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What is Good Writing, Anyway?

// Author: Jordan Locke // 8 Comments

When I wrote my first novel, I had no way of knowing if it was awesome or pure rubbish. I showed it to a few people to get their opinions, and they told me my writing was good.

But I had close relationships with these people. I’m sure they wanted to give me encouragement; they weren’t going to tell me I sucked. And even if they truly liked my story, they weren’t editors or agents, or even writers.

The first real test was when I queried agents. Their responses would give me some hint of whether I was any good, I thought. Well, every agent rejected me. Standard rejection letters, no real feedback on my writing. Agents have hundreds of queries from wantabe writers to shift through every week. They have clients to serve, editors to woo. They don’t have time to critique every author.

With no requests, no feedback and only one novel under my belt, I figured my writing wasn’t quite ready for prime time. So, I studied the craft and kept writing. Five years later, for my fifth book, I received two offers of representation from well-respected agents. I assume that means my writing is good, right?

I still don’t know.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. Generally, I enjoyed my classes, but one frustration stemmed from how to determine what is good art and what is mediocre. You’ve all seen a Jackson Pollack (paint splatters on canvas) or Picasso’s Seated Woman (a portrait broken into pieces). I like both painter’s works, but even though I’m an artist by trade, I can’t tell you why these paintings are good, why the artists are considered masters. When my professor preferred one student’s abstract sculpture over another’s, did that make it better? It’s just her opinion, right?

Truth is, art is subjective.

Honestly, it’s impossible for me to know for sure how good my writing is. I can be fairly confident my final draft is better than my first draft and that my most recent book is better than the first one I wrote, but whether my work is high-quality stuff, I can’t tell.

While writing my last novel, I questioned whether it was good enough. When in the middle of the writing process, I’m too close to the work to know. My colleague said she really liked it, but she also had tons of suggestions on how to fix it. After revisions, I sent it to my agent, who told me it was really solid, said it was great. I still had doubts. Then I sent it to a couple of friends for final proofing and got glowing reviews. Okay, maybe it is good, after all.

Than again, others may disagree.

I have read some award-winning novels that I just don’t get. The author ignores so many of the rules. Repetitive words. Improper punctuation. Nonexistent plot. And to be honest, I didn’t find these books particularly interesting. Not my thing, I guess.

Then, there are those novels that take me away. The writing is heartbreakingly beautiful. Or the plot is so absorbing that I can’t put the book down. Who wouldn’t find this pure genius?

In the end, neither agent nor publisher nor critic can tell you if a book is good. Only you can decide for yourself if something is worth reading. I may or may not agree with you.

Tell me in the comment section: how do you determine if a book is good?

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  1. Jordan Locke - November 29, 2013 3:54 pm

    Please post a comment.

    • Anonymous - December 4, 2013 12:47 am

      I don’t think you can ever know for sure. One reader loves it. anotehr one is bored. As you said, art is subjective. I use my own measuring stick. Do I like what I wrote? Am I proud of it? In the end that’s what counts for me.

  2. Wyatt Bessing - December 1, 2013 5:31 pm

    Thank you for posting this. I can totally relate! I have an MFA in Critical Studies, essentially in MFA in figuring out what is good and bad art, yet I feel the same way, especially when it involves my own writing! It’s so difficult to look objectively at your own work; it’s like trying to see an entire forest when you’re at the center of it all. I think you have a good approach, giving your work to several trusted friends and “experts” and hoping that they’ll be honest enough to tell you what they truly think of it. If they enjoy it, others probably will too.

    Part of my definition of art is that it strikes that chord inside me, it resonates, it feels spiritual or literally breathtaking. Ask them if they felt that. If they did, you succeeded!

  3. Jordan Locke - December 1, 2013 8:22 pm

    Thanks Wyatt,

    I think everyone has their own idea of what is good. What resonates with one person, may not with another. I try to write a book I would enjoy reading and just hope others enjoy it too.

  4. Davonne Burns - December 8, 2013 6:24 pm

    This is something I have struggled with for years. As you stated, art is very subjective. The criteria I’ve always used with art of any medium is; does it move me. Does it make me feel. What does it make me feel and why? I try very hard to evoke emotion in my reader, sometimes it’s not a good emotion and I’ve learned that its alright. You aren’t going to love every person you meet on the street, so why would you expect the same of the people you meet in books.

    Conversely, poor writing is just that. If I cannot get passed the mangled mechanics to get to know your character you’ve lost me. This doesn’t have to be spelling/grammar related. I’ve read some published works where either the voice, style, plot or the pacing were terrible. The characters could have been likeable and the story engaging but there was a fundamental lack.

    What we are looking at is the difference between craft and art.

  5. Jordan Locke - December 10, 2013 3:38 am

    Thanks for the comment, Davonne. Yes, evoking emotion is key to making the reader connect.

    I’m a big believer in studying the craft. Honestly, I was not the best writer in my school years. I’ve learned a lot but I’m still learning. You need to study to become good at art or writing or just about anything.

  6. Cami Decker - January 7, 2014 6:32 pm

    So true! It is hard to know the quality of/have the correct measure of confidence in your own writing. And I feel the same way when I read published works too. Sometimes I am blown away, as you said, but sometimes I (secretly, of course) think I could do better. Ah well. Although it’s not as fun to read works like that, it is also encouraging to know that even the writing of published authors is not liked by everyone everywhere. Thanks for sharing! Keep up the good work!

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