Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Writing Vs. Story

There have been numerous times that I've picked up a book, read the back cover copy, and thought, Hmm, this sounds really good. But then I'd turn to the first few pages, skim through the writing, and cringe. Again and again.

And despite the book having a compelling story, the writing made me put it back on the shelf. This grieves me deeply because I really want to read the story, but I can't make myself push through the bad writing. Cliches, overuse of adverbs, bad character development, and more turn a good story into, well, a bad one.

This only makes me concentrate more on my own writing. I've recently been reading Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan because I feel that I need to work on my descriptive writing. It's one of my weaknesses and I hope to somehow correct that. I believe that the more we focus on craft, the less likely we are to fall into the trap of poor writing.

But here's what I'd like to know from you. Can you overlook bad writing if the storyline is good enough? And what about if the writing is brilliant but the story is weak? And here's another question. Just how does bad writing - i.e. too many adverbs, cliches, etc., get published in the first place?

Looking forward to your thoughts...


  1. Q1: No, can't get past it even if the story's wonderful. It's like watching a movie set in ancient times, and you see a jet contrail or telephone poles in the background scenery. Nope, it's ruined for me.

    Q2: Good question. No idea.

  2. Brilliant writing can carry a weak story for me, I love the play of words. But bad writing? No, no, no. I find it insulting. Don't know how they get published, but they won't get any $ from me.

  3. I have the book Word Painting and really enjoyed it. Having had the experience of reading great writing with a weak story line I can only say the great writing didn't save it. I think the great writing made it even more of a disappointment because you were so hoping for the story to equal the writing. As to how they get published...who knows?!!

    By the way, I was thinking of you when I was at the military museum in Paris and took lots of pictures of the World War I & II displays in case they were of use to you. Let me know. Some were a bit blurry but you might find them of interest.

  4. I've wondered how bad writing gets out there too!! I mean the really bad stuff like filled with adjectives and adverbs like you said.
    I have a hard time pushing through bad writing-- no matter how great the plot. I would probably pass.

  5. I can't get past bad writing if the story's wonderful, but I can forgive a weak story if the writing's wonderful.

    As far as bad writing getting published -- I've had editors/publishers ADD errors and change things to suit their personal taste that I felt were bad writing. In one instance, I pulled the piece; sometimes I was not given the opportunity to discuss it, it went up and was so bad that I couldn't use it as a clip.

    Although it's often the writer's fault, it's not always the writer's fault. Also, I've had friends have problems with copy editors who re-wrote entire passages instead of copy editing, and it caused major problems in the piece.

    And sometimes, it's simple sloppiness.

  6. It really all depends. Most of the time, I have to say no, I can't look past bad writing even if the story is good. I do it when I review books (don't have a choice, but mention it in the review) and very, very occasionally if the story is extremely compelling and the writing not too, too cringe-worthy.

  7. If we are talking really bad writing, then it doesn't matter how great the story, I can't get into it. However, if the story is good enough, I will forgive weaker writing. I'm far more likely to fall for a weak story with a brilliant writer.

    As for why bad writing gets published, its all subjective. There are authors you and I both can't stand and yet they have legions of fans. Some readers don't see the bad writing. All they really want is a happy ending.

  8. I can never get past bad writing. I will stay with beautiful writing and am sometimes disappointed with the overall story, but at least I feel like I got something from it.

  9. I think I'm the same as everyone else. Good writing will carry a weak plot to a certain extent, but bad writing ruins the whole experience for me. I keep being told I use too many descriptions, so I'm not sure that is what I need to read. I think I need to learn how to ramp up the tension.

  10. Mediocre writing I can deal with. Overtly bad writing, I can't.

    Great writing? Yes, I can forgive a weak story.

    It's funny that you should post this. Over at Janet Reid's blog, there's an argument going on in the comment trail. Someone mentioned J.K. Rowling being a terrible writer. My immediate reaction (though I didn't post it) was "There's a difference between good writing and a good story!". :) Personally, I don't think her writing is bad at all (though definitely not the best), but her story more than makes up for it.

    I guess the bottom line is that you don't have to be great at both, but you do need to be great at one.

  11. I love a good book, but I'm always sad when I get a poorly written book. It's hard to overlook bad writing and harder still to overlook bad editing. I'm no writer, but I'm definitely a reader and I do enjoy a good book.

  12. I have that book Word Painting. It's pretty good, isn't it?

    I'm the same way about writing vs story. If the writing drives me nuts, I don't care how compelling the story is.

