Friday, 30 September 2011

Good, Bad or Effective?

People talk about good writing, or bad writing.  Then there's trash. Personally I think using words like good or bad aren't helpful when it comes to writing the stuff.  The word I prefer is effective.  

Effective writing does exactly what the author wants it to do.  If you want them to laugh, then effective writing will make it happen.  If you want them to cry, or be scared, or be stunned by your use of language, your writing is effective if it gets that result.  

When I'm looking at student work, I'm looking to see how effective it is.  Is it doing what the author intends it to do?  If, for example, it's fantasy I might be looking to see how effective the author is at creating the milieu of the invented world.  If it's a thriller, I'll be checking to see that there's tension running through each sentence and that the pace is right.  If it was a more literary piece of writing, I'd be looking at the effectiveness of the language and character creation.  

Writing is all about communicating.  You have an idea or a story, and you want to pass it across to me.  Because we're not telepathic, we have to use writing as an interface between our imaginations.  The more clearly your idea or story is expressed on the page, the more easily it reaches me. 

Tell me this story you have in your head, about these characters.  If I understand it just the way you intended then your writing is effective.  If I get out of it just what you wanted me to do, then it's effective. 

I think writing has to be judged by its own standards.  Does it achieve what it set out to do? Not good, not bad, but effective.


Victoria said...

Intriguing post, Sarah - many thanks.

What you say about writing 'doing what the author wants it to do' begs the question of what happens when characters spring surprises on their creator.

Perhaps it shouldn't happen; Fay Weldon says very firmly that in her novels she's the boss. Other writers talk about their people taking on lives of their own.

Where, please, do you stand?

Jim Murdoch said...

One of the problems I have as a reader who also writes is that most times I read something I want to rewrite it because that’s not how I would do it. Oftentimes we do things and people react negatively because we haven’t done what they hoped, expected or wanted us to do. The two beta readers of my latest novel both pointed out things I could have done differently and they were both right but then there are always things that could have been done differently. I chose to do then a certain way and I was aiming for a certain effect. In both cases the readers were affected by what they read; they might have preferred that things go a little differently but they both agreed that what I had opted for worked.

womagwriter said...

This is a great post, and one I want to print out and pin to my laptop lid, to read once before every writing session.

There is no absolute scale of good writing to bad writing - so very true. It all depends on what you're trying to say and who you are saying it to.

Liz Fielding said...

Great blog, Sarah. And Jim, the distraction of rewriting a sentence in your head... Aargh. It need to flow so easily that the reader can't stop to do that. Please.

Sarah Duncan said...

Victoria - I'm with Fay on this, tho perhaps not so bossy with my characters as I don't start with any fixed ideas about them at the beginning so they can't go 'off piste', as it were.

Jim - with beta readers, it's always up to you to take on board the feedback or not - part of the writer's judgement.

Womagwriter - I LOVE the idea of someone printing out a blogpost and sticking it on their computer, makes me feel all important. People get horribly judgemental about writing, as if there were absolutes, and there simply aren't.

Liz -oh yes. If the reader lifts their head to puzzle out your meaning or has to go back and check something, then you've potentially lost them.