Publication-Quality Writing

Hey, folks. This should probably go in Craft, but maybe the mods will let it stick here. This is the only club I hang out in, and I do think it’s relevant to those who aspire to publication. Plot / character / concept are all important, but what really separates books - I feel - is the actual writing. A well-written book will actually get the agent / editor to read past the first few pages and arrive at the meat of the story. It’s also, oddly enough, something that a lot of writers don’t seem to think is very important. Everyone brings up Twilight or the Da Vinci Code or what-not to prove that readers don’t care about craft - but those are exceptions, not the norm. A poorly written (or even a mediocrely written book) will almost certainly not make it past the gatekeepers.

Anyway, a wonderful sentence-level writer named Tracy Townsend (The Nine, great book) was doing an AMA on reddit, and I asked her for her suggestions on how writers can improve their craft. She gave a wonderful answer, and I thought it would be relevant to those who aspire to be published someday.

"As far as HOW to fine-tune your prose toward that kind of awareness, find an author whose writing you admire and, when you run across a passage that really sings, ask yourself, “Hang on. Why does this stand out to me?” Highly conscious reading leads to highly conscious writing. To some extent, you almost have to take the “fun” out of that initial lovely reading experience and return to squint at the sentences, the paragraphs, the pages, and really mull them over. Look at rhythm (sentence length and variance, punctuation, etc.), unusual imagery, awareness of sensory detail, novel ways to comment on emotion or interior experience. You can try to write in imitation of these things, if you want, just to try them out as skills and to see what settles into you naturally, a combination of little magpied writerly tricks you can dress up your own nest with.

And you’re right to suspect that glass-lake shiny prose is time-consuming to write. It starts with an awful lot of painfully flowery word-vomit and then, over time, gets pared and pruned into something that can actually hold your eye and its own shape. Drafting is being Jackson Pollack. Revision is being a bonsai gardener. There’s a lot of art and energy in both actions, but they are ENTIRELY different."

I thought that was really useful advice. Maybe you do, too.

Hey Alec,
thanks for sharing! I could not agree more and this definitely belongs in the Insider. Writing queries is one thing. Or writing novels for publishing. Writing them in a way they stand out is quite another and any tips on how to do that are more than welcome.
I would like to add a tip of my own. Whenever I get stuck, I go to my beloved tattered volumes of favourite auhtors and look for solutions.
Be it a phrase, be it a charactersation, some gem is just waiting to be found.
Somebody said it, I can#t remember who - to write well, you have to read.

I absolutely agree and actually was really surprised when I started a topic on whether rewarding writers who get the grammar correct (and that was just grammar :sweat_smile:) is a good idea, and how many fun writers or readers object to it because it feels unnecessary and nobody cares. The threads here are almost always on plot, cliche, characterization etc. when to me the first and foremost skill to acquire as a writer is the ability to write captivatingly and nobody talks about it. IMO It doesn’t matter how good your plot is, if the writing is bland or lacking in beauty in itself I don’t read past a chapter. So yes, this is such a great, useful thread!

I’m so glad you shared this! I’ve been doing it without knowing for years. I read and read over again from authors whose voice just appeal to me and I stop to figure out the technique used and take notes, practice it in my next chapter and after a while I realized I learned SO much after reading one book as opposed to just having fun. But then being amazed by an author when you find a new technique that puts you in awe is even more fun than the plot itself sometimes :heart: Books that are beautifully written never fail you, even when the plot
is bland.

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A very good reminder. Thanks for sharing it.

Proper grammar is actually a very small part of what I think Alex is bringing up here. And I know you you realize that by your parenthetical, but I just thought it was important to draw attention to that fact so that people here who aren’t as astute realize that there is a difference between something that is “Grammatically correct” and something that is “well-written.” Yes, something can, and usually is both. But of the two the “well-written” is, at least in my opinion, the more important aspect.

