Stories are equipment for living.

-Kenneth Burke

Recently I read a book that I thought was super-lame. The writing was flat, the dialogue was corny, and page after page I kept asking myself, Why am I reading this? But I couldn’t put the stupid thing down! I just had to find out what happened.

On the flip-side, I also recently read a book where the writing was absolutely gorgeous. The words and sentences were rich and eloquent, the descriptions so vivid, the characters so well drawn. And yet I never felt fully immersed in the story. I finished it, but it left with me a kind of ho-hum feeling, despite my appreciation for the writer’s skill.

These kinds of books always leave me feeling frustrated and conflicted. It makes me pause and think about the definition of good writing. I totally want to bash on that first book, but at the same time, something about it made me keep reading, and I secretly enjoyed it. I want to give praise to the second book, but at the same time, it was easy to put down. What makes a book praiseworthy? What makes it worth a reader’s time? Is “good writing” defined by the words or the story?

There are lots of writers out there who have been very commercially successful, but in literary circles are looked down upon because of their “horrible writing.” I won’t name names, but I’m sure you can think of a few who might be on the list.

These writers are really good at getting you to turn the page. They know how to turn the points of the plot at the precise moment to pique your curiosity. They know how to continuously increase the tension. Plainly put, these writers are great storytellers.

Other writers have a gift for words, form, and structure. They know how to string words together to create the most eloquent prose, their descriptions evoke vivid images. They can draw deep and witty characters and create the perfect setting and tone. I appreciate these writers, but I have to be honest, without great stories, their beautiful writing is lost on me.

But the very best writers can do both. They know when to stop indulging in their own genius and make something happen, and they know when it’s alright to slow down and give us the sweetness of their words. I will always seek out those books and treasure them. I aspire to write the same.

But when I don’t have both, when it’s either an exciting story with mediocre writing or an okay story with great writing, I wonder what value I should put on the book. One is more enjoyable to read and the other is perhaps more thought provoking and educational. So maybe we just need to judge them like we do food. Sometimes we want to eat chocolate and sometimes we need our vitamins.

I opt for chocolate vitamins.

What do you think? How do you define “great writing?”


7 comments

  1. I look at this and see myself as the one that tells a good story, but doesn’t always use the most eloquent way of telling it. That may be do to the fact that I’m revising right now, and I look at some of my sentences and I’m like, ‘huh? What was I thinking?’ And then it gives me a whole other set of discouraging emotions. I have a story to tell, I just can’t tell it right.

    But that’s not true. Some people are born with the talent to weave words together so beautifully, but others have to work hard for it. And that’s okay. We are writers for a reason. We have the story, or we have the words, and if we are lucky we have both. But if we don’t, we work hard for the other.

    Hopefully that all made sense…like I said before, I’m a storyteller. But hopefully after reading many books, studying on how to write certain scenes, characters, dialog, etc. I will become an eloquent storyteller.

    So what constitutes great writing? A great writer.

  2. I think that you need a book with a gripping story line and great writing.

    If you have one they are still ‘good’ but they are not the best, which is what we want. They are just harder to come by.

  3. Hi! I hopped over from Ali’s blog. She’s spotlighting you today. 🙂

  4. This is always my dilemma on Goodreads 🙂

  5. I have the exact same dilemma. It drives me nuts.

  6. I have to care about the characters. If a character is presented really well, I’m quite forgiving of incidents of sloppy word choice, insignificant plot, etc. But if the character isn’t written well, I just don’t care.

    Look forward to following you.

  7. I love this. Such a great post!

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