Should We Aim to Write Above the Reading Standard?

Hey, gang! Since we last met here I finished up a novel I've been working on for a while. *throws ALL the confetti*  Well, I say "finished", but it actually just got shipped off to the editor.  (We all know the real work comes once she takes the scalpel to it. :)

It's such a weird mixture of relief and angst when it's out of my hands. But the positive is that I'm now able to reclaim the parts of my life I've been neglecting in order to make my deadline. Like blogging! 

(Thank you all for the comments on my last post btw. My wife was duly humbled by your kind words, and I'm slowly working my way around repay each of you with a comment in kind.)

Should We Aim to Write Above the Reading Standard?

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the somewhat fallible notion of "good writing". I related it to the subjective line between a good house and a good home, saying, "The worth of a house is based upon function, form, location, etc. The worth of a home is based upon memories and feelings. Your house might be worth $150,000, but your home might very well be priceless. "

(Note: I don't quote myself out of hubris. It had just been so long ago since I'd posted that I had to go look it up to remember what I said. LOL)

Anyway, in that post I made a couple of offhanded references about the basic mechanics of "good writing", specifically calling out adverb spamming as a common stumbling block. 

Well, you fine people took me to task in the comments (and in e-mails), pointing out that the presence of an adverb will not destroy a story. I actually agreed with you in the post, but didn't articulate it very well.

So I'm afraid I gave the wrong impression. To the extent they aren't related to style, I view things like adverbs, passive phrasing, repetitive word choices, etc. like mosquitos in our writing: They are inevitable, but we should kill as many of them as we can because they are at best a nuisance, and at worst a disease spreading menace. 

Purely from a fundamentals standpoint, I've never read a perfect novel and I doubt I ever will. (God knows I'll never write one...) Furthermore, I can guarantee that a grammatically pristine read does not universally translate to a "good read". 

But all of that being said, I had more than one person let me know of various bestselling books they've read recently that are riddled with things deemed to be mistakes or sloppy writing. They use adverbs in every other line, begin every third sentence with 'it', etc. 

I've read them, too. And it's true that many of the foibles we fuss over in our critique circles the average reader could care less about. At least there's plenty of evidence to suggest that's the case.

But does that mean we shouldn't worry over them, either?

Not unlike other artists, I believe most writers hold their work to a higher standard than the general expectation. For most, there is a reading standard and a writing standard. Even though an average reader might not demand a certain level of word wielding acumen , we're going to try to achieve that anyway.

Claude Monet, the great French impressionist, once destroyed dozens of his (what would now be considered near-priceless) paintings because he didn't think they were fit for public viewing. Granted, he was going blind and severely depressed at the time, but there was clearly some level of motivation in him to achieve a standard that most people wouldn't even be able to discern. 

Similarly, when I read Hugely Popular Novel X, and it isn't the most polished, it doesn't make me relax. I don't suddenly think, "Well, I don't have to worry about getting any better, because I'm already better than that guy, and the readers love him!"

It keeps me up at night. I worry about falling into a sense of complacency with my craft. My insides fester with the notion that yes, I'm getting some good reviews, but is my work really living up to my own standards? 

That's not to say my writing sets some crazy high bar for writers everywhere. (ha) But I do work at trying to get better each time.

We live in an age--a beautiful age in my opinion--where authors are able to make their own decisions about when a work is fit for public consumption. But that freedom also comes with the burden of self-restraint.

We are truly the stewards of our craft, or at least more so than any generation of writers that has come before, and I believe we ought to struggle with that. 

What about you? Are your reading and writing standards different? Have you read a successful novel that wouldn't live up to your own writing standards? How did it make you feel?

~EJW~

29 comments:

  1. I'm a perfectionist at heart, which means I am always trying harder and aware that I fall short. I'm working on another story right now and it is slow going because I am so aware of sentence structure and flow. I'll ponder one sentence for several minutes before moving to the next.
    And as a musician - I really hold myself to high standards.