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I think that’s why this article is appropriate for the Industry Insiders club rather than Improve Your Writing. The vast, vast, vast majority of people who post on Wattpad are doing so for fun, and while they want their stories to be “good enough” to be read by others, they’re not interested in honing their writing for publication.

But anyone who wants to be published needs to understand how critical writing well is – and they need to know how to learn to do so.

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It’s three things really. Great storytelling, great writing (and voice!) and all of it correct in terms of grammar and punctuation.

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Thanks for posting. Tracy Townsend has a really nice way of putting it. Love the Pollack / Bonsai metaphor. She touches on three things:

  1. “Conscious reading” (nice). I agree; not enough writers do this. I find it hard. When I like a story, I read it too quickly. So I try to go back and read it in ‘critique mode’. Sadly, too often, not enough time.

  2. Imitating a style is fine - once you make it yours.

  3. Writing prose and revising it are two entirely different things.

I wonder about #3. Not because I disagree (I agree, and think revision is much the harder of the two), but because it seems inefficient. So if I aspire to one key improvement of craft, it’s to get incrementally closer to editable - even publishable - on the first draft. Like Asimov and Block bragged - maybe falsely - that they did.

What I mean is, there’s a lot of advice out there of the Stephen King flavor: “it’s okay to word-vomit the first draft”, and “write a closed-door first draft, then write it again”, and so on. But that’s plain inefficient. My goal: skip the first couple of drafts.

Maybe that’s just because I’m a really slow typist, and hate killing those darlings.

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That’s where Wattpad really disappoints, tk.be honest. It makes it very difficult to pick and chisel the publication-level prose out of the mountain of dross.

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Oh my God, I am so with you! That’s why I do such extensive planning before I write. That said, I edit as I go – and there is editing of the writing. The words that go on the page initially get revised and tinkered with along the way.

Absolutely. But since it was difficult for a bot to detect “well written”, I proposed only for grammatically correct as it at least shows that the writer is trying as opposed to putting up rough drafts (and even that was asking too much :cry: for a fun site). But yes, the ideal is definitely well-written (which kind of starts with the “use” of grammar lol)!

I especially loved the part about rinsing it over and over, because really, only after you do that to every paragraph you write, will you ever arrive at a masterpiece (or something close to it).

So true, especially when they exist.

Oh, I know they exist. They say 80% of everything is crap, but even if this percentage is higher for Wattpad, that still leaves thousands of genuinely great pieces to enjoy - if only we could FIND them!

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Does anyone think that storytelling is a bit like learning a foreign language? When you learn a foreign language, you’re just memorizing and learning the rules of the language, and that’s fine, but you can’t really hold a conversation or even understand what native speakers are saying.

It’s a ridiculously tough and slow process. Then something clicks, and it becomes the easiest thing you’ve ever done.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I never learned how to write a full length story in school. I have attempted it and have never succeeded in producing anything that wasn’t a short story or a complete mess.

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Yeah, you’d think with all the awesome technology we have today there’d be a way to filter crap from undiscovered gold to a certain point, but no, not really. *sighs

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AO3 sort-by-kudos system seems to work much better in this respect, for all that it’s super simple.

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Thanks for sharing, Alec. Good to hear this from a pro…
I guess the next time I rewrite a paragraph for the tenth time because I found a better wording (again), I’ll remember this and at least no longer think I’m completely nuts.

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I’m so glad to hear that. People always say you write it first and then edit afterward. You use different sides of your brain for those tasks. I can’t do that. I edit as I go, constantly changing words, sentences, etc. By the time my first draft is done it’s way beyond first draft. I heard that Ernest Hemingway did that, but thought I was unique.

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As an author, I can’t help but analyze novels as I read. She is talking about what makes it stand out as good. What I end up finding is what stands out as wrong (in my opinion). How I would have done it differently.

I often like to simplize it to: You can either write to just illustrate a story, or you can treat it like a craft where you show a story to a reader through words and their imagination.

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