There’s been quite a discussion lately on a mystery list serv about good and bad writing — sparked by a discussion about Dan Brown, the mega-selling author who no one has ever called a good writer and some have said a lot worse about. Everyone seem to agree that bad writing is easy to define:

  • writing that calls attention to itself
  • awkward phrasing
  • repetitiveness
  • wordiness
  • blandness
  • vagueness and confusion
  • clichés
  • flat, one-dimensional characters,
  • self-indulgent description and/or philosophizing
  • hard-to-swallow events

The debate is about what exactly constitutes good writing, and the subset discussion: Can you actually define good writing or is it entirely a subjective judgment? Some say good writing has a list of known qualities, yet when pressed, they failed to offer a list of those qualities.  Others say good writing is simply the absence of all the attributes that define bad writing. Others insist it is more than that, yet can’t agree on the set qualities. (This reminds me of the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who said about pornography, paraphrasing here, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”)

Some readers think the ability to write an effective description is a trait of good writing. Other readers dislike and/or skip descriptions.  Others say good writing is poetic. Some readers don’t like poetry and would prefer to read Louis L’Amour or Elmore Leonard. While we’re at it, what exactly is a “nice turn of phrase.” Could you get a handful of people to agree that a certain group of words was a nice turn of phrase?

After giving this much thought, I’ve come up with this vague, but functional, description of good writing: Writing that does not draw attention to itself as writing, but you pulls you along smoothly, eager to read more.

I know some of you can do better than that? What is good writing? Does it have a universal set of qualities? Can you name some?

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  1. I like your definition, LJ.

    I’m posting here because I saw your tweet and wanted to be first (silly, I know) and to tell you that my husband has read two of Dan Brown’s books and says, “they weren’t the worst books I’ve ever read.” There’s a ringing endorsement. 😉

  2. This is pretty much the same thing you said, but I’ve always said great writing is writing that makes you forget you’re reading a book.

    Jenny Siler is one of those authors I love because when I finish reading her books, I feel more like I saw a movie or experienced it first hand and it’s my own memories.

    THAT takes a ton of talent and a ton of skill.

    So to me, when you’ve forgotten there are words on the page–then you know your’e reading great writing.


  3. Good writing draws you in and puts a pillow over the face of your time.

  4. Hi,
    Is it ok if I put a link here from my own site?

    – LM

  5. I agree that good writing propels you through a story, I disagree that it does so without calling attention to itself. My favorite books tell a good tale and make me fall in love with their words at the same time. They turn a new phrase, describe the indescribable, and make me want to read them aloud, just for the pleasure of feeling the syllables on my tongue.

    Perhaps that’s the difference (in my opinion) between good writers and great writers. The good ones tell me a good story, and the great ones do it with that extra richness.


  6. Oh gee. I cannot define them, no. I guess I know good writing when I read it, but unless it’s really REALLY bad, I think the story is more important to me than the writing. I read The DaVinci Code and I enjoyed the heck out of it. I thought it was a hell of a ride and it was fun. Mr. Brown may not be the best writer around, but I gotta say he’s far from the worst being published today. I think he’s a terrific story teller. I know I’m in the minority, but oh well – not the first time!

  7. Thanks for stopping in, everyone. Leanne, if you’re link is related, sure, post it for others to access.

  8. Hi LJ,

    There’s a wonderful quote that’s been variously attributed to various jazz musicians of note, such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. It goes like this: “There are two kinds of music – good music and bad music”.

    Although that’s a pretty simplistic defining line, I personally believe there are only two kinds of writing – good writing and bad writing. The experience of reading is so personal that only a simple, undifferentiated notion like that makes sense to me.

    I have loved books that friends – even friends with seemingly similar literary tastes – haven’t been able to read past page 10. To be sure, I’ve forged ahead with books that were not “good writing” because of a specific interest in their subject matter, but that’s not really reading – it’s information seeking.

  9. Good writing examples? The best I can think of is Rosamunde Pilcher, especially her “The Shell Seekers”. When I read that, I see moving pictures and forget I’m reading. She draws the reader into the world she’s created, and we feel like we know the people we’re learning about.

  10. A better question may be what constitutes a good book? I tend to classify books in four categories: good writing; good storytelling; bad writing; bad storytelling. The best books are those that combine good writing with good storytelling. Margaret Atkins is a marvelous writer, but I always finish her books scratching my head and wondering what the hell happened. Dan Brown spins marvelous yarns that make me overlook prose that might sometimes trigger my gag reflex.

    Good writing may be spare (Elmore Leonard) or descriptive (Michael Gruber), but darned if they both don’t write great books.

    As for bad writing in a story that fails to hold my interest, it gets filed in the recycling bin.

  11. I think great storytelling is something that brings an interesting story to an intended audience and then challenges their perceptions, ideas, feelings, and past actions dealing with the subject.

    I think writing is our most popular vessel in which storytelling travels. We often talk about writing as a style. Great writers mirror a great story with a great approach to writing, others fall short. Each one of us has one, its our ability to convey our stories/message in written form.

    You can teach someone to become a good writer, just as you can program a computer to play music, but teaching someone to be a great storyteller, well I’m not sure about that.

    As for Brown, I’d have to say he’s a cinematic writer, but that’s about it. A writer for moviegoers.

  12. I think a distinction can be made between good writing and good storytelling. Prose style is a matter of craft, a skill. Great storytelling is an art, an act of imagination.

    I think story is all, and with the years I love more and more a high degree of inventiveness–wildness, playfulness, boldness, extravagance, both in creating characters and imagining what they do in the tale. That’s why I have moved into fantasy with my new book, ZADAYI RED (out in July from TOR).

    Bernard DeVoto was noted at the Breadloaf Conference for telling young writers, “Murder your darlings.” That means all self-conscious writing must go, because it makes the reader think about the writer instead of the story. My great models for this style are Mark Twain, Tolkien, and others easily named. Art that preens, that calls attention to how handsome it is, is bad art. Great art conceals itself to the eyes of all but other writers. Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.” But his prose style seemed natural and effortless as everyday speech.

    Or so things seem to me now.

  13. Really difficult to define. What I like, someone else doesn’t – and vice versa. And what I like today may not be what I like a year from now. I certainly don’t like most of the books reviewed by The New York Times, but I don’t think those books are bad. They’re just not for me.

    Straight From Hel

  14. People who read genre fiction aren’t looking for good writing, they’re looking for a good story. Dan Brown’s plots are fun and they move fast. If you’re looking for literature, try Shakespeare.

  15. the novel of Dan Brown are all great works, i specially love Angels and Demons ::

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