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    1. We need to have a slow writer's support group! :)

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  2. I kept thinking of Stephen King's quote in his book On Writing: "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." Since King was my earliest influence, that one sentence, that one opinion, makes me perpetually question every damn adverb I use.

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    1. I'm the same Holly. I think about every one I use.

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  3. My point about adverbs is that they are not "wrong." They are a style. Currently, they are a style that is out of fashion. They are not mosquitoes. Possibly, a better way to look at them is like salt or a spice. Maybe pepper. People like that stuff in varying amounts, but, even people who like a particular thing, can have too much of it on their food. Adverbs are a thing we use in writing. They wouldn't exist if they didn't serve a useful purpose. They idea that they should be purged is wrong.

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    1. I know many editors who would disagree with you on your opinion of the use of adverbs as style. But as I said in the post, you have to allow for style. But style shouldn't weaken prose, it should enhance it. That's a fine line to walk. As Holly mentioned above, I tend to share King's view of them.

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    2. It would be interesting to go through King's work and count the adverbs.

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    3. Oh, they're definitely there! (I've read most everything the man has written and he can crank out a clunky sentence with the best of them.) I definitely don't want to suggest perfection is the goal. I saw the Sound City documentary recently, and one of the legendary musicians being interviewed made the comment that music wasn't meant to be perfect. Basically, the beauty comes from the nuances/imperfections of the individual performances. Which is what I think you're suggesting. (And I agree. )

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  4. I share Andrew's opinion. Many writing "rules" are just styles or fashions. For every rule, there are dozens of exceptions or reasons why you might want to break it.

    Is there good or bad craft, good or bad writing? Absolutely. I'm not sure you can get at it by following rules.

    To answer your main question, I think many writers develop a certain perfectionism, even if we don't start out that way.

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    1. It seems to always go back to, "you have to know the rules before you break them."

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  5. I think we must set a standard for ourselves. But remember the average reader is interested in story first. So your standard better have a good story to tell in there. No one wants to read a boring well written book.

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    1. Definitely. Just like a good story can be ruined by sloppy writing. As you say, it's all about finding your balance.

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  6. I don't write novels anymore, but I can still relate to this as an artist. I'm never satisfied with my work and am always trying to find a way to improve my skills. Needless to say, me and complacency don't mix... XD

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    1. Exactly! I believe perfectionism is at the heart of all "artsy angst". :) I paint and draw as a hobby, but the reason I decided to pursue writing seriously is because I could never move beyond my insecurity with my art. Nothing ever lived up to my mental imagery. I still don't like to share my art because of it. But I'm okay with my words being out there... mostly. :)

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  7. It's interesting that so many bestselling books have quite a low standard of writing and that it doesn't put people off. I don't think it pulls them in either, it's just that their are important factors to what sells than grammar. As long as you can make yourself understood, everything else is personal preference. It would be odd if people were as nitpicky when being a told a story in person.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. I'd never even thought of it from that angle, Mood. (The "story in person" thought...) LOL Can you imagine?

      "Why are you starting every sentence with "Hey?" "I'm going to put a red mark on your face because you're speaking in fragments and it's distracting." "I'm going to have to quit listening now because you didn't hook me in the first minute of conversation."

      Strangely, I actually kind of like the idea. :D

      I do think the key to popular fiction is making it relatable. And the acceptable level of expertise or writing skill within that (making something relatable) is very broad.

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  8. I agree with you on this. The story and the writing either work or they don't, but craft 'mistakes' don't necessarily ruin a novel. I think it's more about balance. The better the story and overall writing is--the more it pulls the reader in and makes them focus on the story--the more blemishes it can hide/survive.

    I've watched well-known authors get lazy and let their writing slide. I don't want to be that way. Of course, this assumes I become well know. LOL Dream on, Melissa... :P

    "We live in an age--a beautiful age in my opinion--where authors are able to make their own decisions about when a work is fit for public consumption. But that freedom also comes with the burden of self-restraint."

