I’m often disappointed by the quality of writing when I read popular fiction (or sci-fi), but I have a very difficult time articulating and pointing at the difference between good writing and bad writing. In this thread, I’m asking others to help me articulate and understand the differences between good and bad writing in fiction.
Before I turn this lose, I do have some ideas and comments about this that I’ll rattle off:
1. The difference often involves the approach, attitude and command of language, but the author’s use of language isn’t the only difference (more on that later). In good prose, the author seems to care about the language as an end in and of itself. They seem to want readers to enjoy the language as much as the story, characters or themes. Here’s a quote from Michael Cunningham that captures this:
While not every sentence necessarily needs to contain a subject, object, and verb, every sentence does need to have rhythm, cadence, movement, and a pattern of sounds. Without those elements, a sentence doesn’t bury its miniscule hooks in the reader’s brain. And a story, if it’s not composed of compelling, rhythmic (or arrestingly arrhythmic) sentences, may move forward in a rudimentary, what-happens-next fashion, but it doesn’t live, it doesn’t spin, it doesn’t glitter. Not if it’s every line is merely plunked down like one more cinder block on a construction site.
With bad writing, the words and sentences are cinder blocks. The language is merely a means to an end—and the end is usually a suspenseful plot, juicy melodrama, etc.
2. Along similar lines, good writing often involves details, observations and ideas that are almost parenthetical to the story. This often adds richness and dimesion to story, while the opposite occurs in bad writing—everything seems flat and bland (except for the plot).
Any thoughts? Btw, I’d love to read some specific examples of good and bad writing. (If I have time I’ll try to find some specific passages.)
About point 1. Look at Ursula K. Leguin’s The Dispossessed. It features very functional writing – nothing really sounds beautiful at all. But this style of writing beautifully functions with the themes of the narrative. So I guess that goes with your second point. But my point is that I don’t think good writing has to have both of those.
If you’re interested in SF you should definitely check out The Dispossessed, though!
Nabokov on Chekhov, from his Lectures on Russian Literature:
“Thus Chekhov is a good example to give when one tries to explain that a writer may be a perfect artist without being exceptionally vivid in his verbal technique or exceptionally preoccupied with the way his sentences curve. When Turgenev sits down to discuss a landscape, you notice that he is concerned with the trouser-crease of his phrase; he crosses his legs with an eye upon the color of his socks. Chekhov does not mind, not because these matters are not important – for some writers they are naturally and very beautifully important when the right temperament is there – but Chekhov does not mind because his temperament is quite foreign to verbal inventiveness. Even a bit of bad grammar or a slack newspaperish sentence left him unconcerned. The magical part of it is that in spite of his tolerating flaws which a bright beginner would have avoided, in spite of his being quite satisfied with the man-in-the-street among words, the word-in-the-street, so to say, Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was. He did it by keeping all his words in the same dim light and of the same exact tint of gray, a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud. The variety of his moods, the flicker of his charming wit, the deeply artistic economy of characterization, the vivid detail, and the fade-out of human life – all the peculiar Chekhovian features – are enhanced by being suffused and surrounded by a faintly iridescent verbal haziness.”
There is more but my wrists are tired.
About point 1. Look at Ursula K. Leguin’s The Dispossessed. It features very functional writing – nothing really sounds beautiful at all.
I don’t think sounding beautiful is the only quality I’m talking about when I’m talking about an author’s intent and attitude towards language. Good writing doesn’t necessarily sound beautiful or poetic, does it? (Maybe great writing, does? Nah, I don’t think so.) I think good writing suggests that the writer cares about language and has significant skill at using it. I haven’t read Leguin’s The Dispossessed, but I’ve read other things by her (e.g., The Left Hand of Darkness, Wizard of Earthsea, etc.). I can’t recall the quality of writing very well, but I’m pretty I didn’t think it was bad writing—which leads me to another point.
Perhaps, I don’t really need good writing so much as I have a hard time dealing with bad writing. I’m not sure if others can relate or even if I’m being clear, but there you go.
I’m always looking for good Sci-fi, so I’ll keep this mind. Btw, I find most writing in sci-fi to be either bad or just OK. I certainly can’t think of sci-fi/fantasy where the writing is exceptional.
Btw, I find most writing in sci-fi to be either bad or just OK.
