At a recent writers’ conference I heard a successful self-published author say, “Readers are not looking for great writing; they’re looking for a great story.”
Does that mean that taking pains over grammar, diction, and syntax is a waste of time? Certainly not!
Just because readers are not looking for “great writing” doesn’t mean that novelists shouldn’t be expected to produce good writing.
Few writers have what it takes to produce “great writing,” but even a great storyteller requires professional writing skills to get the story across to the reader.
The difference between amateur writing and professional writing is rewriting.
Here is an extract from a self-published work. The fact that the book was self-published is not so important as the fact that the author published it before it was ready.
Here the author describes a church interior:
It had hat shelves and coat racks along both sides. There were double doors leading into the sanctuary, which was plain but neat. There was a carpeted main aisle that ran from the doors to the altar. There were neat rows of oak pews on both sides of the aisle. Secondary aisles ran along both sides of the church between the pews and the windows. On the raised platform in front, there was an altar, a lectern, and behind that were two rows of chairs for the choir. There was a fairly new piano on the left side of the platform…
The excerpt contains ten clauses, eight of which have was or were for the main verb. It contains 101 words, eight of them repeated at least once: aisle/s (3), pew/s (2), altar (2), rows (2), doors (2), platform (2), sides (3), neat (2). Of the seven sentences, four begin with There and one begins with It. The sentence that begins, “It had hat shelves,” produces a double take in the reader because the “had hat” looks like a typographical error.
One paragraph like this every hundred pages might not trouble a reader, but this sample is typical of the book. Word choice is unimaginative, and passages abound that contain nothing to connect the scene to the story.
Here is a description written by a professional novelist (P.D. James). The setting is the interior of a clinic for mental patients in a building that used to be a Georgian mansion:
Behind the reception kiosk and with windows facing the square was the general office, part of which had been partitioned to form a small filing-room for the current medical records. Next to the general office was Miss Bolam’s room and, beyond that, the E.C.T. suite with its treatment-room, nurses’ duty-room and male and female recovery bays. This suite was separated by a hallway from the medical staff cloakroom, clerical staff lavatories and the domestic assistant’s pantry. At the end of the hallway was the locked side door, seldom used except by members of the staff who had been working late and who did not want to give Nagle the trouble of undoing the more complicated locks, bolts and chains on the front door.
I’m not holding the second passage up as “great writing.” It resembles the previous passage in some ways. The word room–alone and in compounds–occurs five times; door and hallway occur twice each; was is used four times. But what James does that the other writer doesn’t do is vary language and syntax and relate the description to the story and the characters. The first writer could have done the same thing.
Whether readers are looking for it or not, few novelists are capable of producing great writing. Anyone who aspires to publication, however, should know the difference between amateur writing and professional writing. It’s revision.