    Love this! Well said.

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    1. Thanks, M! I'm glad you saw my point in all of this. A novel CAN be a fabulous read with sloppy writing, or be a beautiful read even though the story isn't that engaging . But it can also be totally undermined by one or the other. Why risk it?

      Just try to be the best you can even when the reader might not demand it is all I'm saying.

      Guess I'm just concerned when I see writers holding up a poorly written bestseller and saying,"See, all that nonsense about learning how to write effectively doesn't apply!" It does apply, that author just got away with it. I don't believe most of us will.

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  9. Congratulations on finishing the draft!

    I didn't know that about Monet...

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    1. His paintings seem so happy and vibrant, right? Who'd have guessed he was so miserable...

      I mean, did anyone have to really tell you Van Gogh was troubled? Not after you've seen his self-portraits. :P

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  10. I just want to earn a reputation for writing fast-paced but cleverly-crafted suspense. It's the cleverly-crafted part that moves me to improve the quality of my writing, not dumb it down. If a reader is drawn to good plot and characterization, he'll happily read above his normal reading level. That's what we need to aim for (IMHO).

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    1. *hugs you* :D Patricia, you just articulated what I wanted to say using roughly 600 fewer words. LOL

      I've only ever wanted to write character-driven stories that entertain and make people "feel" the way I feel when I read my favorite stories. Whether that's just the rush of a crazy ride, joy for the triumphs of the characters, or a connection to the struggles, it makes no difference. And that's what keeps me pushing my writing.

      I learn more tricks to doing that with every story, and I know the better I get at it, the better the experience will be for the reader. So I keep working at it.

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  11. I always strive to do better. It's true that we'll never be perfect and no writer is perfect. But we can choose to be better. I feel as if I grow with every book. I think we only learn by writing. When I go through my edits if a sentence is easier to read in a less perfect form, I let it pass. Readability is my ultimate test.

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  12. Hey, congrats on finishing your novel. As I have recently completed mine as well, I shall high-five you and wish you one big-ass glass of wine to celebrate. :D

    As to the writing…what fool wouldn't strive to continually do better? I'm constantly trying to close the gap between the way I want to write and the way I currently write. And, funny enough, only more writing and more critical reading of other's work seems to help move me forward in that regard. Complacency is a scary place for anyone to get stuck. :)

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  13. Congratulations on finishing your novel! I always hold myself up to higher standards. I keep pushing myself to learn more, to sharpen my craft, to grow and stretch the muscles of my imagination. I've read books that have been below my writing standard, but as a read, I enjoyed them. Are those the books that stand out in my memory, though? Nope. Only the well crafted books leave a long lasting impression for me.

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  14. Wahoo! Big bowl of cheese for you.

    I have actually read a few perfect books. Try Odd Thomas or the first book in the Clockwork Angel series. It's very rare, but when I come across them, they're instant classics. As I've gotten more into the craft, I've had to distance myself on reading--what I mean by that is to put on foggy glasses so I miss those mistakes. There may be something in the craft that's so wrong, and if I dwelt on it I'd totally miss the epic character arc or baffling plot twists.

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  15. When I read, I usually get really mad that something has been published that I think is total crap, or I get really depressed because the book is so good I'll never live up to those expectations...

    Sigh.

    For me, I freeze up because I *know* I'm capable of being better, but I'm just afraid I won't ever live up to the expectations I believe I'm capable of. I don't think I will ever get complacent... though maybe I would if everyone was wanting to buy my work and I was getting rave reviews, LOL! I kid, but do people really exist out there who are complacent with their writing? Actually, now that I think about it, I do know several people who blame the publishing industry on their *lack* of success, rather than look at their own writing...

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  16. Hey EJ! I'm just catching up on my blog reading and see that you've finished your novel - yay!! That's exciting and I hope the editor won't be too harsh on it. I'm looking forward to reading it when it's out in the world. Congrats!!

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“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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