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?