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Is it better to be a good writer or a great writer?

Something I've been pondering over the last few days is whether being a great writer can actually make a book less popular. My reasons for this thinking are thus; I'm far from a great writer and in the past have not read a lot either. I'm pretty average I think in terms of vocabulary and comprehension and have tried to read many books in the past but been put off by what was in my opinion and overly elaborate writing style.

I then think about the most popular books to have been released in the last decade. Very few of them are considered 'well-written' in the literary community yet, to take the example of Harry Potter, the simple writing style and avoidance of long words and complicated language have actually been beneficial as it has been opened up to a far wider audience.

Now I appreciate a well written book as much as the next person, but I feel my immersion in a story often suffers when the author is too elaborate or verbose. So my theory is that it's actually better to have a fantastic story and characters, and to write it in a simple way: a way which may not be considered "great" but is good enough to be enjoyed by the average person on the street.

What are other people's views?
I'm not sure it strictly speaking has anything to do with verbosity. I mean, a book that is easy to read will probably reach a wider audience, but I don't think it's the deciding factor.

The way I figure is, it is a mistake to assume popularity should be proportional to quality. Popularity is mostly appealing to quantity. I think things actually become popular because they are mainstream enough to appeal to a great number of people at once, not because they are the best available option. What matters is taste, and taste varies between individuals. The more refined your style is, the more specialized you are, and the more specialized you are, the more exclusive your audience will be.

So, it basically comes down to a choice between selling a lot of books or perfecting your art. I suppose it's theoretically possible to do both, but I'm not sure one can do it on purpose.
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Elaborate vocabulary doesn't make anyone a great writer, or any 13 year old with a thesaurus could call themselves a great writer.

My definition of a great writer is this: a writer who can tell any story well, who creates compelling characters even where we might not otherwise like a person of the same description and personality, who can create immersion and who can create a story which provokes thought or gives the reader a perspective that changes the way they think or view something.

I think there are plenty of popular books that fulfil that description for a certain proportion of the reading population.

And note: part of my first criteria there, telling a story well, is using language which gets the desired ideas across to the reader effectively. In other words, clarity.

As for the disconnect between what's popular and what is well recieved by reviewers and other writers, it's all about persepctive. You see, we've got different expectations to casual readers. We spend so much time navel gazing at elements of style that we're told are important that we start to notice when The Rules aren't followed by other writers. Most readers don't notice the minutiae of style and just get on with reading. It's like the film 300 (ignoring, for the moment, that it was based on a comic book, since the movie is better known), for most people it was just a cool action film set in ancient Greece or whatever. For me - having studied the original source material, Herodotus' account of the Greco-Persian war of 480BCE in his Histories and the surrounding archaeology and academic discussion - it was painful. There were inaccuracies in the topography (you know that cliff bit? Lol no), the non-Spartan combatants, the hunchback character who wouldn't have survived infancy because of Sparta's approach to eugenics, and so on. I noticed all the things wrong with 300 because I know a lot about the events it describes.

We as writers - along with editors, critics and reviewers - have a closer relationship with words and structure and character. We debate it all the time. And as such we notice when it's not quite right. Most readers don't care, though. Not about aspects of style or structure, as long as they find the characters and plot interesting.

That doesn't mean popular books are automatically great, not by a long shot, but it does mean that a good book can sell more than a great book, sometimes. It doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for greatness, though - some great books are crazy popular too. It just means that there are different audiences that are pleased by different aspects of the book. And if you're writing for an audience, it's something to consider - do you go for the (relatively) uneducated masses, or the picky literature types?
I've heard this argument here and there, in different forms. A few thoughts, then:

First, "good" and "great" are the kind of vague terms that are better for starting conversations than keeping people on the same page, so I expect this thread will get more tangled than it could be.

A lot of it is that if the public buys a book that doesn't have a superintricate style, does that mean J.K. Rowling is lazy and lucky, or that she's able to do a good story without overworking herself? After all:

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
–William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
–Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

(Often phrased as "He's not a real writer, my professor hasn't grown up on him so I can't do my dissertation there." Or as "Og bad painter, Thag use more antelopes." People keep forgetting every era has good, bad, fancy and/or simple writers.)

