Is what makes good writing just an opinion? To answer this I think we need to look at the different levels of editing.
This is the level of editing that looks at the book’s big picture – the overall structure and story elements such as plot, pacing, characters, world-building, dialogue, descriptions, and so on. Any books on writing that you read that deal with this level of novel writing pretty much agree on what makes a book work at this level. How you apply these commonly agreed upon guidelines to any particular book, however, is necessarily subjective. But one thing I suspect all editors would be able to agree on is whether or not a book needs more work. They could also probably agree on where the problems are, on what isn’t working as it should. They are also likely to make the same kinds of general suggestions based on their knowledge of what makes good writing at this level, but they may not agree on how to apply the general guidelines to a specific book.
Copy editing conventions
Copy editing looks at the writing in terms of the conventions of grammar, spelling, correct use of words, punctuation, and so on. This is the technical area of writing, and as such I see this as the objective area. These things are not a matter of opinion. They are rules that makes sure that readers will understand our meaning. Yes, editors can disagree on comma placement depending on the meaning the author is trying to get across, but we won’t disagree on the conventions themselves – so long as we’re editing to the same style guide.
Line editing conventions
Whereas copy editing is the technical aspect of editing, line editing can be seen as the art of editing. As such it is subjective, but as for copy editing, there are generally agreed-on conventions that make for good writing. The subjective part is where, how and if to apply the guidelines in any particular example.
A line edit polishes the prose, making sure that it is as engaging as possible, and checks that each paragraph and sentence expresses the author’s ideas clearly and succinctly. Line editing looks at sentence and paragraph structure, makes sure the words used evoke the intended reader response and deepen characterisation. It looks at whether or not character motivations and point of view changes are clear, the balance of story elements like description and backstory, and turns telling into showing where needed. A line editor will also cut unnecessary words and remove needless repetition. They will make sure that every scene, every paragraph, every sentence and every word is there for a reason, and that there is nothing extraneous to make the reading a chore.
The overall purpose of line editing is to make the writing as engaging as possible, so it holds the reader’s attention, draws them into the scene. If there is a way to make the writing more enagaging, then there is more line editing to be done.
The following quotes essentialise modern standards for line editing:
Beautiful writing is when every word is the right word, in its right place and there for a reason. There is nothing extraneous. The words flow so smoothly that the reader is transported beyond the words. They even forget they are reading.Elizabeth Weiss, publisher at Allen and Unwin, Australia.
Writers we in time call ‘great’ tend to follow all the rules of good writing. Spare, interesting, easy to read, easy to understand to the point we forget that we are reading.”G J Berger, award-winning author of South of Burnt Rocks, West of the Moon.
Some of these conventions are: on balance a novel is better to show rather than tell a story because it’s much more engaging; overwriting bogs down the story with extraneous words that slow the pace and and can even obscure rather than elucidate the meaning; active prose (think verbs more interesting than ‘was’) makes for much more lively writing than passive prose; varied sentence structure is better than repetitive sentence structure – because a repetitive structure sends you to sleep – and so on.
Let’s take an example so we’re considering just one aspect of what makes good writing at a line editing level. For instance, if I was editing ‘he was on a chair’ I’d likely change it to ‘he sat on a chair’. ‘Sat’ is a more specific, more descriptive and therefore more interesting verb than ‘was’. And alternatives that would be even more evocative in that they express something about the character of ‘he’ would be things like ‘slouched’ or ‘lounged’ or ‘sprawled’. Depending on the visual image the author had for that scene and the character’s mind state as expressed in their body language.
Is it opinion to change that ‘was’ to a more active verb? Or is it applying knowledge of what makes good writing? Bear in mind when looking at this example, that too many factors come into a decision of whether to apply the ‘guidelines’ for them all to be included in a brief example.
Common concerns authors may have about line editing
Because line editing can make a lot of changes, authors may be reticent to engage a line editor, thinking that they will change the story. And being cautious is wise when you come to choose your line editor. Getting a sample edit is vital, so you can see how much they will change your writing, and decide whether it’s an appropriate level or not. I have heard stories of line editors who have been so heavy handed that the author doesn’t recognise their book any more, so make sure when you get a sample edit that you like what the editor has done and that where you’re unsure of why something has been changed, the editor has explained why they’ve made those changes. That’s how you learn.
At the same time, because authors don’t see the issues a line editor picks up (otherwise they would have corrected them when self-editing), it’s easy for an author to think that their writing is being changed ‘too much.’
I don’t change an authors style when editing – I work within it – and I am not rigid in applying generally accepted writing guidelines. I can recognise when books that are more telling than showing, for instance, are enagaging enough as they are that they don’t need sections changed to showing.
So is what makes good writing just an opinion?
If you are writing purely for yourself, then any writing is good writing. If you are writing for your family only, then who cares how it is written so long as it’s readable, and writing a scientific paper or textbook is vastly different to writing a novel. But if we are writing with the hope of selling books in a highly competitive market, then we have to write in as engaging a manner as possible. But what one person considers good reading can be quite different to what others consider good reading. Look at all the 5 star reviews of books I can’t get past the first few pages.
As an editor, the point at which I decide whether there is too much or too little of anything in a book is certainly a subjective one, but if asked, I would be able to explain why I made that choice in any particular context. Another editor’s choice might be different and neither choices would be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but I should be able to read another editor’s version and accept it as ‘good writing’ even while recognising that I may have made different choices. Overall such decisions are not ‘just an opinion’ because they are based on conventions and recognised qualities of good writing. A more accurate description of an editor’s subjective choice would be ‘educated decision’. And that’s very different to the opinon of someone who doesn’t have the knowledge and expertise of an experienced editor.
In summary, we could say that there are many conventions/guidelines that editors agree on that constitute good writing, but at a certain point – line editing as distinct from copy editing – editors make educated decisions on how, and if, these guidelines are applied in any particular circumstance. And we could add that editors weigh up a lot of different factors when making such decisions – voice, POV character’s perception, the author’s intention, variety of sentence structure, clarity of communication, and so on. For instance, a strong voice can cut through all the rules, and where that’s the case I would use a very light touch, but books that don’t need any line editing at all are rare, especially in inexperienced authors.
Regardless of one’s opinion on what makes good writing, most books benefit from applying the general guidelines for what makes good writing, (for a run down of these, see my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine) and all books require grammar and punctuation that meet expected conventions.
Author John Doppler nailed it when he said:
What constitutes good writing may be up for debate, but bad writing is glaringly obvious and nearly universally agreed upon.John Doppler
And, general interest in the subject matter or genre,aside, any book that doesn’t keep the general reader’s attention long enough for them to finish it, clearly isn’t good writing. And if it doesn’t pass an editor’s scrutiny, it isn’t as good as it could/should be.
For information in what makes good prose check out my book on this very topic.
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