Does your prose need to sound more “literary?”

good-writing

The other day I was browsing through an online writing group I’m part of, and someone posted a question about what makes “good writing” and why so many popular books were apparently “bad.” In response, another commenter cited a wildly popular YA series, and said something to the effect of, “The author isn’t even a good writer. She’s just really good at creating characters and plots.”

From our teen years onward, we are often schooled in what “Good Writing” should mean. Good Writing wins Pulitzer Prizes and is studied by MFA students. Good Writing is Hemingway or Melville, or any of those other upper-crust authors who are loved by highly educated people. But here’s a hard truth that any teen in a literature class can tell you: sometimes what’s touted as Good Writing doesn’t necessarily make a good book.

This idea of Good Writing basically boils down to the belief that prose is the be-all and end-all of being a good writer. If you can spin a poetic, lyrical phrase and use jaw-dropping metaphors, you are deemed a Good Writer. (Never mind that you just spent three pages describing what the grass looks like in the morning sunlight, as if that is even remotely interesting.) Character and plot development takes a backseat to poetic prose, and if something is loved by the masses, it cannot possibly be Good. 

Cue the berating of every popular author of the last decade.

Some of this attitude is simply snobbery, classism, and the typical backlash that follows any popular book or movie. But it’s a problem when writers believe that in order to write a “good book” they need to sound like an MFA graduate, when often this cannot be further from the truth. They begin to fill their manuscripts with purple prose under the assumption that being more “literary” means being better. 

Unless you’re writing literary fiction or poetry (or you want that Pulitzer Prize, dang it!) you should not be overly anxious about this mythical idea of Good Writing. And if your dream is to write genre fiction, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Most people read at a middle school reading level

Here’s a fun fact: the average American reads at a 7th to 8th grade reading level. If you want to write a popular piece of genre fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, fantasy, etc.) and even hit some bestseller lists, your novel should be readable by the majority of the population. Which is to say, the reading level should not be super high. Your average reader is not looking for “literary.”

  1. Mastering story elements IS good writing

Impressive prose won’t cover up a messy plot or weak characters. I cannot stress this enough. If you want to write beloved novels, make the art of character development and plot structure your jam. You want to create a book that your readers get lost in: a book that they want to read, not have to read. It’s authors who do this that have their books remembered for generations, even if they’re called “bad writers” on the internet. 

  1. Your prose shouldn’t pull readers out of the story

To me, the biggest compliment a writer can get is when a reader says that they were so engrossed in the story that they forgot they were reading. Because of this, I’m a proponent of writing novels in such a way that the author “disappears,” or their prose takes a back seat to the narrative. Now to do this, your prose does need to be good: it shouldn’t be riddled with repetitive words and confusing sentences that pull your reader out of the story. But you also don’t want to write with such flowery language that your reader starts thinking about your writing rather than what you’re writing, since that pulls the reader out of the story too! 

  1. Your prose should be aligned with your main character’s voice

This is especially true when you are writing in first person or close third person POV, and the story is being told by your character rather than by a narrator.  The observations, questions, and metaphors used in the story should be ones that your character would actually use. It’s really not “good writing” to have your teenaged, small-town, high-school-dropout main character sound like they just graduated with a creative writing degree.

It all comes down to how you, as a writer, define what success looks like for you. If you’re getting discouraged because you want to write genre fiction and people keep bashing all of your favorite writers, remember what matters most to you: reading and writing books that you love.

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2 thoughts on “Does your prose need to sound more “literary?”

  1. Thanks a lot for this piece. I really enjoyed it and I agree with you: making people happy and make time fly while reading is what, as writer, I aspire for. Don’t have a MFA at all, neither English is my first language, but dreaming every day about making people enjoy what I write is all I need.

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