Good Writing is NOT Subjective

by Mike Duran · 20 comments

Let’s do a little experiment, shall we? Using the above five words, I shall rearrange the title of this blog post. Your assignment is to tell me which of the following three alternatives is better than the original. Ready? Go!

  1. Subjective is NOT Writing Good.
  2. NOT Good Writing is Subjective
  3. Good is NOT Subjective Writing

Okay, time’s up! So which of these alternate titles is better than the one I have? Answer: NONE OF THEM.

The original title is objectively better.

If this is true — that there is a way to tell a well-written statement from a wrongly or poorly written one —  then why do people argue that “Good writing is subjective”?

Well, you say, people have different tastes, what’s “good” to one is not to another. I understand. But does that mean all four of the above titles are equally good? Well, you say, a writer must be true to themselves, write the story of their heart despite the critics. Of course. But does “writing the story of your heart” justify using Pig Latin?

If good writing is subjective, then why are there books and seminars and courses and manuals on… how to write better? If good writing is subjective then there is no need to get better at it. In fact, “getting better” is completely relative.

So perhaps what we need is a little clarification:

First: There is a difference between good writing and good storytelling. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald one of his literary masters, adept at the art of myth-making. But in the preface to MacDonald’s Lilith, Lewis writes, “Few of his novels are good and none is very good.” Huh? You see, Lewis made a distinction between the craft of writing and the creation of Story. Stylistically, MacDonald was average. His expertise, however, was in telling stories. Likewise, you must make a distinction between the technical elements of writing and the essential story being told. “Good writing” may be either or both, but it can’t be neither.

Second: There’s a difference between your “taste” in something and the actual quality of the product. A good critic should be able to separate the two. Just because I don’t like liver does not mean liver can’t be expertly cooked. Similarly, I might not “like” a film, but that shouldn’t keep me from admitting it was well-made. Conversely, I can admit a film is poorly made, but still believe the story has merit. People who suggest that “Good writing is subjective” are usually referring to taste, not quality. For the moment they concede there IS a standard for quality writing, they undermine their argument. So you must make a distinction between “preference” and “precedence,” between “what you like” and “what is well-done.”

Third: There is a difference between writing for publication, and writing for personal fulfillment. Neither one is wrong. Both can be good. However, when writing for publication you must understand: Most publishers DO NOT think good writing is subjective. Just look at their Submission Guidelines. They expect a writer to grasp grammar, create interest, unfold plots, describe settings, build worlds, craft characters, summon emotion, and not use Pig Latin. Listen, if your goal is to simply get your memoir on paper, then by all means do it! In this case, however, your objective should not be to “write good.” Your objective should be to write. Nevertheless, the moment you want to publish that piece is the moment other “rules” come into play. Take it or leave it. So you must make a distinction between someone who is writing for their own personal growth or pleasure, as a hobbyist, and someone who is trying to get past the gatekeepers.

So can we agree that there is such a thing as “bad writing”? If we can, then we are well on our way to dismantling this fallacy. And the next time someone tries to argue that “Good writing is subjective,” just stand up and say “NOT Good Subjective Writing is!”

If they misunderstand you, you have made your point.

Cathy September 7, 2010 at 6:38 AM

Very nice. I’m really enjoying your posts. And you had me at “George MacDonald,” my childhood fav. 🙂

Tim George September 7, 2010 at 7:28 AM

The difference in subjective and objective is a real issue in doing book reviews. It is also one reason I seldom publish a bad review for a novel. There are some good stories that come my way I just can’t give a good review to because I think they are poorly written. But there are readers out there who also may find the novel well worth the money and time invested in it for the story. Rather than rain on their parade, I choose to be silent and leave the reviewing to someone else.

Good writing is not subjective but what makes a novel enjoyable is. What other explanation can there be for Dan Brown’s success when his research, grammar, and prose are deplorable?

mike duran September 7, 2010 at 10:38 AM

Tim, I wish more reviewers would admit what you have — that some books are stylistically flawed. Just because some people will find them enjoyable doesn’t change that fact. Conceding subjectivity shouldn’t force us to throw in the towel. If there is no way to determine good writing, then my Strunk & White is going in the trash. Thanks for your comments!

Jill September 7, 2010 at 12:12 PM

Are you kidding me? Strunk and White? That book is a grammar nightmare! But a lot of people don’t think so. Experts argue about the validity of Strunk and White. It’s too bad that language and grammar are so danged slippery.