I can make some recommendations, but I guess it depends on what we mean by good writing! :)
I took a science fiction class last year and the two that I really enjoyed were Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is just incredible, although maybe not the greatest writing. The other was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is also incredible, and I remember it having some really good writing, too.
I’m not entirely clear about your point of the quote. Are you saying that Chekhov is a good writer, even though he doesn’t display the attributes of good writing? Personally, I don’t think “exceptionally vivid verbal technique” and other qualities that Chekhov supposedly lacked are essential to good writing.
FWIW, I like the quote, but I’m not sure how it distinguishes good writing from bad writing. The take away point for me is that good writing can occur in various ways—including not having the attributes to conventional ideas about good writing.
That passage was the first thing which came to mind when I saw your thread. If I had any point, it is that the message (or the voice) transcends the medium.
But message and voice are pretty different things, though, right? Message and style/use of language seem pretty distinct, while voice and style/use of language isn’t. Can you separate voice from style/use of language?
… I guess it depends on what we mean by good writing! :)
Hopefully we can get there. :)
The other was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is also incredible, and I remember it having some really good writing, too.
Ishiguro’s writing is solid. NLG is technically sci-fi, but it’s mostly not, don’t you think?
I read a few Dick novels, but not that short-story. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the writing. With sci-fi writers, though, I generally feel like the writing is not very good or decent. For fantasy, I guess I would say that Tolkien is more than decent.
Message and voice and related, of course, because a voice is a person, a soul, a perspective, and a message will be determined by the nature of that voice. The message exists because of the eye of the individual.
This talk of mine is dangerously general in nature…
You said, If I had any point, it is that the message (or the voice) transcends the medium.
Here’s what I’m getting at. I assume the medium is writing (or did you mean fictional stories?). I can understand the message transcending the medium (although I don’t completely agree with that), but the voice trascending the medium (i.e., writing) is more difficult to grasp, and I wonder if it’s possible. Voice can transcend writing in this case because the writing is inextricably linked to the voice, isn’t it?
“Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.” —Raymond Chandler
Matt said, You have to have passion.
So, do you think passion distinguishes good writing from bad? I never considered that. On the other hand, if you mean a good work of fiction in toto, then the quote makes more sense. When I speak of good/bad writing, I mean the actual sentences and words and the way they come together; and while we can’t completely separate the writing from the content, the emphasis is on the former.
Btw, here are some specific examples of authors and/or books:
Lee Child’s first Jack Archer novel. Actually, I found the writing worse than pedestrian; it was almost incompetent at times.
Ken Follett—Pillars of the Earth. The novel was somewhat entertaining and the plot carried me along, but the writing wore on me. Part of the bad writing included some of the sex scenes (e.g., the dialogue in those scenes, the descriptions, etc.)
Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove. I like this example because I don’t think this is necessarily great literature (well, maybe it’s an example of what I would call popular fiction approaching or becoming Literature), and in terms of entertaining plot, it’s not so far off from popular fiction. I wouldn’t say the use of language is exceptional, but there is nothing wrong with it, either. Maybe there are moments when it is more than that, too.
I also like mentioning Richard Russo’s Empire Falls—which has a Hollywood TV feel to it—like a literary version of James L. Brooks. Russo has a gift for good dialogue, but again, I’m not sure the writing would be great. It’s very good though.
Others: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro.
I probably haven’t read enough great writers, but someone like Thomas Mann comes to mind; maybe Virginia Woolf. There use of language seem to be at a higher level—often more complex, richer, more original, more insightful. Again, I’m primarily talking about the writing, not the actual story, characters and themes. Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck might be two other guys I’d throw in there. I’ve been somewhat impressed by what I’ve read by Proust so far (but the translation is bugging me, too).
I think concepts are just as important as ‘passion’.
Either way, for me ‘bad writing’, or at least ‘bland writing’, is the means to an end model jazz mentioned earlier. If a writer’s main concern is to move the plot forward, then to me that is a writer that i’m definitely not interested in.
If a writer’s main concern is to move the plot forward, then to me that is a writer that i’m definitely not interested in.
But do you not enjoy popular fiction from time to time? I do enjoy popular fiction (e.g., thrillers), but I must admit that if the prose is extremely pedestrian it leave a very dissatisfied feeling.
^^^nah, i don’t have time for popular fiction Jazz. Books take a while to read, they are a commitment, so i only want to read works by authors that are great writers otherwise i feel i’m wasting my time.
