1. Andrae Smith
    Offline

    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 22, 2012
    Messages:
    2,506
    Likes Received:
    1,404
    Location:
    Wandering

    "Well-written"...Well what does that mean?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Andrae Smith, Apr 4, 2014.

    So, I'm sure we've all seen the expression in the title more than a handful of times. We say (and see people say), we did(n't) like this book or that because it was(n't) "well-written." Sometimes we come across things that we think are good, especially if we enjoy them, and we find out that they are generally considered garbage.

    Now I'm not trying to dispute what's good or bad, but rather open a discussion to build up to a working, somewhat tangible idea of what "well-written" actually is or means. The fact that certain books are enjoyable or popular doesn't make them well-written, and I'm pretty sure many of us can recognize just awful writing because it screams off the page, but it can be hard to tell good from mediocre if you don't know what you're looking for (besides a story).

    Anyone with comments, please feel free to weigh in. All those with a keen eye and/or experience, your comments would be much appreciated. Thanks! Let's see if we can ground this idea.

    (Note: I apologize if the answer is obvious to some, and I ask for your patience. I am still learning.)
     
  2. stevesh
    Offline

    stevesh Banned Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2008
    Messages:
    968
    Likes Received:
    646
    Location:
    Mid-Michigan USA
    I'll likely take some heat for this, but the first thing that qualifies a story as 'well-written' for me is the author having followed the general rules of spelling, syntax and grammar. After that, I think it's mostly personal preference.
     
    jannert likes this.
  3. EdFromNY
    Offline

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2010
    Messages:
    4,684
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Location:
    Queens, NY
    Good question, Andrae. Realizing that "well written" is rather subjective, I can tell you what I regard as factors. For me, the most important is the use of language. Take, for example, Dickens' marvelous description of Ebenezer Scrooge:
    Another factor is the quality of the story being told. Does the writer spin a really engrossing tale, or does (s)he rely heavily on gimmicks (cliffhangers, repeated plot twists, etc) to hold the reader? Are the problems/dilemmas/crises confronted by the MC real problems (which do not generally have simple solutions)? Hemingway's Santiago was a simple person in a simple setting with a simple problem, who got the solution for which he had prayed, and then couldn't hold it. More than 60 years after it's publication, it remains a riveting tale. I think perhaps this is the element that leaves me so unsatisfied by the fantasy genre - and that's why a lot of this is subjective.

    And then there is the matter of characters. To me, the best and most effective characters are those who are not all good or all evil, but are either good people with flaws or bad people with redeeming features. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is arguably the ideal model as a father, yet he can't command his children to leave the front of the jailhouse, which turns out to be the key in preventing a lynching. He is as good a man and as good a lawyer as there is, but he can't save Tom Robinson. In Advise and Consent, Bob Munson is a calm, reasonable, fair, effective leader, yet he allows the events to be set in motion that lead to Brigham Anderson's suicide. And he is forgiven. Henry Morgan in To Have And Have Not gets pulled into one scheme after another, a symbolic equivalent of throwing good money after bad, and yet at the end we can't help but feel sorry for him.

    You could fill several volumes with a discussion like this. It will be interesting to see how this thread goes.
     
    jannert, Bartleby9 and Andrae Smith like this.
  4. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    For me, well-written means, first and foremost, that the story engages me. The characters are believable, the plot isn't too far-fetched, the use of phrasing is original without being ridiculous... It keeps me involved. Second, is it "cohesive" - does the story proceed in an orderly fashion or is the author jumping from one thing to another and back again? (I'm not saying it has to run linearly, but there has to be a logic to its organization.). Last is the technical aspect - grammar, spelling, etc. While I can forgive a lot in this area if the first two needs are met, without this I wouldn't call a book well-written (although I certainly can enjoy them anyway).
     
    jannert and Andrae Smith like this.
  5. Bjørnar Munkerud
    Offline

    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jun 8, 2012
    Messages:
    393
    Likes Received:
    140
    Location:
    Oslo, Norway
    "Well-written" simply and literally means that it's written well, that it is "good", although whether or not this includes only the phrasing/ word choices and spelling or that it also includes clarity and factuality or even shows great imagination and creativity varies depending on context and who you ask. You're basically asking what the word "good" means; what encompassess it is difficult to pinpoint as it is a nebulous concept. People obviously disagree to what they consider to be well-written both because they have different interests and knowledge but also because they may have differing threshholds as to how good something needs to be to deserve the term. Some people don't care don't care about misspellings, some people resfuse to read any further when they see them on principle; some people hate fantasy and science fiction, some read only that; some like long sentences with loads of adjectives and a slow-paced story which describes the environment more than it moves a plot along, while some want to get to the action right away etc. No matter who you ask you're going to get a different answer. If we knew the answer (if there even is one, which there probably isn't) and agreed to it we wouldn't have all these different ways of writing (genres, length, detail, chapter naming, the writing process, fact vs. fiction, number of characters, use of metaphors, happy vs. downer endings etc.); they exist because we want different things, just the same way some people like coffee, some like tea, some like both and some like neither and some like them with sugar and milk and some don't.
     