To a certain extent, I agree with you. My dad teaches art, and he has one student who cannot take advice or criticism; hence, mommy storms in and gives him the “Art is freedom of expression! You can’t tell somebody how to do it right!” I’ve heard her reiterate this sentiment at least three times (my kids are in the same class). Well, then why bother spending precious money on an art class?

I feel the same about writing. It isn’t merely self-expression; there is an art to it and a craft that is learned. However, if experts can’t agree on the merits of a book like Strunk and White, then what is the standard we use to determine what is good writing and what is not?

Honestly, what is the standard? How do we determine what is good and what is not? I know what I think is fantastic literature, but would you agree with me?

David James September 8, 2010 at 3:53 PM

Not to speak for Mike, but perhaps that’s why he mentioned Strunk & White? Perhaps he was showing a furthering of his point? Again, not to speak for Mike. Just a thought. 😉

Jessica Thomas September 7, 2010 at 7:56 AM

I have to agree and disagree. I agree that at any point in history there are objective rules as to what makes art and literature good, but those rules are subjective in that they change with the times. If an art teacher asked me to create a painting and I produced two dimensional stick figures, my painting would be deemed “bad”. If I lived in cave man times who knows, they might be the best stick figures around. Another example, Isaac Asimov’s writing was deemed good science fiction at the time, but jumpin’ Jupiters his writing would never cut it in today’s premier science fiction magazines.

For the reason’s above, I’m hesitant to make a blanket statement that good writing/art is objective. Throughout art history, there have been artists before their time. Their work was not deemed “good” by the current standards of the time, mainly because it was over most folk’s head. Fast forward, the artist dies or kills themselves, and suddenly their art is finally appreciated as it should have been all along. It just took time for the collective artistic consciousness of the people to catch up the artist’s vision.

Mike Duran September 7, 2010 at 4:12 PM

Jessica, I don’t think we can parallel art with writing in this regard. With the advent of abstract art, pretty much anything goes. Language suffers under tighter constraints. If you don’t believe me, here’s a quote from my new book entitled “Abstract Writing.”

“Wjhdf luyrk. jvn ksdnajf nle-5784nfgv? khtvrlkjvn dvk.erjgb. fkiuvlrl v943jm ;dnv. wu676wolOd,lbpv-5i”

Question: Would you like to pre-order a copy?

Jessica Thomas September 7, 2010 at 5:43 PM

Of course the constructs of language come in to play, but I’d argue, even with abstract art, it’s not an anything goes type of thing. I can’t put a dot on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper and call it art. I mean, I suppose I can, but no one’s going to buy that either. Also (you may have already said this above) good grammar doesn’t necessarily mean good writing. Sentences can perfectly constructed yet be dry and boring as heck. All the other things you mention publisher expects (create interest, unfold plots, describe settings, build worlds, craft characters, summon emotion) are definitely subjective and pertain to the art of writing.

Kaci September 9, 2010 at 8:11 PM

Oh, it exists, Mike. Go into a college level English class. Anyone who can get a Freudian reading out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story needs their brain checked. The ‘all interpretations are valid’ nonsense is the equivalent of abstract art. It renders everything meaningless except the reader’s perception. Doesn’t matter if the author meant it one way. The reader wants it to be another.

Nicole September 7, 2010 at 8:32 AM

This point is a stickler with you, Mike. Just like me saying “good” writing is subjective. I think the only way we can agree on this is to separate the composition of what’s included in the blanket “good writing” label. Yes, if you use poor grammar and don’t know it, it’s bad writing. If you use clunky phrases in one portion and morph into suave prose in another with no reason for the changes, it’s bad writing.

However, if you get published, it’s not an instantaneous sign of “good writing” regardless of the submission guidelines because those very things you listed as the requirements for “good writing” do not appear in many published books. Your own agent admits that much of what’s published is due to subjectivity of those who decide what will and won’t be published.

Take Hemingway. I see no merits in his writing. I think it’s stark and unimaginative. Pale vanilla. But I think he’s a good storyteller.

The basic qualifications of writing well might not be subjective, but the outcome of writing fiction remains subjective (good or bad).

Jessica Thomas September 7, 2010 at 9:06 AM

I’m not sure we can even use grammar as an objective measure. Technically, sentence fragments are “bad”. Microsoft Word doesn’t like them. There are other techniques I employ that Word doesn’t like. But writers can make up words, mince grammar, basically break or remake the rules. The rule breaking may really perturb some readers, other’s may think it’s marvelous.

