What The Hell Does "Well Written" Mean?

This post originally appeared on the Mysterious Matters blog on 10/9/09; the author wishes to remain anonymous.

So, everyone says that for a book to get agented and published, it has to be "well written."  I’m not sure that is 100% true – we can all think of people who have made the best-seller lists whose books are competently, or borderline-competently written, but not WELL written.

However, I think it’s fairly safe to say that if you are an unknown (i.e., non-celebrity, non-politician, non-sportstype, non-CEO), your manuscript has to be well written.  This is one of those terms, I realize, that is bandied about without ever being quite defined.  I suppose we could say it’s like pornography – we know it when we see it – but I thought I’d try to come up with a more specific definition.

So, in my opinion, well written means the following:

1.  Properly spelled, grammatically correct, with punctuation in the right place.  This is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for good writing.  I think a lot of us can put up with an occasional typo in a manuscript.  Everyone’s human, and God knows that after looking at the same manuscript every day for a year, a writer can be forgiven for a misspelling or a missing comma.  I do think most of us see beyond that.  But multiple errors in the first few pages signal a generally low level of competence and cause us to tune out.  (Case in point, so that I can get down off my high horse – in Meredith Phillips’ guest blog from last week, I had several typos in my introduction and conclusion that Meredith herself pointed out to me!  Slightly embarrassing, to say the least.)

2. Good variety in sentence and paragraph structure.  I sometimes see manuscripts that are 300 pages of simple declarative sentences.  That might be OK for children’s or YA adult books (though I doubt it), but it won’t fly in an adult novel.  Please give me some dependent clauses, some participial phrases, some gerunds or infinitive phrases.  Ask a rhetorical question or two.  Vary sentence style and paragraph length (especially paragraph length!  300 pages of 3-sentence paragraphs makes your book look like it suffers from ADD.  300 pages of multi-page paragraphs makes it look as though you’ve channeled James Joyce, most likely not on his best day.)

3. Simple, effective description.  I always feel that the best writers evoke a scene, a character, or a characteristic in a minimum of space.  I like a sentence or two of description–and then get on with it.  For more complicated locations or items that are intrinsic to plot, longer description is fine.  I like to see similes, etc., in descriptions–something other than telling me how big the thing is, and what color.  I also feel that, from a reader’s viewpoint, a simple sketch lets readers fill in the details and makes the book more absorbing.

Read the rest of the post, which includes points 4-8, on Mysterious Matters.