“Think readers care about fancy prose?” Actually, yes

I knew this was not going to go well for me as soon as I saw the headline.

When I saw a link to an article by Angela Scott entitled, “Think readers care about fancy prose? Well, think again,” I knew it was only going to make me feel frustrated and sad. And I was right.

I don’t really want to pick on Ms. Scott too much here — she’s hardly the first blogger I’ve seen voicing that opinion, and she’s certainly not going to be the last, but this was such a perfect example of this kind of thinking that I wanted to dissect exactly what problems I have with it.

She says:

Here’s the thing about writing — readers don’t appreciate fancy words and intelligently written prose. It’s true. It is. For the most part readers don’t even care about GOOD writing (does a certain shiny vampire come to mind? Just saying). You can slave away trying to perfect the most amazing sentence, paragraph, or novel, but I’m telling you right now, most likely, no one will even notice.

[…] You may hate [Stephenie Meyer’s] writing. You may dis her and whatnot, but guess who’s laughing her way to the bank, folks — the lady who wrote “Green leaves were swaying in the wind, greenly.” Why? Because readers are interested in a good story. And whether you liked the shiny vampire or not, she told a humdinger of a tale and several million people loved it.

Okay, first off, I don’t feel like I even need to point out that popular success, or financial success, makes for a poor yardstick of quality. Yes, millions of people loved Twilight. Millions of people also think that Olive Garden is a good Italian restaurant. And? Is appealing to the lowest common denominator really something to aspire to?

Secondly, trying to use Stephenie Meyer as proof that people “don’t even notice” bad writing is just flat-out wrong. I know a lot of people who liked the Twilight series, and honestly, all of them are a little bit embarrassed by that. They did notice. They can tell. All of them say, “I really liked the story, even though the writing’s not very good …. ”

Stop and consider — do you really want someone saying that about your writing? Even your fans?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to ignore your commas or toss aside rules of grammar and adverb usage (I hate adverbs). But what I am saying is this, don’t get so caught up in the form and style of writing that you forget to tell a great story.

The thing is, this is such a false dichotomy. Trying to ask, “which is important, good prose or a good story?” is equivalent to saying, “what does a car need — gasoline or motor oil?” It needs both, and while it may not move at all without the gas, it will just as surely grind to a halt eventually without the oil.

Similarly, a book needs to have good writing and a good story in order to really work.

What do I mean by “good writing?” Well, first, let’s look at what Ms. Scott seems to mean by it. She seems to be talking about “fancy words” and comma placement.

This frustrates me just as much as people who write off proper ettiquette as just being about “which fork to use.” It’s a strange form of reverse-elitism, and at the risk of playing armchair psychologist for a moment — it always seems to me to come from a sense of defensiveness and fear. Fear of not knowing every single little rule, fear of being caught out on some small transgression. So the people who have that reaction protect themselves from this fear by dismissing commas and forks as unimportant, as the concern of fussy intellectuals.

And by doing that, they miss the entire point. Good ettiquette isn’t about knowing which fork to use — it’s about making sure the people around you are happy and comfortable and feel respected. Good writing isn’t about avoiding split infinitives and dangling modifiers — it’s about making your reader’s experience of the story as smooth as possible.

Your story is your gasoline — it’s the motive power that drives your book, propels the reader forward. And your prose style is your motor oil, slickly and fluidly keeping everything moving without friction, without hesitation. Good prose removes unclear sentences and awkward phrasing — anything that might make a reader stop and think, “Huh? What are you talking about?” Because in that moment, you have jarred them out of your all-important story.

The number one thing writers want and care about most: the story. […] I have yet to hear a writer commend the actual writing — “The story was so-so, but the word usage was superb!”

Ain’t gonna happen. If a reader does say this, then they’re just plain weird.

Actually? Yeah, I do say that. That doesn’t mean it’s a recommendation, just that I’m talking about what I liked about a book. Similarly, I’m not going to recommend a book that has a great story, and only so-so writing. But if being able to notice that a piece of writing can have lovely prose and no story to speak of really makes me “just plain weird,” well, then, I guess I can live with that.

