever tweaking little things and never actually “finish” it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think once you’ve been a writer for a while, especially if you stick to one genre, you develop an instinct for when a work is as good as it needs to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Marina Costa says:

        I think my best is enough. I try to give my best writing, by several successive editing, betta reader(s) and then comes the editor to catch a few more lapses. However, after publishing one always finds a few more repetitions which were unseen in the editing process, a stray typo or a couple of wrong divisions of words at the end of the row… (This latest being specific to my language, Romanian, which uses – instead of ‘ ).

        And yes, I care less about mistakes, when reading, if the story is compelling… I might notice more the wrong thing in a historical setting (lack of research) than a typo or a repetition…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. We authors always judge our own works more strictly than those of others, especially the errors that pop up after publishing.
        That’s a good point about factual errors; they are more serious than stylistic issues.
        Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Marina!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. kingmidget says:

    An interesting post, Audrey. With a couple of exceptions, I just don’t think I focus on the “quality” of the writing when I’m writing a story. I just … write the story.

    I’ll think about first person or third person, when it’s time for some dialogue … I guess, the mechanics of telling the story. But the actual quality of the words and sentences? I don’t know.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. It could be that your style is developed enough by now that you don’t need to work it consciously. If you decided to change it or switch to a different genre or type of writing you’d find yourself doing that.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. kingmidget says:

        I don’t know …

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes we can get the story down quickly, but then read through and tidy up the writing, usually paring it down and spotting clunky bits. We Boutique Indie authors, catering for the select few who buy our books, don’t have to worry about churning out novels to meet the publishers’ demands.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s one of the good and bad things about being indie. I like the term “boutique author.” We produce artisanal novels and stories!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, I just made it up!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. When I saw the title of your post come across my email, my immediate thought was, Have you been inside my head? I’m deep (very deep) into a second developmental edit of my novel-in-progress, and last night I was asking myself this very question. (Not to mention the same observations as you about five-star reviews.) I’m striving for art, not commerce–but striving for art is costing me money and huge chunks of my life, and is it really worth it in the end?

    When I sat back at the computer this morning after a good night’s sleep, I went right back to the deep developmental edit with no question in my mind of the advisability of doing so. The book isn’t good enough.

    During my last few years of teaching writing, I came to the conclusion that pronouncing writing “good” or “bad,” is pretty useless. It doesn’t matter what the writing IS, but what it DOES. Does the finished piece of writing meet the author’s intent with no major impediments for the reader? If the answer is yes, then the pieces works. If the answer is no, then the piece doesn’t work.

    Thank you for raising this question for discussion, Audrey!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. kingmidget says:

      I agree with you about “good” versus “bad.” To me, bad writing in the context of a published work is one that has typos and clear grammar problems — basically writing that is just sloppy. But take that out of the equation and if I don’t like a story, it’s not because of the quality of the writing, it’s because I just didn’t like the story or how it was told.

      For instance, I have a couple of pet peeves when it comes to reading a novel. First, when the writer introduces 83 characters in the first 10 pages. An exaggeration, but you get the point. If I get to page 20 or 25 and I can’t keep track of who all the characters are, that’s a problem. Second, when it takes too long to get to what the story is actually about. Sure, the blurb is supposed to tell me that, but frequently I buy a book and then don’t read it or weeks or months later and I’ve completely forgotten what the blurb said. So, if I’m 50 pages in and I’m still trying to figure out what the story actually is, that’s a problem .

      But neither of those things are an indicator of good or bad writing, they are indicators of different storytelling styles.

      A friend just finished my recently published novella. He enjoyed it and told me it was well-written. I don’t even know what that means!

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I think genre expectations come into it, too. Prolonged battle scenes bore me silly, but that doesn’t mean the novel doesn’t work. I’ll bet if your friend told you how your novella made him feel, you would now exactly what he meant by “well-written.”

        Liked by 3 people

      2. kingmidget says:

        Well, I know he got to the “can’t put it down” stage, which is all I really need to hear. 😉

        Liked by 3 people

      3. I agree with you on battle scenes. I skim them, even when I’m really enjoying the book!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. It’s like that old saying, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Or don’t like, for that matter. Most of us don’t expect our readers to analyze our books or their own reactions to them. If a few, or better yet, many readers tell us one way or another that they enjoyed our books, we can conclude we’re doing something right!

        Liked by 3 people

    2. The more I think about what is good or bad writing, the hazier my thoughts become. There are so many angles to it–sales, reviews, the opinions of informed readers vs. casual ones (assuming you can identify such opinions). If a novel or story is made into a movie, does that mean it’s “good?” Or if the writer believes their novel is a masterpiece even though hardly anyone has read it (never mind bought a copy), is that writer self-deluded or a good judge of writing? It’s impossible to say. Whether the work meets the author’s intent does sound like a good way to think about it.
      On the other hand, it gives writers and readers something to think, talk, and argue about! Thanks for your thoughts, Liz.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome, Audrey. You just may have a point that defining good and bad writing serves a utilitarian function by giving writers and readers something to think, talk, and argue about! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  5. chucklitka says:

    I can’t think of anything else to add, Audrey, you said it all. I’m a “good enough” guy. I keep it simple and write the stories I want the way I want them. When they are good enough to put my name on them, I publish them. I have, however, gone back and reworked sections of published works. Indeed, I did so several weeks ago, so there is always room for improvement. The thing is that there are a 100 ways to say anything in English. You may have settled on #23, only to come back a month later and realize that # 78 sounds better. And a year later, it might be #3… Which is why I settle for good enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We writers have to be practical as well as creative.


  6. Anonymole says:

    Nicely written and presented, “unvarnished” as it might be.
    It’s a spectrum is it not? You can have it fast, excellent quality, or in high quantity — pick three — provided your author is an AGI. (smile)

    Your premises do seem directed toward market forces. Is that the difference between an author and a writer? Authors only care about the $ and will do whatever is necessary to get it. Writers only care about the product and will sacrifice all to achieve their personal pinnacle of excellence? And, sometimes, (rarely?) are they the same person.

    I know diddly-squat about the fiction market aside from the fact that it’s plum saturated with schlock — to which I can personally attest to (and have contributed to, as well).

    I’m afraid, in the end, such discussions end up becoming academic analyses of and industry that is now spread across all plains of possibility. Pick your poison there’s plenty to choose from.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I see it, writers are people who write stuff. Authors are writers with at least one published work, who therefore have a public presence and may be concerned with sales. Publishers (who may also be authors) are by nature concerned with sales, especially if they are part of mega-corps. There is a spectrum of possible combinations.
      I know almost nothing about fiction marketing. My approach is put the books out there and see what happens. I use the blog as a “platform,” but don’t expect much from it; now it’s mostly a way to discover and talk with fellow writers/authors.
      As often happens, this post was prompted by the deluge of “rules” and advice doled out to writers, often by people selling editing services and “how to write right” books and courses. Nothing wrong with that, but it bugs me when I see writers swallowing that stuff without questioning it.
      For sure there is more than enough out there to read, think about, discuss, and rant about!
      Thanks for your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. HI Audrey, I definitely have a good enough point but I try to incorporate good writing into my stories and I don’t write fast and furiously. I don’t aim for more than 95% though or I’d never publish. I am the same with my artwork, I aim for 100% but usually settle for 95%. Less than that, and its back to the drawing board.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good approach, Robbie. Quality but not elusive perfection.

      Liked by 1 person

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