What is ‘good’ writing?

D.M. Jarrett author of Sean Yeager Adventures muses on the balancing act of what makes writing ‘good’.

Recently, I signed up to review another author’s book and while I’ve yet to begin the task it has me thinking. I’m wondering about what to comment on in the review and what my yardstick should be. Should it be about the standard of the writing or my impression of the work as a reader. Should it be about the plot or a combination of all the above? It’s tricky. And then of course I don’t want to be too kind or too cruel because I’ve been through the hours and hours of creating a work until you are sick of the sight of it. (Temporarily sick of course).

I have found in the past that when you are involved in something (such as writing, designing or music) your focus shifts and you become almost incapable of stepping back from the small details to see things as others do. It’s almost a curse. Yes I quite like that song but rhyming ‘fall’ with ‘crumble’ and ‘stumble’ is making me feel ill. There was once a song I heard so many times that it could almost induce physical vomiting whenever the first few bars were played because I hated aspects of it so much. Fortunately, someone eventually culled it from radio play lists and there was a suitable parody (but it didn’t go anywhere near far enough to my mind.)

So what is ‘good writing’? Would you recognise it knocking at your front door and inviting itself in for dinner? It’s a tricky one and no doubt liable to split academics down the middle let alone bloggers. So I’ll settle for giving my thoughts as subjective as they are:

1) Readability – I look for a good smooth read which flows and is relatively easy to follow. I’m not keen on heavy reads where I have to repeat read sentences to understand the intended meaning. Neither am I keen on use of language which fails to paint a picture in my head. I find it’s working when I almost forget about the words and I’m carried away with the ideas and events being portrayed.

2) Plot – I always want to know what’s going on. I absolutely hate being taken on a wild goose chase with characters who have no clear fit to the flow of the story. Some authors drive me nuts with lengthy parallel plots where inevitably one is preferable or more entertaining than the other. And worse when it all comes together at the end in a giant twist. More than likely I’ve given up caring by Chapter 5!  Okay it can be clever, but I don’t like being sold a pup as a reader. Leave out the dull stuff and keep me enthralled or laughing or scared. I actually really, really, really, do not care what the characters have for breakfast or what they think of their father unless it is directly relevant to the plot line.

3) Genre & style – I’ll read almost anything but it has to evoke emotion for me to want to read on. It can be any of the main reactions – laugh, cry, tremble, be excited, be amazed – preferably several of them at once. However if a story does not make me want to care then (unsurprisingly) I won’t bother to care and may well put the book down. I’m not big on concept books or shallow books unless they bring out a reaction and I find the best books work on all these levels, so I choose to read them instead.

4) ‘Universe’ – I enjoy being taken somewhere else during the read. Sometimes it can be the best part of the book for me. I still want to feel and read easily, but if the places and events are sufficiently interesting it can carry an otherwise poor plot. There are several books I’ve read where the style and setting were on reflection far better than the eventual story which in some cases was actually pitifully poor, predictable or worse unremarkable.

5) Use of words – I would imagine my vocabulary is about average for a graduate, nothing amazing and a reasonable understanding of less common word meanings. I like seeing interesting words in books where their meaning flows well and adds something, it restores the brain a little. On the other hand, there are some writers who find it necessary to use obscure language and structures, which not only cloud their intended meaning but also irritate the hell out of me. Ironically, I don’t mind if they invent words so long as the meaning is disclosed, but force me to reach for a dictionary more than a couple of times and I’m unlikely to forgive the  book. And never write in slang or phonetic language to evoke a character unless you absolutely have to, which is still never. A few odd words here or there will do. But frankly I’m not interested in how clever, clever it is and in one very notable book it is completely wrong in context as well. As in totally implausible and unnecessary.

6) Overall impact – This is probably the most personal aspect for any reader I would guess. My preference is to have a positive overall impact because it feels like a chore if you’ve read a sizable book to arrive at a negative or unclear ending. I hate endings where you have to guess what the outcome was and I also dislike endings where it’s a laboured denouement with all loose aspects closed off. A short third act with a clear outcome tending towards positive, or at least hopeful, usually does it for me. All the better if there is a plausible twist at the end. Best of all show us an ending we could not possibly have thought of ourselves and which makes sense.

7) Deus Ex Machina – Otherwise known as cheating with plot twists and outcomes. Makes my blood boil and has been known to spoil books and films completely. Unless we’re in a fantasy and magic genre, I really don’t want to read about impossible escapes and invisible plot devices that only arrive in the last few pages. ‘It was all a dream’ has to be the worst of the worst excuse second only to ‘they imagined it all (the whole story) in their last moments of life’ . Err nope I’m calling the plot police and charging the writer with abuse of writer privileges. The bond between writer and reader (in my opinion) is that the reader is not to be short-changed on page 450 (or whatever) having read the previous build ups and tensions. Nor do I like the swings into the absurd that pepper so many films. e.g. despite being shot 15 times our hero managed to climb a mountain appear at the last second inside a locked building and save the helpless captives, all because he is the hero. No stop right there! Call the plot police! Shoot on sight with nuclear, water cannon, toffee apples (yes it’s easy to cheat isn’t it?).

So your honour, the subjective terms of ‘good writing’ have mostly to do with what we personally want from a book. ‘Incredible, how did you figure that out?’ the jury cried. Make us laugh, cry and jump then give us a decent resolution. Easy huh? (err yeah right).

In the meantime, I’ll do my best and reach for the birch twig each time I catch myself breaking one of my own  rules. (Anyone have some bandages and liniment going spare?)

Happy reading

D.M. Jarrett

Sean Yeager website


2 thoughts on “What is ‘good’ writing?

  1. mmackayj

    …got me thinking… about two books in particular: the first is evocatively and poetically written but the story is horrible, the second creates an evocative and absorbing world but is stilted in its style and, I have to say, quite poorly written. The first I didn’t finish and shaln’t go back to, the second I’ve read several times. I suspect the critics loved the former and slated the latter… go figure! As you say, it’s subjective and depends on the many different aspects you may be looking for in a book.

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