But I honestly don’t think I’m that unusual. (Well — in that respect, anyway.) People do care about word usage. I have had many, many friends over the years who are avid readers speak to me enthusiastically about the poetic quality of the prose of their favorite writers — Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, John Crowley, Francesca Lia Block, Tanith Lee, Kathe Koja. There are readers out there who notice quality and seek it out, and if they are a minority, they’re a sizeable one.

Ms. Scott quotes Laura Miller, from an August 2011 article in The Writer:

“You probably don’t go to the movies to see the lighting and photography, and most readers don’t come to books in search of a breathtaking sentence.”

I may not go to the movies just for the lighting and photography, but I sure as hell remember the lighting and photography, if it’s any good. I remember Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog for its amazing black-and-white photography; I remember James Cameron movies for their epic scale; I remember Kubrick’s films for their perfect compositions. All of these things elevate the story.

The same thing goes for breathtaking sentences. Writers like Shirley Jackson or Edgar Allen Poe could spin a good yarn, sure, but they wouldn’t be nearly so fondly remembered if they couldn’t turn one hell of a good phrase.

Most of the time, though, you don’t notice a writer’s prose style, the same way you don’t necessarily notice the photography in a film. In both cases, those things are doing their job — getting the hell out of the way and letting you think you’re having a seamless experience. When the prose is bad, or when a film’s shots are poorly chosen or badly edited — you notice. Believe me, you do. You may not be consciously aware of it in either case, but you will notice that something is wrong with this, that something is not working the way it should. And that’s not a reaction I think you want your readers to be having.

I’m not an eloquent writer. I may have one sentence, two if I’m lucky, that someone might say, “Hey, that’s good stuff. I’d better underline that.” But for the most part, my writing is at par. Nothing fancy. Nothing to earn a MFA degree with, and I’m okay with that.

This is the part that makes me saddest of all. Because I honestly believe that Angela Scott is selling herself short. As long as she keeps doing that, she’ll be right. As Richard Bach said, “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” So long as Ms. Scott has firmly made up her mind what she’s not capable of, then she genuinely won’t be.

I work really hard to keep my readers engaged and desiring to read the next chapter, and the next one, and the next one. […] Of course, my true goal is to write a fantastic story that is written well. I’m constantly trying to make sure my writing doesn’t make me look like an idiot—improve, improve, improve. But, without a great story, who will care that I “show” more than I “tell” or that I found a way to eliminate all to-be verbs from my writing (wouldn’t that be awesome)?

Who will care? Your readers will care. Showing instead of telling, eliminating weak verbs — these aren’t things you do because they’re “correct,” to earn some kind of abstract style points — these are techniques that improve the immediacy and vitality of your story, that make reading your prose an immersive experience. Your readers will care, because so long as you’re not using techniques like this, no matter how much they may love your story — they will feel like you’re keeping them at a distance from it.

Again, your readers might not consciously notice anything is wrong, but if you don’t put any care and effort into your prose — and you don’t have to stress over it too much as you’re first getting the story down on the page, that’s what revision is for — they will notice that something is lacking, and that can make all the difference between a book that they really enjoyed even though it was kind of awful, and a book they’re going to press into the hands of all their friends saying, “you have to read this.”

If you really want to improve your writing — and I’m not just addressing Ms. Scott here, but anyone who might be reading this — then you have to let go of whatever you think your limitations are. They’re not real, they’re just a story you told yourself. I submit to you that you actually have no idea what your limits are, that you have yet to begin to push at the boundaries of your capabilities.

You live in a world full of eloquence. It’s honestly not that hard to reach out and pull some of it inside yourself, learn the trick of it. Read some poetry for a change. Or listen to your favorite songs, listen to the sound and the rhythms of them, listen to what the language does and why it’s memorable. Pull your favorite books down from the shelves and do the same thing, read them out loud, everything out loud until you find the meter and discover what makes them work, until your feet learn the steps of the dance; copy the best sentences down by hand over and over again, try re-arranging the words in them, see if they still work, figure out why not if they don’t.

Memorize the best monologues from your favorite movies. Recite them under your breath while you’re shopping for groceries. Let the world think you’re a little mad, if need be. Forget everything you’re not supposed to be capable of and then — surprise yourself.