There are exceptions of course, but i’m rarely interested nowadays.
Books take a while to read, they are a commitment, so i only want to read works by authors that are great writers otherwise i feel i’m wasting my time.
The good thing about popular fiction is that you can breeze through it. My problem is that bland prose leaves me with a dissatisfied feeling. This is why I try to look for novels that are entertaining reads that are well-written at the same time.
“When I speak of good/bad writing, I mean the actual sentences and words and the way they come together”
Uh huh—you mean what I would call good prose vs. bad prose rather than good writing vs. bad writing. But it’s impossible to come up with a checklist that’s in any way objective. Popular fiction and unpopular fiction are probably both equally subject to Sturgeon’s Law.
“I’m always looking for good Sci-fi, so I’ll keep this mind. Btw, I find most writing in sci-fi to be either bad or just OK. I certainly can’t think of sci-fi/fantasy where the writing is exceptional.”
There’s actually a lot of sci-fi that’s well written. Dick and Le Guin are good suggestions. Also Marge Piercy (particularly Woman on the Edge of Time), Octavia Butler, and I’ve already fed you the name Harlan Ellison.
And obviously there’s lots of well-written crime/detective fiction.
never use a big word when a small one works just as well
overplotting is the death of all stories.
“. Popular fiction and unpopular fiction are probably both equally subject to Sturgeon’s Law”
Sure, but i only care about the best, and the best in literature trumps the best in popular fiction ;-)
Anyway, this is meaningless without examples. who is a great popular fiction writer nowadays?
But it’s impossible to come up with a checklist that’s in any way objective.
I don’t think we can come up with any absolutes, but couldn’t we come up with general qualities and tendencies of good prose versus bad prose? I assume you would agree that we could identify hallmarks of good filmmaking versus bad filmmaking, so couldn’t we do the same for prose?
I haven’t read Piercy or Butler yet, but I’ve read the others. I can barely remember Dick’s prose, but Le Guin’s was just OK, if I recall correctly. Ellison is maybe a little better than OK. In any event, talking about this subject is difficult as we (I) haven’t really defined good prose versus bad prose. (Btw, I did read “Repent Harlequin Said the Tick-Tock Man.” I thought it was OK. I prefer “Mephisto in Onyx.”) Thanks for the recommendations.
This sounds like those who think the best art films are better than the best Hollywood movies. Or the best fine dining is better than the best comfort food. Personally, they are all apples-to-oranges comparisons, and, for me, it comes down to mood—sometimes I want watch a Color of Pomegranates and sometimes I want to watch a Die Hard.
Well, we should probably define what we mean by popular fiction. Would Michael Chabon, Ian McEwan, Jeffery Eugenides or Jonathan Franzen count? Or are we talking mainly about writers like Dan Brown, Ken Follett, Janet Evanovich? Maybe we should distinguish these writers with terms like “popular fiction” (e.g., Chabon, et al.) and “best sellers” (e.g., Brown, et al.)?
“couldn’t we come up with general qualities and tendencies of good prose versus bad prose? "
We could try, but we’d have to come up with something that some includes both Proust and Dostoevsky, Joyce and Hemingway, Flaubert and Henry James, Chekov and Raymond Carver, Faulkner and Robert Musil, Kafka and Virginia Woolf, Conrad and Nabokov, Italo Calvino and Paul Bowles, Vonnegut and Philp Roth . . .
“i only care about the best, and the best in literature trumps the best in popular fiction ;-)”
Well, OK, but you can push the distinction too far, can’t you? Dickens was extremely popular in his day, Poe’s “The Raven” was widely popular, Melville was quite popular up to the point at which he published Moby Dick. Sure, you should read the classics, but you can wait around 20 years fretting over whether a writer is “really” great or not, or you can just read and let that stuff work itself out on its own.
“we should probably define what we mean by popular fiction.”
So now we have to define “good” AND define “popular”—ugh ; )
Jazz turns his particular style of inquiry to the attention of books.
Like with movies, to make an argument over whether writing is bad or good involves looking into the specific writing and explaining why you have that reaction, discerning specific elements and considering how they affect you. There are tendencies behind most “bad writing” of the type that rarely, or hardly ever, gets published, but amongst the publishable stuff are still general aspects that may point toward “bad” writing.