  6. Bryan Romer
    Offline

    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 26, 2014
    Messages:
    891
    Likes Received:
    381
    All of the above, but in addition, what I call technical accuracy and continuity. Locations that change shape from scene to scene, driving on the wrong side of the road, wrong coloured police cars, incorrectly used (non-English) language, customs and superstitions, incorrectly described or used equipment or weapons. My preference is for action novels, so I also hate badly/wrongly described combat, incorrect procedure, incorrect nomenclature, multiple shot (single barrel) flintlocks, silencers/suppressors that go "phuut", 30 pound swords, etc.
     
    jannert likes this.
  7. Bryan Romer
    Offline

    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 26, 2014
    Messages:
    891
    Likes Received:
    381
    I don't think "well written" necessarily equates to "good". Certain metrics such as spelling, grammar, technical accuracy, and so forth can exist even in a book written by a madman. Or the book could be utterly and completely boring to the extent that it is a menace to public health. Yet the books could be written according to those metrics.

    Your other points relate more to taste than quality. Liking or disliking SF doesn't make a book well or poorly written. And there are readers who would be happy to admit that the book is full of spelling mistakes, bad grammar etc, but they choose to forgive these error because they like the story and the way it was told. This does not make the book "well written".

    IMO, "well written" = meets certain technical standards.

    On the other hand "good" = capable of achieving the author's intentions - entertaining, educating, setting out a manifesto, and so on.
     
    Andrae Smith and GingerCoffee like this.
  8. mammamaia
    Offline

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 21, 2006
    Messages:
    19,316
    Likes Received:
    1,014
    Location:
    Coquille, Oregon
    to me, as both a reader and a professional editor, 'well-written' includes perfection [or near enough to it] in re the technical aspects of writing [spag], but goes further, with high quality word choices, syntax and sentence structure, paragraph and chapter segues, well-developed characters and storyline [if fiction], all coming together in writing that compels the reader to keep reading from word one, to the end... add in originality and a fresh approach-- et voila!--a 'well-written' piece of work...
     
    HorseCrazy, Foxe, Lemex and 2 others like this.
  9. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    This is purely subjective. It's easy to say that well-written means, at the very least, using correct grammar and punctuation, but even this is an inaccurate description because many writers have broken traditional rules and still managed, in my opinion, to produce great works. All I can say is that I know well-written when I read it. That's the best I can do without getting into a long discussion about what makes art great and/or beautiful.
     
  10. Moneica
    Offline

    Moneica Member

    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2014
    Messages:
    77
    Likes Received:
    14
    Location:
    Oklahoma
    To me well-written is something that grabs me from the beginning and doesn't let me go till the end. Grammar, and punctuation is important also, but to me its the story line. A lot of jumping around can get confusing and that is not well-written.{IMO} But if it flows smoothly and hooks me. Then it's a well-written piece for me.
     
    jannert likes this.
  11. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,895
    Likes Received:
    10,083
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    I'm with Shaddowwalker on this. If the story is engaging and the characters have purpose that I am given to care about by the writer, then I'm in.

    It's funny, when I think about this question I am reminded of a day in 7th grade home-ec* when we had gotten to the cooking part of the class and my teacher said "I don't really know how to describe the smell of a good egg, but a bad egg is unmistakable."

    * in 7th and 8th grade in Hawai'i, all students, regardless of gender, are required to take a semester of home-ec and a semester of shop.
     
    jannert and Domino like this.
  12. Moneica
    Offline

    Moneica Member

    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2014
    Messages:
    77
    Likes Received:
    14
    Location:
    Oklahoma
    And the teacher was right!:D
     
  13. Okon
    Offline

    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 26, 2013
    Messages:
    694
    Likes Received:
    389
    I'm more impressed by the writing that takes a back seat to the story. It's well-written when I'm thinking about the characters and story, not word choice or SPAG (for better or worse).
     
    jannert likes this.
  14. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666
    There's one criterion above all for me - did I lose myself in the narrative. Did I experience the story, did I manage to suspend disbelief, Other than that, I can admire single sentences but if the narrative of the overall story doesn't 'grab' me, I don't consider it particularly well-written. Taste is subjective.
     
    jannert likes this.
  15. peachalulu
    Offline

    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    3,829
    Likes Received:
    2,382
    Location:
    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    For me well-written is when you look it over and over and realize there's not much you'd change about it.
     
