I often cringe when re-reading something I wrote years ago. It’s not necessarily the content (though it’s often that, too), but the way it’s written. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that old work seems immature and less skilled in hindsight. We’re developing as people, as well as writers, and our mind-set is fluid. What interested us, and what we found acceptable as readers and writers in years gone by changes with our own growth.
I got to thinking about this because I’ve started re-reading a novel by an author I’ve admired for a long time. When I first read it, about ten years ago, I was so impressed with the book, the story and its characters I didn’t really think about the writing itself. Re-reading it now, I’m pretty shocked at how badly it’s written; how lazy and passive the writing style is and how awkward some of the sentences are. This time round, I’m more aware of the flaws in the writing style, and wonder if, had I not known how good the story itself is, I would have continued reading had I picked it up for the first time now. It came as a shock because, when I first read it, I never noticed the problems it had with the writing.
As I develop as a writer, it follows that I’ve become more discerning about what I read, and what I expect from a writer. If I, as a humble reader and would-be bestselling novelist, can become less tolerant of bad writing, despite the brilliance of the content, then how much more discerning an agent or publisher must be.
However, while the novel I’m talking about has its flaws, it’s been widely acclaimed, so it’s not just me who liked it. This begs the question: just how important is writing skill, in the big scheme of things?
Readers aren’t necessarily writers. They may not pick up a badly-ordered, ass-backwards, passive, overly-prosaic writing style. They read because they want story and they want characters.They want to be entertained and to live someone else’s life for a while.
But what a reader misses consciously, they may notice sub-consciously. If they’re constantly re-reading sentences to get their meaning. If they skip pages of description because they want to get on to what’s happening to the characters. If they get jarred out of the flow because something throws them, then their engagement is in constant jeopardy. It’s this, rather than the story, which can make a reader put down a book they would have otherwise enjoyed.
For me, this is why I will happily spend weeks/months polishing and re-editing my work. It’s why I’m always trying to improve my writing style. It’s not to be technically brilliant, it’s to ensure flow. My aim, especially during the editing phase, is for my reader to be able to open my book on page one and not want to put it down until ‘The End’. The story (or its culmination) is the destination, how well it’s written is the journey. It needs to be fun, smooth (even if the characters get a bumpy ride), and enjoyable. Make the journey enjoyable, and your reader will reach their destination without giving up on it.
Sure, a badly-written novel, may have enough going for it to get published, and sell and even be read by thousands of people, but those novels are in the minority, or they catch the public imagination by hitting the right demographic at the right time. That takes luck, and (often) good contacts. Most of us have neither of those things.
So, while I might cringe at stuff I wrote five years ago, I see it as a positive. It means I’m growing as a writer. I’m getting better at deciding what’s publishable and what needs more work. I view this as a desirable skill as much as being able to string a decent sentence together.
If I can’t recognise writing that needs improvement, then I can never improve my writing.