What People Mean When They Say “Bad Writing”

There’s a difference between “good writing” and a “good book” or “good script.” Nathan Bransford gets it:

by Nathan Bransford

One thing about my Fifty Shades of Grey  post that inspired some mild controversy was my insistence that it’s not that badly written.

What’s interesting about talking about “good” writing and “bad” writing is that when people use those terms, different people often mean different things.

When I talk about “good” writing and “bad” writing, I mean the prose. Is it readable on a sentence-to-sentence level? Is there a flow? Is there a voice? Do I get tripped up by a lack of specificity in description or are the details evocative? Is the hand of the author too apparent or am I able to lose myself in the world of the book?

This is all mainly accomplished on the sentence level. It’s not about character or plot or plausibility or whether the book is compelling or not and not at all about whether I like the book, it’s whether the author can write a paragraph.

I would posit (with partial confidence) that the way I mean “good” or “bad” writing is more common within the publishing industry and with literary-minded folk.

Outside of publishing, when people talk about “good” writing or “bad” writing they aren’t talking about sentences, they usually mean a broader look at the book as a whole. Whether the plot is plausible or not, whether characters are compelling, whether relationships are believable, whether the book as a whole is engrossing.

This, I do believe, is how we end up with Goodreads reviews where people call The Great Gatsby  “garbage,” which has little to do with style and everything to do with whether the book was enjoyable for that particular person to read.

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