This series began because of a post on Twitter asking what writers thought were the most important aspects of a book.
Our series looks at our picks for the three most important things in a story: compelling characters, original concepts, and great writing. The three components we’ve chosen to look at were presented in order of importance. Unlike the people who responded in this poll, we do not place quite as much importance on great writing. It slips to third place, but only by a hair. Let’s explore the reasons why compelling characters and original concepts come out ahead.
Components of Writing
There are different components of writing, and their own importance and ranking could be debated.
Often, when agents and editors talk about submissions and rejections they will talk about technical mistakes. At an editor/agent panel at Harrogate in 2005 some panelists acknowledged that they stopped reading after three typos. An audience member objected, saying it was their job to review submissions. The panelist responded by saying that wasn’t their job at all. Their job, they maintained, was the find manuscripts that they knew they could sell. At no point does that mean they have to read each complete submission they receive.
The panelist also maintained that it is the writer’s job to present their work professionally, and if the writer wasn’t going to take their work seriously then why should they?
Voice is another component of writing that is also very important. Voice is the way that a writer uses words to create a tone that is unlike any other writer. The writing is so distinctive that it conveys the attitudes and personality of the writer. In some respects voice can also be associated with character because the voice will gel with the protagonist(s) and it sets a certain tone. Would you expect a character who is prim and proper, very straight-laced and law-abiding, to use a lot of slang and be mouthy with everyone? No.
Why Writing Slips To Third
In light of the exchange at Harrogate recalled in the technical writing section, you might wonder how it is possible for anyone to conclude that the quality of writing isn’t the most important component of a book.
At Bronzeville our view is a little bit different. Writers can be taught how to punctuate a sentence and how to format a document. What can’t be taught is how to come up with intriguing characters and concepts that will captivate readers.
If great writing alone was the most important component of a book then James Sallis would be a household name in the U.S. and it would not have taken this long for Adrian McKinty to get a major book deal. Both of these authors excel at their craft, but they haven’t had the right combination of character and concepts with mainstream appeal to achieve major success as authors. (For McKinty, success has come at last via a movie deal for his latest novel, The Chain.)
As important as great writing is, without compelling characters that readers connect with and original concepts that will entertain and intrigue, all that’s left is perfectly structured sentences and paragraphs that will not engage the reader because they have nothing to say.
Yes, a very successful agent on a panel in the U.K. may have talked about quitting on submissions with technical mistakes, but what that quote doesn’t address is how often they quit reading submissions because they were bored.
And yes, great writing slips to third in terms of importance … but it is only a hair short of compelling characters and original concepts, not a distant third.
Not An Invitation to Slack Off
The fact that we ranked characters and concepts higher than quality of writing does not mean that great writing isn’t important. In fact, great writing is like the DNA that shapes your characters, the brush that paints the colors of your fictional world. However, the average adult reads at a grade 6 reading level. Newspapers of old tailored their content to ensure accessibility; they break things down to be accessible for the widest appropriate audience possible.
Book editors also have to consider accessibility. A person may have exceptional technical writing skills and a distinct voice but use language that is too complex for the average reader to follow. Editors must assess the potential market based on the writing to determine whether or not they want to publish the work, and often a decision may be based on whether or not they feel they can sell enough copies of the work to justify publication. An expert technical writer may write themselves out of a deal just by nature of language choices and how they may limit the work’s potential audience.
It is important to work on your technical writing skills, which include reading. We know immediately if a writer has read our submission guidelines. We know if they have spent time revising their material, which involves the ability to critically read and review their own work. We can assess their technical writing level very quickly. The odd typo shouldn’t be cause for a rejection; typos happen to the best of us, even when we do regard our work professionally. However, an abundance of technical writing mistakes indicates that either the writer is sloppy with their work, does not make the effort to address technical writing issues, or does not have much knowledge about the mechanics of writing. All of these are factors an editor must consider.
Our first question is whether or not you have a story to tell that people will want to read. Our next question is whether or not we believe that we can work with you, and writers who appear lazy because of excessive errors may reduce their chances of publication because of the volume of work needed to correct mistakes or because of concerns about how cooperative the writer may be during the editing process. (That’s where your attitude in emails can make a significant difference, but that’s another whole topic on its own.)
It’s hard to split out components of the storytelling process and evaluate them separately, because they are all intertwined. In truth, one must have great writing skills in order to create real and memorable characters; writing is about more than simply selecting words, organizing them and punctuating them. It’s about knowing what information is needed to make the character, the setting, the plot come alive.
Great writing can make or break a submission … but remember, the best technical writing will fall short of acceptance if you don’t have strong characters and a story to tell.
A Note About the Poll
One of the things that’s tricky about this Twitter poll is that it doesn’t offer context. The inclusion of ‘timing of sub/pub’ suggests they are specifically looking at the submission or publication phase of the storytelling process. The truth is, there are many other points during the storytelling process that could be considered, and timing would have little to do with them. There is, for some, the planning phase. There’s the writing stage. There’s the revision and rewrite stage. It would be easy to make an argument that great writing is the most important component during the revision and rewrite stage; it’s certainly going to be more helpful than timing or an original concept. The reason for pointing this out is to clarify that it’s hard to fully contend that the views in this short series do conflict with the views from the poll, because the stage of the process with the manuscript could alter perspectives greatly.