The idea of what makes a good writer or a good piece of writing has been bobbing around in my head lately. I see so many writers worrying about the quality of their work: spelling mistakes, structural issues, struggling with descriptions – you name it.
Heck, I've struggled with thoughts myself about how technical imperfections tarnish my writing. Perhaps I shouldn't bother. I should take that post down. I shouldn't write in the first place.
Boy, that nasty little monkey voice at the back of our minds can be so dramatic.
With that in mind, today I wanted to talk about the 3 key facets of writing and why being a ‘bad’ writer doesn't necessarily mean you should stop writing.
It's an elitist idea that to be an author you have to be a strong technical writer. This requires access to education and disregards language barriers, neurodiversity and personal style.
There are other attributes, beyond perfect spelling and good verbs, that make a good piece of prose. Sure that stuff helps but if technique just isn't your thing, yet you have amazing ideas and can connect with others, that shouldn't stop you from putting your work out there.
Good Ideas Make Good Writing
Have you ever read a book that had such an imagination, you couldn't put it down? How about a story that invented new objects or language that stayed with you beyond the page? Of course you have! And did you really pay that much attention to whether that comma was in the right place or if that sentence was a bit overwritten?
No. If you're wrapped up in an incredible idea or concept, you won't give a fig.
Just look at the Harry Potter series. When did anyone ever say “yes, I love HP because the prose is excellent”. Nah. The magical world that was created, the characters and the story of good vs evil is what captured the hearts of millions. Note the ‘bad’ examples and edits made by Dysfunctional Literacy, but also the fans in the comments acknowledging that they still love the story, despite the ‘flaws’.
If you have an interesting world, captivating characters or an important message to give, don't let the fear of literary criticism stop you. Your work can still have power.
(Don't be a transphobe though. No one likes a transphobe *COUGH*.)
Powerful Connection Makes Good Writing
Let's go back to ancient times when storytelling wasn't on paper. Back then, stories took the form of sharing useful information about that poisonous berry bush that killed Nigel yesterday. These moments of connection and learning helped keep us alive. That's why storytelling remains an enduring part of human life. They encourage empathy, collaboration and help us make sense of the world.
You don't have to have a unique or original plot to write a meaningful story. Most stories are formulaic and have all been told in one form or another before (see Glen Strathy's breakdown of the 7 basic plots). But if the heart of your story touches us, you can write something unforgettable. Is there an unheard voice you're trying to raise? A cause you're trying to help? Why does this story matter to you?
If the journey your characters experience transforms them in ways that we can identify with and translate into our own life, we will find meaning in your work. This is another reason why Harry Potter was so popular. Most of us have struggled as a teen in school, most of us have brushed shoulders with death in some form, most of us hope good will triumph. Why not go through it all with a bit of magic, too.
Technical Strength Makes Great Writing
I won't beat about the bush, if your story has good ideas, powerful connection AND technical strength, then you're on to a winner. I'm not sure you could write a good book that was only technically well written. Without ideas and connections, the story will be bland.
When we talk about polishing technique, the basic idea is to make your prose as easy to read as possible. How can you convey your idea in a simple and engaging way? That's why we look at getting rid of clunky adverbs and adjectives. Do they add to the sentence? If you took them away would it still make sense?
Technically good writing often can't be seen, it looks easy. Its job is to guide the reader and further immerse them in the world, rather than distracting them with fancy words or 100 commas.
This is not easy stuff. The good news is, I believe it can be taught.
It takes a lot of practice and training to master the ‘rules’, let alone decide to break them. So, if there's a word you're struggling to spell, just keep trying or find an acrostic. If you don't understand showing vs telling or active verbs, get Googling. Go on Youtube, read blogs, read more books, take classes! The more you flex your writing muscle, the stronger it will get.
Don't forget: editors are here for you!
If all else fails, there are wonderful people out there who will help you polish your technique. From copy-edits, line-edits, proofreads to substantive edits – editors are professionally trained and specialise in working with authors to strengthen your work. We'll catch those typos, tighten your sentences and tidy your structure.
Still, it's worth remembering that no one is perfect. There are on average 10 errors in any published book. Mistakes are a part of life. That's why the best thing you can do is start. Write. Practice. We need your ideas and your voice to bring us together in new ways. Don't let a minuscule thing like a spelling mistake stop you.
If this post has spoken to you, you might be interested in a wonderful writer on Instagram called Aime McNee (@inspiredtowrite). She regularly talks about this issue and having the confidence to release your imperfect art to the world.
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