I’ve been reading quite a few books on writing recently and came across the following statement. I cannot remember if it came from Robert McKee’s Story or William Zinsser’s _On Writing Well."
A good story well-told.
The well-told section of that phrase is the area in which much of the above thread, and most usual complaints about bad writing, directs its attention. We’ll have to set aside the debate about “story”: having read all too many defenses about story as some by-God divine center of writing, film, and so on, I’ve managed to see past the semantics of the word “story” to really mean that the writing is even about something, and structured in such a manner as to present what it’s talking about. So it could as well be A good topic well-told or a good message well told or whatever, story is just the most common, most familiar, and most respected structure of writing. For another way of looking at this, there is also good and bad technical writing which revolves around “does the reader understand the technical details?” as “a good story” and “is the writing clear and follow logical order?” as “well-told”.
So if the complaint around pop novels is that the story is fine, the writing is “bad”, then we’re focusing on the writing not being “well told”. You can have the opposite: well-told writing without a good story. One usually does not see this rarity simply because those who write well tend to have natural adherence to storytelling… it’s those who don’t write well who often need help structuring stories as well. They go hand in hand. For instance, over-flowery, over-poetic language exists, and is bad writing because it is bad storytelling — if a character is tying their shoes and not predisposed to philosophical/poetic thought, the act of tying his shoes shouldn’t take four paragraphs to describe in intricate, emotional detail no matter how pretty the language used.
“Well told” largely comes down to mechanics and style. Mechanics are things like bad grammar, punctuation, and usage (such as malapropism). Style are things like the above over-poetic descriptions, redundant or ironic vocabulary, pacing issues, and the like. All of these things are fluid and perceptions change as to “properness” over time, but by and large the essential elements tend to remain the same. We can niggle over how many exclamation points a full length novel should have*, but basically good writers internalize a set of rules and procedures that makes their writing both compelling and clear, and break them only in cases in which the purpose of breaking them is also compelling and clear (for instance, nobody but those who really miss the point criticize Flowers for Algernon for bad spelling and punctuation in the beginning and closing bits).
So when you’re reading something and thinking to yourself, “This is bad writing,” usually you should be able to point to some improper use of mechanics or style. Like if the plot is thrilling but the writing falls flat, you are complaining about style, which does not mean that “He took the gun and shot the man, who died” is bad because it isn’t, “The trigger set off the sonorous excitement of an echoing bang that roundly filled the room and bounced off their skulls, as the bullet thrashed through the man’s perforated ribcage with a crackle and a burst of red blood that sprayed in droplets amongst the wavelengths of the guns’ blaring ricochet held in space, until his heart pounded the last beats and the frozen silent screaming corpse lay on the ground in a pool of crimson red,” which is ALSO bad, but because neither example really use language in a manner that gives the instance of shooting a person to death immediacy and psychic distance.
“A good story well-told.”
I’m pretty sure that was McKee. The phrase borrowed from Mark Twain, perhaps?:
“I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”
i will come back here tomorrow after i sleep to further bump and then discuss this topic (which is one of my favorites)
also…i had a topic asking if (aspiring) screenwriters would like to do a sort of workshop with each other’s scripts. we could even set up a Skype conference and give each other criticisms/praises/suggestions/pointers etc.
i’m gonna bump that thread too in hopes that other people on this site would like to workshop with each other and myself.
(DiB, I plan to respond to your post. I just want you to know I’m not ignoring you.)
Right, but I wouldn’t start with a different approach—namely, I’d pick out bad writing from good. I want to show some specific examples, but I need to track them down (not to mention type them out). If we can separate from good from bad prose, then we can see if and how good writers will fall in the same category.
Unfortunately, that’s how these things tend to go. :)
I look forward to reading your comments.
OK, Jazz (and others), here’s a test ballon. Good writing?:
“That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing—the stream.”
(and yes, it’s all a single, grammatical sentence.)
((hint: it’s better if you read it aloud, but you have to sort of work out in advance where you’re going to take your breaths so that you don’t disrupt the the flow of the rhythm of the words.))
I read it through once quickly. My thoughts:
1. It’s not the type of bad writing you’d see in a popular fiction. No way. I would say this writer at least cares about writing and cares about doing something with the writing. It is not merely a means to an end.
2. It’s hard to judge this out of context of the novel/short story, but I’d say it is good writing—or at least not bad writing.
It’s Hemingway, by the way.