How difficult is it to write a good book?

Here’s an interesting experiment you can replicate if you ever have a class of creative writing students. I’ve tried it a number of times. Give the students a set of writing samples. Have them sort through the samples and categorise them as “good” or “not good”. Regardless of the level of experience of the students, you’ll find high levels agreement on what writing is good, and what writing is not good.

I’m not putting this forward as scientific proof. Although I’d be interested to know if it’s ever been tried as a study. But I am putting it forward as an indication that as readers we have a clear idea of what good writing is. And that this understanding is at some level objective, and reaches beyond subjective preferences over the style and content of writing.

It can also be useful to work through with students what qualities the good writing samples share, or the not good samples lack. Here are a few qualities you will often find in good writing :

  • Spelling and grammar – samples with bad spelling and grammar, however well they do in other areas, will always go in the not good pile.
  • Clarity – the writing is easy to read, with simple words chosen over complex ones, shorter rather than longer sentences, and clearly defined paragraphs.
  • Information Flow / Narrative Drive – the writing presents one piece of information at a time, and all the information presented is relevant to the subject of the writing. If the writing is telling a story of any kind, there are a clear series of events that happen one after another.

The qualities that make a piece of writing “good” are very fundamental. They are also not secret. These are the basic rules you would be taught as a reporter or journalist working for a newspaper, as an advertising copywriter, and indeed as a novelist. But because a novel is a relatively complex form of writing, these fundamentals are often obscured by issues of style and structure. Students can spend years kicking around in circles trying to master point-of-view and five act structures to no good purpose because the fundamentals of “good” writing just aren’t there.

And like most simple things, they can be damnably hard to master. Writing 100,000 words of grammatically correct, clear prose with good information flow and narrative drive is hard. And these qualities are to varying extents fractal. Not only do your sentences and paragraphs have to be clear, they have to build in to clear scenes and sequences, which have to build in to clear chapters. And then these fundamentals have to underpin the flashier parts of the writers craft – the flourishes of style, the compelling plot twists, the beautifully drawn characters that people are turning up to read.

How difficult is it to write a good book? It’s hard!

But keep going. Because if you can write a good book – good in both the fundamentals that readers measure without knowing it, and in the more sophisticated ways that we consciously think about – you are guaranteed a readership. Good books are rare. And they last. They are the books that still populate the bookshop shelves twenty, fifty or a hundred years after publication. Because in all that time no better ones have been written to shove them off their perch.

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

3 thoughts on “How difficult is it to write a good book?

  1. Many important, worthwhile things are simple to describe and easily recognizable but quite difficult in practice. You could probably very easily put a basketall through a hoop at your own waist height. But if I raise the hoop high over your head, don’t allow you to carry the ball, and put a couple of gigantic men in your way …. it’s still “just putting a ball through a hoop.”

    Many people can think up the basis of an interesting character, make up a workable plot, develop a paragraph, write a sentence with cadence, &c&c&c. Doing them all at once, in the face of a host of not quite named obstacles: not quite so easy.


    1. Iím interested then in the disparity between this basic truth, the good book is hard to write, and the rhetoric of the thousands of undiscovered authors excluded by the publishing system etc. I know why it arises, but its important to defuse it in ourselves.



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