On the other hand, I have heard that writers choose between touching a few readers deeply and more readers widely, and that might be related to it. More demanding writing --complicated description, ambiguous events, character arcs that take longer to pay off-- is liable to get fewer readers willing to make the effort to follow it, but it can (sometimes!) make a deeper impact on the people who make the journey. If you're going to ask the reader to stretch, it doesn't hurt to keep certain readers in mind anyway and stretch in the direction they're most willing to go.

Actually, I think it might be best to step back from Good/Great and each make our own decisions about our different writing skills. If a writer finds it easier to push toward greatness at, say, description, but let the plot form simpler and more approachable shapes... besides being more natural for that writer, the result might be a better-balanced story, that more people could follow but that impressed all of them with what it did best.


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Just because writing is verbose doen't automatically mean it's good writing. That's a common misconception. Overly ornate writing is called purple prose, which is bad writing. Lots of good writing is simple and straight forward. For example Hemingway. There's nothing wrong with clear to the point simple prose. Sometimes it's good to call downtown a canyon of steel and glass. Other times it's just downtown, with no need for further description.
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Many literary greats I don't like, at least the ones they made us read in school. But also they don't mandate reading of Fantasy/sci-fi, either. Much like critics of movies, if they don't like it, I might. If they like it, I probably won't.

You want to be the best you can be and entertain the reader.
I think "good" and "great" are ambiguous at best. Aspiring to be a "good" writer or a "great" writer....Doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of writing? Writing is about story-telling. If you tell a story well, you'll engage the reader. It isn't about the vocabulary being used, concise writing, or fancy prose.

What it boils down to is: Tell me a story. Keep my attention.

No matter who the author is, they are great to someone. Because someone, somewhere, is caught up in the story being woven.

I do think it's important for a writer to hone their grammar skills and, by extension, their writing skills. Grammar gives us the tools to make our stories speak, but it is our voice that tells the tale. We are the ones that have to capture the imagination of the people we're writing for.

And we're all always writing for someone, even if it's only ourselves.
I think "good" and "great" are ambiguous at best. Aspiring to be a "good" writer or a "great" writer....Doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of writing?

Not really. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious and wanting to create something meaningful with your art. The purpose of your writing is whatever you personally hope to achieve with it. Nobody ever said writing needs to serve the same purpose for all writers.

You mention story-telling, and grammar is a part of that. But deciding which words to use - big or small, simple or baroque - is also a part of storytelling. And, I dare say, to a higher degree than grammar.

See, good grammar isn't really a choice, it's a requirement. Few writers use poor grammar on purpose, after all. But deciding wether you want to be Faulkner or Hemingway is a choice. A choice that will determine the shape and flow and texture of your story, and thereby decide what kind of storyteller yo u are. I think that's what matters at the end of the day, not how much grammar you managed to cram.


I just want to write stories which, a) I am proud of and, b) other people enjoy reading.

If it's just one person who enjoys it, fine.

If it's a million, fine.

Even if it's one person who really hates it, but tells me they enjoy it convincingly enough, I'll probably place a check in the "fine" column.
But deciding whether you want to be Faulkner or Hemingway is a choice. A choice that will determine the shape and flow and texture of your story, and thereby decide what kind of storyteller yo u are. I think that's what matters at the end of the day, not how much grammar you managed to cram.

You can make a choice to copy Hemingway or Faulkner, sure. But isn't writing about showcasing your own voice? And there's nothing wrong with aspiring to do something meaningful with your writing.

My problem with the idea of "great" writing or "good" writing comes down to this: a lot of writers are focused solely on making their story publishable/marketable. Not to say all of us are, because we aren't, but I feel that the writers who focus so strongly on being published risk losing their own voice. All I'm trying to say is that the most important thing is telling the story in your own voice.

And it's impossible to determine if you're a "good" writer or a "great" writer without the exposure of publication. It is society that determines what is good/great writing, not the whims of a writer. The only thing that we can do, as writers, is to hone our technical skills so that our story comes to life for everyone who reads it.


... I feel that the writers who focus so strongly on being published risk losing their own voice. All I'm trying to say is that the most important thing is telling the story in your own voice.

I think it would be incredibly difficult to write an entire novel, copying the voice of another, in the expectation of publication. Furthermore, I'd expect that work to read like crap. I don't believe that an author has a real chance at traditional publication without writing, in their own voice, with unadulterated honesty throughout their work.