What is Good Writing?
As with most discussions this didn’t just come out of nowhere. It started with a comment my brother made, which I have mostly forgotten (I have no memory for details). Ultimately he was mocking me for thinking the first part of Name Of the Wind was good, and thus I had not sense of good writing.
Naturally, I was offended. I like to think that I can recognize good writing from bad writing. Which brought me to today’s question: What is Good Writing?
To answer the question I started by considering the various aspects of writing: plot, character depth and progression, setting and world building, language and dialogue, description, grammar, flow of prose, voice, style, etc. I tried to tease apart the various components of writing as I would break down the elements making up a film (director, writer, actor, cinematographer, etc). With my list of components making up writing I tried to strip away the least important elements. I argued with myself that plot was not as important – a good book could follow a familiar plot and still be interesting because of good writing. However a bad book could have a new and exciting plot and still be terrible to read because of poor writing. Thus, plot was not necessarily part of the intangible writing.
I tried to remove characters under similar arguments. I am drawn to classic archetypes. But then I thought of books that included those familiar archetypes but failed to properly develop the characters. These flat, boring imitations were bad writing. So perhaps I character depth and development was critical to good writing.
How else could I form a base definition of good writing?
I decided to look at books that exemplified good writing and bad writing (for contrast). Examples of bad writing were far easier to remember. First on the list: Name of the Wind which had started this whole problem. At the time, I was intrigued by the opening pages. I read with a curiosity. Then the pages started to elapse and I continued to wonder when the story was really going to start. From my perspective I was reading a very long (and often ridiculous) character introduction. I never got to the end to see if anything came of the opening which held promise for me. As for the bad writing, what caught my eye was the author’s failed attempt to play up classic tropes. The killing of the family (too clichéd for words), the sojourn in the city to show how the child was first bullied and then became stronger and I quit by the time the lead reached university (it was Harry Potter all over – only worse). For me the bad writing was in the character and plot development.
I am not good at reading details in books – mostly I skim read. While this allows me to eat through a story in an afternoon, it does mean I will miss the little details. I was blind to the black on black on black description that proliferate the start of Name of the Wind. I also missed the compulsive bottle polishing performed by the main character. A shame as these two examples are comical for all the wrong reasons. However, this is also an example of terrible writing; world inconsistency and illogic of action (and boring detail).
Now what about an example of good writing?
For various reasons my mind drifted to my bookshelf and the Harry Potter collection I have there. First, Harry Potter is not brilliant writing. That said, I thought of books 1&3 which I hold as the very best of the series. Are they good writing? Well, they have engaging characters, tightly written plots and an engrossing world. They had that intangible feel, the spark in the writing that I notice in the books that I really like. In contrast the latter half the series is undeniably terrible. It is a combination of things: a plot that is recycled throughout all seven books, a world that becomes internally inconsistent, a villain without motivations (moustache twirling is not a real motivation), and a main character so obnoxiously whiny I really wanted to punch him in the face. They were also bloated, rambling and poorly written. It was more than just bad plots and undeveloped characters. There was something in the stringing of the words and sentences together that was rough, poorly edited, primitive – ultimately bad. It is an interesting series in that I feel you can see deterioration of the actual writing over the seven books.
For an undisputed example of good writing I had fall further back to one of the classics: Pride and Prejudice. It is well written, with compelling characters and a tightly organized plot. There is definite character development. There is functioning world that does not contradict itself. And most importantly it is fun to read. It is good writing.
But was I any closer to defining good writing?
Well, I tried to apply my thoughts and examples to a book I was reading: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Reading the first few pages led me to think this was not an example of bad writing. There were characters with goals and flaws. There was semblance of a plot. However, the style was such that each character of future importance came with their own backstory. It was a trifle cumbersome to read. You would be following the goings-on of the Jinni when he came in contact with another character (on in at least one instance, he came in contact with a tertiary character that then interacted with a secondary character). The introduction of the secondary character was followed by a two page synopsis of that individuals history: he was born in … went to school… married, had a family and was happy until the day when… and that is why he ended up in New York. It was consciously done and thus I attributed it to the style of the book. However, I cannot say it was a good style. I slogged through some 200 pages or so before the two main characters met. I then continued to plod forward until eventually I became bored with the pace and skipped to the last chapter.
What can I take away from this experience? Was it an example of bad writing or an incompatibility between author and reader?
I know that some books, sometimes terribly written books, can be engrossing. I pick them up and charge headlong to the finish without putting them down. Others I savour and all too many books I lose interest in and leave unfished. Personality and taste play a huge part in how a reader reacts to a book. The same can be said for art. I don’t like all art. However, while I may not like a painting, I can appreciate whether it is good or bad. There are qualities that distinguish a child’s crayon drawing of their horse … I mean dog, from those of a master artist. The viewer may prefer the crayon drawing but that doesn’t make it good. So I feel the same can be said with writing.
There has to be some defining characteristics that make the writing of some books good and the writing of other books poor irrespective of who much an individual enjoys the story. Only, after all this thinking I am still not certain exactly how to define those characteristics. It is a combination of plot, character and style that weave together to produce strong writing. A flaw in one of those threads weakens the entire work. And damage to more than one aspect will produce a piece of heavily flawed material, weak to all who read it.
*PS – I would really love to talk to someone who actually liked Rothfus’ Name of the Wind and can defend it as good writing. I am honestly interested to know what you enjoyed about this piece.