    Mackers, jannert, Domino and 2 others like this.
  16. Bjørnar Munkerud
    Offline

    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jun 8, 2012
    Messages:
    393
    Likes Received:
    140
    Location:
    Oslo, Norway
    Then we disagree slightly, Bryan. In my view "well-written" is by necessity a matter of taste because it involves quality (the "well" part). As for your other points; such as grammar and genre; you are mostly just reiterating what I said. I agree that well-written is properly used more neutrally than many other words, however, and I might not have made this sufficiently clear.

    Saying "I like this book." is not the same as saying "I think this book is well-written.", because the latter could very well mean that you like or at least grasp the (potential) quality of the writing itself despite disliking the overall text, but that doesn't move it away from being about taste, nor does it mean "I think this book is good." denotes anything too dissimilar to from the latter sentence: "like" means the person saying it actually enjoys something to a sufficient extent as to use that word; whereas "well-written" is a statement that does not directly imply that the person likes it, but rather that he or she believes it to be a work of sufficient quality not necessarily to themselves but to others or people in general. Saying something is well-written is basically like saying you approve of it's creation and existence. It implies that you accept that people's tastes, interests and supplies of time and money are different and that the work in question will be a worthwhile read to enough people as to justify its existence.

    Put differently: 1) A book you like is a book you enjoy(ed) reading, and it is almost certainly well-written in your mind because the way a text is written is crucial to its quality. 2) A well-written book is one you may or may not like (you may find the topic or pace boring or you may be suficciently annoyed at something about the author himself or herself or the font or word choices, or whatever), but that you certainly approve of, and it's one you'd recommend in a heartbeat if you found someone you thought would like it. 3) Probably the rarest group, which is the one where you think it's actually masterfully written, but because of whatever factor or combination of factors (usually the subject material being very boring or offensive to you), you don't like it and wish it never existed and that noone would read it ever because you believe it's in the end a waste of time and/or contains inappropriate, disgusting, misguiding or offensive content. 4) A book that you neither like nor think is well-written is one you wish hadn't been written, wish won't be read by anyone and won't ever recommend (except maybe as a stupid way of wasting the time of someone you dislike).
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2014
  17. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,724
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    I draw a distinction between a “good story” and a story that is “well-written.” They are not the same thing. Of course, good stories can be (and often are) well written, but sometimes a good story is written very poorly. I am aware that my distinction here is rather narrow and even possibly idiosyncratic, but I think that’s what makes it useful. Some other members who have posted answers in this thread do not seem to distinguish between the story and the quality of the writing, and that approach, to me, renders the term “well-written” meaningless.

    The best literature consists of good stories that are well written. That’s the goal for me.

    I’m going to stick my neck out here and it’s likely to get axed. For me, “well-written” means “written with advanced technique.” This includes language virtuosity
    (well-constructed, varied, even dazzling sentences and paragraphs), fresh and original imagery, effective use of symbolism, mastery of pace and structure, and so on. It has nothing to do with character, plot, or setting – these fall under “story.”

    In addition, my personal preference is for writing that I think of as “rich.” I don’t particularly like stories that feel like the author is rushing headlong to the end, as if the end is the goal and the journey means nothing. Rich writing is writing in which the author is patient; he takes a certain amount of time to observe and contemplate; he stops to smell the roses every so often. I usually prefer large, spacious novels over tightly-plotted thrillers. Often it’s a more memorable trip if you go by slow train than by jet airliner.

    Sometimes I come across work I think is exceptionally well-written, but I don’t like. Usually, I don’t like it because I don’t share the passions – the obsessions, in some cases – of the writer. John Hawkes (The Blood Oranges, The Lime Twig, etc.) comes to mind. His prose is exquisite, his imagery brilliant, his mastery of almost every aspect of technique unquestionable. But his protagonists are almost all men who are erotically obsessed with mature, “earth mother” type women, and I’m not, so he spends most of his time writing about things I don’t particularly care about. I call his work well-written but dull.

    T. Coraghessan Boyle (also known simply as T.C. Boyle) is another writer I admire and dislike. He, too, is a master technician. His prose is very advanced and at times almost sings. It’s beautiful to read. But he’s got a mean streak: he can’t help bullying his characters, then pointing at them and laughing. They deserve better. His work is well written, but I usually don’t like it much, because I don't think I like him much.

