Good Writing, Bad Writing

On the corner of George and Park Streets, right in the middle of Sydney, there is an old fashioned Woolworths. On the top floor there is a cafeteria that sells a cheap, hearty lunch. Looking out of the windows across the intersection to the Queen Victoria Building and watching people coming and going, heading out and heading in, one might feel inspired. One might realise that one required a good book.

On the second floor of the supermarket, between shelves marked Magazines and Stationery, there is a selection of books. They are exclusively paperbacks. No one is really looking at them, even though they are good value. Most are priced at four dollars each. But you get what you pay for: these are bad books.

Despite snippets of reviews from reputable newspapers, and even, in some cases, proclamations of best seller-status, these are not good books. They are not nearly as inspiring as the view of the people on the street from the top floor.

It was this sort of book selection at an Exeter train station kiosk that lead publisher Sir Allen Lane to found Penguin Books in 1935. “He just wanted a decent book to read...” the line from Penguin reads today. So now that decent books are available, why are these Woolworths books still around? Why are they still being written?

The answer as to why there are bad books still being written is very simple: there are bad writers. Generally, a bad book contains turgid dialogue, a plot that is either too unlikely or too predictable and characters which were printed on and then cut out of a cereal packet. There are bad books just as there are bad paintings. Not everyone can produce a masterpiece. This isn’t their fault; this is just the hard, unpleasant truth.

“Good prose,” George Orwell said, “is like a window pane.” One should be able to see through it. A good book has a few passages that stick with you and haunt you for a while – or perhaps forever – but the bulk of the words are forgotten; only the enthralling story remains. One should just be left with the story. A bad book, however, has language that is grubby and covered with grease streaks. It obscures the story and stays with you for all the wrong reasons. A bad book might be poorly edited or be filled with long, pointless passages in which the writer thinks they’re showing off. (They’re not.)

The ultimate litmus test for a bad book is dialogue. The best novelists have an ear for it. The dialogue they write sounds like the characters are actually saying it. It doesn’t jolt around in one’s mind as it is read. It doesn’t provoke the question, “Would anyone actually say that?”

There’s another thing that has to be considered though. The books for sale on the second floor of Woolworths in Sydney are published novels. They weren’t rejected and nor have they been pulped. People – out there somewhere – must therefore be reading them.

They must be easy reads, the books in Woolworths. Graham Greene might have called them Entertainments; not serious novels. People are welcome to read them. Perhaps they want to have a laugh, to not take things too seriously.

Of course not all books are literature with a capital “L”. There are books with no philosophical depth, life-changing meaning or artistic purpose. These books exist and many of them are also well-written. The Woolworths ones are not – there is too much uncomfortable, stilted dialogue to afford them any such recognition.

If dialogue and description passages (which are wholly irrelevant) are the two tell-tale signs of a bad book, they stand out as the two things which are generally poorly written in fiction. The thing which is usually the best written in fiction is the first sentence. A bad book with a good first sentence – which is like letting off the biggest firework first – might succeed to suck in the publisher and get it published. If it’s very lucky it might suck in the Booker Prize committee. Good books with a good opening sentence will stand ever above.

  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities;
  • “When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I knew what a city was,” wrote John Wyndham in The Chrysalids;
  • “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen,” wrote George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four;
  • “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between; and,
  • “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” wrote Paul Harding in Tinkers.

Each of those sentences is designed to suck that inspired person from the top of Woolworths into the story, to make them wonder what comes next. A lot of thought has gone into each word, put simply, and with every intention of leading you on further. A readable novel must merely make you read the next sentence – again and again; it’s a bonus if it is a good novel.

There is nothing quite as subjective as the classification of good and bad fiction writing, but I would be pleased if good first sentences were able to lead me in and then proceed to not subject me to hard-as-rock dialogue and sleep-inducing descriptions.

This post appeared as a part of the January 2015 Teens Can Write Too blog chain. The topic was, “What is something you feel is generally written well in fiction? What is something you feel is generally written poorly?” The other participants were:

Days in January:
5 http://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/
6 http://jasperlindell.blogspot.com.au/ [You are here.]
7 http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/ & http://nasrielsfanfics.wordpress.com/
8 http://www.miriamjoywrites.com/
9 http://ramblingsofaravis.wordpress.com/
10 http://semilegacy.blogspot.com/
11 http://kirabudge.weebly.com/
12 http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/
13 http://maralaurey.wordpress.com/
14 http://dynamicramblings.wordpress.com/
15 http://theedfiles.blogspot.com.au/
16 http://horsfeathersblog.wordpress.com/
17 http://juliathewritergirl.com/
18 http://butterfliesoftheimaginationa.wordpress.com/
19 http://gallopingfree.wordpress.com/
20 http://alwaysopinionatedgirl.wordpress.com/
21 http://deorahcocheleau.wordpress.com/
22 http://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/
23 http://clockworkdesires.wordpress.com/
24 http://introspectioncreative.wordpress.com/
25 http://wanderinginablur.blogspot.com/
26 http://anotefromthenerd.wordpress.com/
27 http://randommorbidinsanity.wordpress.com/
28 http://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/


  1. Once again, you've intrigued us with something both artfully and academically examined. The first sentence and the prose of the entire piece are both very important, not to mention the dialogue. Of course, at least in my case those things aren't as important as the story itself, and when characterization and worldbuilding grasp my attention everything else takes over.

    Still, an excellent discussion—I especially like the way you set the scene for us in the beginning. :)

    1. Thank you, Heather, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I suppose my thesis is that if you bugger up your first sentence and your dialogue is turgid, you'll have obscured your story; but if you can write a good first sentence and your dialoogue is not turgid, chances are your story and characterisation are going to be of a good standard, anway... Personally, I have to fall in love with the language of a piece of fiction before I even come to assess the story.

    2. Ah, I understand that. I have a friend who is much the same way. :)

    3. There are some books - "Tropic of Cancer", "Eucalyptus", "My Brother Jack", "Catch-22" - where I couldn't care less what they're about - the language is just marvellous. That's the trick, I think, to getting people to read your books: make them sing and the audience will come. But, then again, I definitely see how the story itself can make or break a novel.