  13. I'm not gonna lie. You've made me scared to write anything fearing the writing will be bad. I don't want to make you cringe!

    I think, if I ever do write something someday, I will probably not show it to offense!

  14. Wow. Great discussion, everyone. It sounds like there is a consensus - bad writing trumps a good story.

    Angie - Good comparison with the movies that have anachronisms, etc. in them. By the same token, I've read books where they've gotten facts wrong (facts easily checked) and it just ruins the whole thing for me.

    Joanne - I wonder how they get published, too, especially when we are told as pre-pubbed writers that unless our writing is exceptional, we'll never get an agent or a book contract.

    Kelly - I remember you writing about Word Painting, so since I had it on my shelf, I wanted to give it another look. It is a great book! (And yes, would LOVE to see the pics!)

    Terri - Oh, adverbs! I can't believe how many adverbs some writers use and get away with it, especially when we're told NOT to use hardly any adverbs. Frustrating.

    Devon - I like hearing the other side of it, that perhaps people in the industry itself are responsible for some of the bad writing. That has got to be incredibly frustrating for the writer.

    Tess - I bet you do look at things differently since you're reading them for review and not for enjoyment. That would definitely put a different take on things.

    Rene - We've had many conversations about this - how such bad writing comes from bestselling authors. It's maddening, especially when we spend so much time on perfecting our craft.

    Lisa - A recent example of beautiful writing (to me, anyway) was The Thirteenth Tale. I loved the writing so much that I kept on reading, and the plot was really good, too. I wasn't too satisfied with the ending, but her writing definitely kept me hooked.

    Toni - I'm trying to think of a good book that will help you with ramping up the tension - have you read Donald Maass's "Writing the Breakout Novel"? I seem to recall that you had talked about it, but not sure...

    Wordvixen - Now I have to go check out that post at Janet Reid's blog. It's definitely something all writers should think about - the relationship between good writing and a good story.

    The Domestic Fringe - Thanks for stopping by! I like to get the reader's opinion on this issue, too, and it sounds like bad writing turns you off, as well. I think sometimes my "reading" persona has been overtaken by my writing persona. It's so hard for me to read a book and not critique the writing or at least take a deeper notice of it.

    Kacey - Absolutely. Bad writing just yanks me right out of the story. I hate it when it's a potentially GOOD story, too.

    Heather - Oh no, don't let this discussion discourage you from writing! There are so many great books, teachers, and workshops out there that can help you improve your craft. I don't think there are ANY perfect writers out there - certainly not me! I think we can all improve our craft. :-)

  15. I don't know about bad writing but if the story is good enough I can at least tolerate mediocre writing, especially if the characters are compelling..

  16. Travis - I'd have to agree. Mediocre writing is better than bad writing, and if the characters are good, then that's even better.

  17. Wow, what a great post and discussion! It started me thinking about what is "bad" writing, anyway? If an author's writing is chockful of adverbs and poor grammar, yeah, that kills the love pretty fast...UNLESS there are fascinating characters and a really compelling story. Granted, this doesn't happen a lot, because if someone is good enough at their craft to get the characters and the story, they've usually got the mechanicals down, too. But it's happened.

    OTOH, not even the most beautiful writing can save predictable, flat, or annoying characters (by "annoying," I mean characters that contradict themselves for the sake of the plot, or have emotional epiphanies that aren't earned, or some such.)

    I guess for me, character trumps all.

  18. I used to finish any book I started, because I felt this sense of obligation. But of late, especially having a better understanding of mechanics as a writer, if it falls under any of the categories you listed, I can't finish it. All those things can be too distracting. However, despite things that made me cringe in Stephenie Meyer's writing of Twilight, that story sucked me in and I HAD to finish it. I'd never read anything like it.

  19. Christine - Great points. If someone does have the characterization, plot, etc., down, then they should be able to get the mechanicals down. Hopefully, anyway!

    Janna - I used to feel the same way. If I started a book, I wanted to finish it. But I can't do that anymore. There are just too many books out there and reading a bad one just takes my time away from a good one! ;-)

  20. If it helps you to find the post- it was about a university press that is accepting submissions ONLY from un-agented authors. The focus in the comment trail was mostly whether a publisher should be able to do that, but quality of writing was the reasoning behind most of it (with most people siding that agented work has already passed one level, and one or two people claiming that agents have single handedly destroyed quality writing by bsing publishers into buying bad books).


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