    I’ll probably never understand William T. Vollman. Some say his prose is beautiful, but to me it’s ugly in the extreme. He writes incredibly complex sentences and paragraphs (some of his sentences are over a page long), as if he’s trying hard to be another James Joyce, but he doesn’t have the gift. Joyce’s prose was beautiful at its best. Vollman’s is repulsive, at least to me. Sometimes his novels get excellent reviews on Amazon, but I’ve never managed to finish one, so I can’t determine whether or not the stories are any good. Still, he gets a lot of positive critical attention, so I guess I’m the one who’s wrong. Badly written, but possibly good (?).

    Sometimes a writer has interesting concepts and good stories, but dull, uninspired prose. This sometimes happens in science fiction, especially older science fiction (before the 1940s, say). Even early Asimov suffers from this. Also A.E. van Vogt, Lester del Rey, and others. John W. Campbell, who did more than maybe anyone else to elevate the quality of science fiction writing at the time (as editor of Astounding Science Fiction) was himself a hack of a writer. His “Who Goes There?” is the classic story that was made into at least two movies (The Thing from Another World (1951), John Carpenter’s The Thing), but I can’t bring myself to plow through Campbell’s original novella. The writing is too poor. I read it enthusiastically when I was ten or so, but I can’t stomach it now. Great story, poor writing. And don’t get me started on H.P. Lovecraft. He might just be the standard-bearer for badly-written good stories, at least within his genre.

    So there you have it: my take on the difference between good or bad stories and what is, or is not, “well written.”
     
  18. Bartleby9
    Offline

    Bartleby9 Member

    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2014
    Messages:
    37
    Likes Received:
    42
    I think its subjective to a point. There's a difference between a good writer and a good storyteller. But, the general public likes bad writing. Dean Koontz has published 75 books. No good writer has that much to say. Only bad ones have that much output. Just look at what's popular - spy thrillers, nuclear war thrillers, court room dramas. Maybe its just me but I can't get through 3 pages of a genre fiction book before I throw it across the room and recite every bad word I know. Maybe I'm generalizing but what's good doesn't sell. What's bad does.
     
  19. jazzabel
    Offline

    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 5, 2012
    Messages:
    4,273
    Likes Received:
    1,666
    @minstrel: I consider well-written stories to be both interesting in content and written in such a way to allow complete immersion. This is a combination you refer to as 'the best literature are good stories that are well written'. I just specified the subgroup, because if someone uses language in an incredible way and they still manage to bore me senseless by their lack of anything to say, they haven't produced a well-written story. No?
     
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2014
  20. KaTrian
    Offline

    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 17, 2013
    Messages:
    5,566
    Likes Received:
    3,563
    Location:
    The Great Swamp
    I agree with a few others here who've mentioned engaging. I guess it's still a bit of a mystery how something becomes so engaging you don't want to put the novel down, but those novels and stories must be well-written because the writing has clearly put a whammy on me. I also think a lot of it has to do with the characters. If they seem like the kind of guys and gals I'd like to spend a few hours or days with, I find the story well-written.

    Two examples spring to mind. When I read Dave Egger's Staggering Genius I was blown away by the immediacy of the prose, how it simply grabbed me and kept me reading even though nothing huge happens in the story, it's not a space adventure with the hero's life at stake in every turn.

    Another is Herbjorg Wassmo's Dina's Book. I can't quite figure this one out. It's an oddbird that breaks writing rules, but no matter which page I pick for reading, I'm immersed after a minute even though I've read it probably 5 times. Perhaps one thing I particularly like is how the author drops the "like" from her similes; "Her dark hair was a tangle of sea kelp". Mind just keeps flooding with rich images as I read it, richer than with e.g. action novels that I also like to read.

    I'm not entirely sure where the magic springs from. At least both writers have a unique approach to the language they work with (Wassmo is Norwegian) and they're quite fearless, you get this feeling of wantonness when you read, like they had no limitations when they started weaving the story and it has the ability to go anywhere.

    Sorry, this got a bit abstract, but SPaG aside, I have trouble pinpointing what exactly makes a novel well-written.
     
    jannert and jazzabel like this.
  21. Mckk
    Offline

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2010
    Messages:
    4,749
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    That's a bit cynical. Are you really saying nothing good ever sells? What about Narnia, LOTR, Pride and Prejudice, Shakespeare, 1984 etc? By your statement, one must conclude: "Because it's popular, it must be bad." Which I find entirely illogical. Judge every piece on its own merit, it's only fair. Perhaps I'm picking up on this especially because my ex was that way - because it's big and popular, he refuses to even touch it, and I find that incredibly judgemental and narrow-minded in the most infuriating way because you're not even given the chance to prove yourself, yet the judgement was based on nothing but prejudice.

