How to recognise good writing

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Readers know a good story when they read it. They know when characters are strong, when dialogue and pacing are good, when the plot is interesting and the end satisfying, but few readers know what makes good writing as in the prose, the actual words you place on the page.

The following are not rules, just guidelines. Where I mention forms to avoid, it is over usage that is the issue, not whether they are there or not.

What makes good prose?

Good prose:

  • Sounds natural and flows so smoothly that you’re not even aware that you’re reading. Once you become aware of the words, if something jars, then the writing is not so good—unless it’s a confusion on your part due to cultural differences between you and the writer.
  • Draws you into the story so that you feel that you are right in the scene, not watching from outside. This is the difference between a writer who tells you a story and one who shows you the story.
  • Has nothing extraneous. Readers often mistake overwriting for good writing, but good writing has very few adverbs and adjectives and doesn’t have the following markers of overwriting:

o   A lot of there are, there is, there was, here is, here are etc, particularly not at the beginning of sentences.

o   Repetition, when it isn’t for a particular effect, and saying the same thing in several different ways.

o   Taking a long time to express something, or spending several pages on something that could be said in a couple of paragraphs.

o   Long convoluted sentences and big words where the idea could be expressed more simply.

o   A plethora of beautiful metaphors and similes. One per paragraph or per four sentences is a good rule. More than that and it’s like eating food that is far too rich. Plain writing around the metaphors sets them off like putting a frame around an artwork.

  • Generally uses active verbs rather than passive ones. Particularly, you should not find a lot of was and were, and other forms of the verb to be. Eg I stood in the house is better than I was in the house. Good writing doesn’t have a lot of was and were followed by words ending in ing, e.g., he limped is stronger than he was limping.
  • Does not use a lot of ‘ing’ ending verbs, particularly not more than one in a sentence and doesn’t use them to begin sentences more than about once in 10,000 words. They are much weaker than ‘ed’ ending words.
  • Rarely begins sentences with ‘as’.
  • Has variety in the sentence lengths and structures.
  • Doesn’t rely on looked, sounded, with and had in descriptions.

Have I forgotten anything? How would you describe good prose?

Post by Tahlia Newland, award-winning metaphysical fiction writer. Read more from her on her blog. You can also join her on Facebook , Twitter Google+  or Linkedin.

6 comments… add one

  • Lane Diamond August 7, 2014, 9:57 am

    Great piece. I concur with all of that, but I would add one more that’s proving critical these days: I-Bombs.

    I coined that term a couple years ago when reviewing submissions for Evolved Publishing. Nowadays, everyone seems to write 1st-person narratives, a big switcheroo from the old days. The problem is that the prose often devolves into a constant string of I, I, I, I, I, I, I – makes it awfully difficult to read.

    When I see 9 instances of “I” in the first 4-sentence paragraph, for example, I don’t bother reading on in most cases.

    Resource: http://lanediamond.com/2012/07/the-problem-with-first-person-narratives-beware-the-i-bombs/

    Reply
    • Tahlia Newland August 8, 2014, 9:00 pm

      Good point. it takes a lot more skill to write in third person too.

      Reply
  • Sandra Hutchison August 7, 2014, 8:23 pm

    I agree with everything here, but would add the caveat that some of this is very much a matter of contemporary taste. There is still much pleasure to be had, in my opinion, in classic works that don’t follow all these rules, and it’s also good to stretch oneself once in awhile on a dense literary work that blurs the lines between prose and poetry. (I will admit to hoping that these dense works will at least be short!)

    Reply
    • Tahlia Newland August 8, 2014, 9:07 pm

      I do agree, so much so, in fact, that I just published a piece on my blog about not taking guidelines as rules – specifically in terms of expositional writing in this instance. You may find it interesting..

      Reply
  • DMac August 9, 2014, 10:11 am

    ” Plain writing around the metaphors sets them off like putting a frame around an artwork.”

    Great example :-D

    Reply
    • Tahlia Newland August 13, 2014, 6:20 pm

      Thanks. I used to be a visual artist, so the analogy seemed apt.

      Reply

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