For a time, in certain music circles, a jazz chord would have made the audience cringe or run for the doors. Reviewers would have called it “noise” rather than music. And oh dear, what if the composer ended the song without resolving? Egads.

As I grew up, my sport of choice was swimming. That’s about as objective as it gets. You dive in, swim, hit the wall and get a time. Your time is either your best or it’s not. Wouldn’t I love it if fiction writing was the same!! But it ain’t. As a result it tends to be a lot more frustrating and also less rewarding. Nature of the beast.

Mike Duran September 7, 2010 at 4:37 PM

Nicole, I do think we need to make some distinctions in this discussion, differentiate between technique and story, etc. While I agree that getting published is not an “instantaneous sign” of good writing, it is a sign that some industry standard or expectation has been met. Most likely, some of that has to do with actual writing. But in saying that agents still apply “subjectivity” to their decisions, we should not take this to mean a disregard for basic elements of good storytelling.

And you see “no merit Hemingway.” None? I just finished something by Henry James. One word: Tedious. Does this mean I found “no merit” in Henry James? Absolutely not. So, as I said, I think we do need to make distinctions. thanks for your comments!

Nicole September 8, 2010 at 7:54 AM

No merit in Hemingway’s writing. The stories are interesting except for a couple, but the writing itself, his technique and style? No. Not to be elevated to the level of great writing that is common for Hemingway fans.

Jay September 7, 2010 at 12:10 PM

Does this mean I can finally say that the Sound and the Fury is an objectively awful book? I’ve been holding back and it’s been giving me an ulcer. Honestly, try to read it if you haven’t…

Guy Stewart September 7, 2010 at 4:08 PM

I almost think I could argue…except that I can’t. Something about what you wrote resonated deeply in me as RIGHT. A sense of total “rightness” overwhelmed me the instant I read this: “Most publishers DO NOT think good writing is subjective. Just look at their Submission Guidelines.”

If you want to write for yourself, then writing is what it is. If you want to write for publication, it is totally and completely subjective every time I send out the exact same manuscript.

My job is to find the right subjective viewpoint to match my writing…

Guy Stewart September 10, 2010 at 5:06 PM

I found this over at Janet Reid’s Blog, “Et in Arcaedia, ego” (September 3rd, 2010):

“I’ve been asked to guest-judge many of the latter and when I receive the finalist entries, I have to pick a winner. Therefore, even if none of the entries are my cup of tea, I still attempt to determine which is the best crafted, the most marketable, or whatever other characteristics the contest committee wants included in the judging.”

Tim George September 7, 2010 at 9:06 PM

Athol Dickson once made this observation to me about the rules and writing. To bend or even break the rules with consistent success one must first know the rules. It’s one thing to read a piece of fiction and be able to see the writer is using, even bending, the rules for a desired effect. Its quite another to sense the writer has no idea what the rules even are.

Justin September 8, 2010 at 10:08 AM

yes and no, it is based on the audience, but it isn’t. i’m going to be postmodern about this. i think we should be striving to be better, but i can’t really say my idea of “good writing” is the only right one…(read I would say literary books are better writing than say Dekker books, but that’s MY opinion, and not a fact)…but there is such a thing as letting the audience decide, if we’re changing lives and we’re doing God’s work, our perfectionism need not get in the way.

plus I think you’ve grossly misunderstood abstract art. there is bad don’t get me wrong, but take something like Pollock’s art and there is great meaning in it.

Mike Duran September 10, 2010 at 6:31 AM

Justin, I do agree with you about Pollock and abstract art having value. But the further you get to the fringes, the more subjective (or sublime, depending upon your perspective) it becomes. (I spoke to an artist friend of mine who recently visited a gallery. He and his wife stood gaping at a large unpainted canvas with a single hole in the center, slightly shaded and puckered. It was a sphincter. )

As with literature, however, I think this idea of “fringe” is important. For if there’s a fringe, there’s a “center”. Postmodern literature must still move out from a certain “center.” After all, words exist and putting them in a proper order is the only way to communicate an idea to your reader. If we choose to reshuffle the deck — reinvent grammar, syntax, punctuation, etc. — our bridge crumbles. Once we move from an accepted center, we move toward complete gibberish. Thanks for your comments, Justin.

Harriett September 11, 2010 at 9:06 AM

As a retired English teacher who taught in the public schools for thirty-three years, let me tell you what is “subjective” — the grading of student writing.

I agree with Mike on this, though — Good Writing is Not Subjective — what is subjective is whether or not you like it.


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