    For me, frankly I've come to the conclusion that whether something is "well-written" doesn't matter. Story matters. In the end, most of us read for the story. If the writing is excellent but without an engaging story, I will stop reading. And what good is a book that is never read?

    Of course the writing has to have some measure of quality - it has to be at least mediocre or else the story is nearly impossible to enjoy. But if the writing is passable, or better yet, invisible, then that's all that's needed. The rest is just the author having fun with art and words - and that's great, but unnecessary.

    Sometimes the writing has to fall within what the genre calls for, and take chick lit - 99% of the time they're not well-written, but it is what the genre calls for and people read it. Something about it captures its target audience. Look, if the writer has no skill, they would not have been able to do this and write in such a way as to meet a target audience's needs. But such books are not always literary or artistic or particularly pretty. Take Sophie Kinsella, I love her books but they're not well-written in the sense of being art, but they certainly meet the criteria of her genre, suggesting a measure of skill. So is it good? Well, if it does the job it's supposed to, why not? But well-written for me suggests a measure of literary genius, and just because something's enjoyable doesn't make it genius.

    For me to say something's well-written, I'd need it to be poetic and beautifully-written with excellent use of symbolism, excellent and well-rounded characters that I can't get out of my head, and an engaging story that leaves me thinking. It should make me think deeply about something, feel deeply about something. If it can strike me that way, then for me, it is well-written. For me, it has met all requirements of language, technical skill, and story. For something to be truly masterful, it must meet all of these, and that is well-written for me.

    But of course I am aware there're well-written pieces I simply dislike. So I guess those for me would be well-written but dull, as someone else said above!
     
    Andrae Smith and jazzabel like this.
  22. EdFromNY
    Offline

    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2010
    Messages:
    4,684
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Location:
    Queens, NY
    A classic rationalization for the writer who can't sell his/her work: "My work doesn't sell; therefore, it's brilliant!"

    While it is certainly true that what's popular isn't necessarily good and what's good isn't necessarily popular, the idea of an absolute trade-off between the two is a false one, as @Mckk notes above. As she also notes, for most readers the quality of the story is a more immediate concern than the quality of the writing. I think high-quality writing elevates a good story, but for most of us it can't save a bad one. As I've mentioned in other threads, I've long been an admirer of James Michener. But in two of his best received novels, the opening chapters nearly put me off. One was Hawaii, with a long first chapter describing in rapt detail the geological phenomena that formed the Hawaiian islands. The other was Centennial, with its description of the beasts of the great plains before humankind moved in. Both were factually correct, exquisitely written and bored me to tears because they had no connection (other than place) to the human dramas that followed and it was they, rather than the opening chapters, that made the novels memorable enough for one to be made into a movie and the other into a television miniseries.
     
    Mckk and jazzabel like this.
  23. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    This sounds more like what's selling isn't what you like so therefore the "general public" (ie, readers) must be stupid. Not to mention the insult to writers of genre fiction (of which there just might be a few on this forum). Just because you don't like something doesn't make it bad. It just means you don't like it.
     
    Mckk, obsidian_cicatrix and EdFromNY like this.
  24. Bartleby9
    Offline

    Bartleby9 Member

    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2014
    Messages:
    37
    Likes Received:
    42
    Ed,

    I've never tried to sell any of my work. In fact, I don't really have any work to sell. I've only recently, after years of reading everything Harold Bloom told me to, felt comfortable enough that I could put pen to paper and write fiction. I found out that I could. But I've yet to write anything that is brilliant. I'm just working on the craft. I'm not a good writer, yet. All the fiction I've written is in the early draft stage. James Thurber's wife once read a first draft of one of his stories and said, "this is high school shit". Hemingway called all first drafts "excrement".

    There is no rationalization here. My comments, while cynical, I think are true. The general public does prefer bad writing. That doesn't mean good writing doesn't get through.
     
  25. Bartleby9
    Offline

    Bartleby9 Member

    Joined:
    Apr 2, 2014
    Messages:
    37
    Likes Received:
    42
    "Maybe I'm generalizing but what's good doesn't sell. What's bad does."

    I actually want to take this back. Certainly a lot of good writing sells. It's easier to sell good writing. I have my bum out the window with this comment.

    I guess my point was that most of what sells (most of what you'll find in the genre section at your local book store) isn't good writing. But that doesn't mean there isn't a market for good writing.
     
    Mckk and minstrel like this.

Share This Page