Monday, June 9, 2014

Writing: How Good Does It Have to Be?

by Misha Crews

As I re-read the title of this blog, it sounds like a joke. But I hear this from people all the time: “I really want to be a writer, but I just don’t know if I’m good enough.” And that begs the question: just how do we define “good.” And how good is good enough?

Ask ten people how they define good writing, and they will probably give you ten different answers. One may be obsessed with grammar and punctuation (“You used approximately 4.5 adverbs per page; that’s 2.75 more adverbs than recommended!”), one may talk esoterically about “art” (as in: “It’s okay writing, but it’s not art.”), and one or two may simply say, “Anything that I can’t put down is good writing to me!”

So what is Good Writing?

Now, this is a touchy subject, and to be honest I hesitated to tackle it, because I’m afraid it will seem that I’m either defiling the hallowed rules of grammar or bruising the tender flesh of art. But I’ve done a lot of reading lately, from both published and unpublished writers, and I’ve come to realize something important:

“Good writing” is writing that creates an emotional connection with the reader.

And that’s it. (Almost.)

Good writing makes you laugh or cry, makes your skin crawl, arouses your passion (for good or evil). It communicates something to you. It brings you into its particular universe. It makes you feel, and that’s the primary mission of “good writing.”

A long time ago I started to read a book which I found to be constructed of pretty bad writing. I won’t go into detail, but I’m sure you’ve all read enough poorly-written books to know what I’m talking about! But even with its technical flaws, I found myself becoming absorbed by the story. I wanted to know what was going on. When I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about it, and when I finished it, it stayed in my mind for a long time afterward. And you know what I call that? Good writing! You know what I call the technical flaws? Bad editing. *smile*

The way I see it, if this writer had had a better editor (or a better grammar teacher), this book could have been a best seller. Because it created an emotional connection. And the fact that it was able to have that affect in spite of poor use of language just highlights how deep that emotional connection was, and makes me realize anew that the author was indeed a very good writer.

Good writing doesn’t have to be technically perfect. But it does have to be technically correct enough that it doesn’t detract from the emotional connection.

What makes writing technically correct?

Here’s what technically correct writing is made up of (in my humble opinion):

• Grammar and punctuation.

• Proper spelling (of course!).

• An understanding of – and comfort with – language. Not just for dialogue purposes, but also because the rhythm of language varies from age to age and from place to place.

• Story structure: the highs and lows, ebbs and flows of your story.

• Characterization: the hardcore techniques of bringing your people to life.

I’m sure I’ve left out a few things, there but those are the basics. All of these things are important: Grammar, punctuation, language – these are your tools, your instruments. Story structure and characterization – these are the beams and girders of the world you are building. But none of them should ever become more important to you than forging an emotional link with your readers.

So how do you go about creating an emotional connection? And how do you know when you’ve done it?

Here’s what I think: How do you create an emotional connection? Start by feeling it yourself. Fall in love with your characters – even the bad guys (or especially the bad guys, as the case may be!). Make sure every part of your story fascinates you, and if it doesn’t, change it! Because if you’re not interested in any part of your story, I don’t see how or why the reader would be!

And how do you know if you’ve actually achieved the emotional connection? Have someone read your work. Or several someones. They should be people you trust (especially when you start out!), people who aren’t afraid to be honest. Are they “feeling it” when they read your story? No? Ask questions, figure out what’s going wrong and change it. Yes? Well then, you’ve got something good going!

(Oh, this is very important: they should be people who enjoy the genre in which you’re writing. I once had someone get very critical about my writing. Eventually I found out that this guy never read “women’s books” and in fact hardly ever read fiction at all! So save yourself some time (and heartache) and don’t give your romance novel to someone who hates romance novels, LOL!)

So what do you call Good Writing?

If you’re still not sure that your writing is good, don’t be afraid to indulge in a little self-examination. Just ask what you, yourself, consider to be good writing. Shakespeare? Okay, are you trying write like Shakespeare? No? Oh, you just want to make people feel the way you feel when you read Shakespeare?

Okay then, you have now established what kind of emotional connection you’re trying to forge with your readers: the same kind old Will forged with you!  And that’s a good place to start! Just remember, William Shakespeare didn’t start out as an Immortal Poet. He didn’t just pick up a quill pen one day and scribble rough winds do shake the darling buds of May on a piece of parchment. He honed his craft. He learned how to make art by making art. He learned by doing.

And I hope that this blog has made you feel like doing! So quit reading, and go write. (You can start by leaving a comment, if you like!)

So how do YOU define good writing?


  1. You mean old Bill didn't arrive on the scene fully formed a la Athena? I'm crushed. No, wait. Make that relieved! I'm relieved!

    Misha, I agree with you. The best stories make an emotional connection with the reader. If the connection is strong enough, the reader will keep reading regardless of the flaws. I recently read a boatload of books by a particular author who needed some Serious Editing. And possibly a new proofreader. But in the heat of the story, those were minor annoyances that I didn't care about. I just kept swiping to the next chapter and downloading the next book in the series. Very satisfying.

    I've slogged through many technically perfect books where the primary emotion evoked in me was boredom. Who wants that?

  2. Love it, Misha! Great post. I agree, good writing is compelling and moves you emotionally. I've read some indie pubbed books over the last year that would fit into your "poorly edited" category, but I kept reading them because there was something compelling about the characters and, often, gripping about the emotional tug. Good reminders to us all! <3

  3. Well put! Yes, I've read some books in need of editing that kept me going til the end, and some supposed "classics" that I couldn't make myself finish. There's so much subjectivity in something like "good writing". For instance, I'd say Stephen King is a fabulous writer. However, for me, he's TOO good--because I can't put his books down if I start reading one, but I HATE the way his books make me feel. (And I usually don't sleep for 3 or more days.) I don't ENJOY them, though I recognize them as well done.

  4. Absolutely agree. Good points. Took me years to figure this out, btw.

  5. Misha, you've put your finger on the unspoken fear at the back of every writer's mind, I think. Whew! Drawing a distinction between "technically" good writing and writing that's so good it grabs our hearts is smart. And true. And something we should all tell ourselves in the wee small hours of the morning. Thanks for sharing!

    I'm with you. Stories that I can't stop thinking about are the best! That's why I find it hard to read a book and write my own at the same time. But I wouldn't want to read something that slipped my mind the moment I put it down!

  6. Great observations and insight. And that's why, as a writer, it's good to read and keep reading lots of books. Pay attention to how they make you feel. So often we try to get the perfect polished sentence, but then it lacks any oomph to impact the emotions.