Here’s a post by Janet Reid that gets at a question that’s both very difficult and very important.
A colleague’s recent blog post about a fellow who objected to her not reading the whole book to make a “fair assessment” drew the ire of the writer, who wrote a comment on the post that showed me in no uncertain terms that his writing was, in fact, very weak.
People who write well in novels also write well in the comment section. And in Facebook posts. And Tweet streams. And they write good queries. …. they know how to string sentences together in a way that leaves me thinking “there’s a writer.” It may not be a book I want to read, but the writing is good . . . how do you know if this applies to you.
It’s really really hard.
And then Janet gives the same advice I always offer (vehemently) when the question comes up:
The only way I know to have confidence in your writing is to learn to recognize good writing. And you learn to recognize it by reading it.
This actually goes straight back to the time when I loaned a Sword of Shannara sequel to a friend and thus was led to realize that my friend couldn’t, or at least didn’t, distinguish between writing that was good, bad, or indifferent; that she would read, apparently with equal enthusiasm, any book with fantasy trappings.
Whatever you like to read, the ability to distinguish excellent writing from good and good from mediocre and mediocre from execrable is, it seems to me, the very first skill a writer needs to develop. Then you can aim toward good writing, even if you can’t hit the target initially. Janet Reid also comments that your aim may fall short at first, as she adds that actually practicing writing is also important.
Ira Glass also got at this issue in his oft-quoted comments about good taste paving the way for good writing:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.
But you see how Ira Glass is starting with the assumption that you have good taste, and I don’t think that’s true, or not necessarily. I loved The Sword of Shannara when I first read it. I was, what, eight or ten or something, and I thought it was great. A more discriminating taste came later, and writing came much later. So, yeah, the most important advice I give when, for example, I’m talking to kids at a school is: if you want to be a writer, pay attention to the quality of what you read and think about what makes a great book stand out from the herd. Then aim to write at that level.
Addendum: I’ve never read anything by Dan Brown, but he does come in for his share of comments when people are talking about good vs bad writing, doesn’t he? Janet Reid’s comments — referring glancingly to Dan Brown — made me think of this delightful article by Michael Deacon in the Telegraph: Don’t Make Fun of Renowned Author Dan Brown. If you’ve never happened across it, then if you have a minute, you really should click through and enjoy it now.