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June 18, 2007

A Quick Note Re: Being Grown Up and Writery and Not Sucky

When discussing teens and their sucky writing, let me also note in fairness that there are positively scads of adult writers whose writing sucks as well, some because they only began writing in earnest when they became adults, some because they tried to cruise by on cleverness when they were teens and are paying for it now, and some because, well. Some people are just no damn good at writing and will never be.

I don't think there's any one particular time when one passes the suck frontier into non-suckitude; you just get better as you go along and then one day you're sufficiently good, which is not necessarily the same as being actually good, or good at all aspects of writing. I was sufficiently good at writing at age 22 to get a job doing it; I shudder to think what a novel out of my 22-year-old self would have been like. Likewise, at 38, I'm a better writer than my 28-year-old self, who was a substantially better writer than my 18-year-old self; I hope to Sweet Merry Jesus that my 48-year-old self is an even better writer still.

The ideal situation has a writer continually distancing him or herself from suck. This, however, is not a guaranteed thing, and you have to work at it. It's called "suck" for a reason. It'll be happy to pull you back in.

Posted by john at June 18, 2007 03:12 PM

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Kate | June 18, 2007 03:52 PM

Can I ask a stupid question? (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)The only thing you've really addressed on general criteria for being a good writer is having decent grammatical structure. You give numerous tips on how to be a better writer, but you don't necessarily give factors on which you're ultimately judged.

So grammatical structure not withstanding, how can you tell if you're bad?

If the publishing industry is as slow as you say it is and most people spend years in a slush pile or are rejected time after time for different reasons, how do they judge where you may need improvement?

Speaking as an adult here, if I'm terrifically bad at something, I don't necessarily want to be wasting my time trying to get better. I would think writing would be akin to stable pitch, you need to have some sort of natural talent. No matter how many voice lessons you may take, you're not going to sound like Mariah Carey if you are ultimately a William Hung.

So Mr. Scalzi, I hand you a manuscript. Tell me what you want. Sentence structure? Overall idea? Story? The ability to use ten dollar words as opposed to using a fourth grade vocabulary? The talent to take you from the very first word to the very end without a hiccup? A good spell checker?


Bookninja | June 18, 2007 03:53 PM

Is "Sweet Merry Jesus" some drug reference I haven't heard before?

Julian Murdoch | June 18, 2007 03:55 PM

I'm glad you posted this follow-up. The sad thing is that many people who would make excellent writers are terrified of writing.

When coaching writers, I generally make one assessment: if I'm sitting at dinner with them, can they tell me a story in a way I find entertaining, easy to follow, natural, and with emotion? If the answer is "yes" than all that stands in the way of them being at least a decent writer is technique and confidence.

It's for this reason I implore new writers to think about everything they do as a speech. If you can't read it into a tape recorder, play it back, and have it sounds and feel natural, than it wasn't well written.

This doesn't mean everything has to be conversational. T.S. Elliot didn't write conversational english, yet when spoken aloud, it flows brilliantly.

But technique can be learned, and by technique I mean both the technical craft of writing (how to get your tenses right, where the periods go) and the occupational craft of writing. This last part is by far the most difficult. Writing a good short story when you have no deadline, no editor, no target publication and no word count is one thing (and not insignificant). Writing a 2,500 word speech on South American ethanol production that won't bore an audience to tears on a 24 hour deadline is an entirely different animal, as is delivering a 400 word sidebar or a 4,000 word piece of creative non-fiction.

Those are skills, just as much as learning how to program a computer or fix a car is.

Anyway, all just my opinions. And back to the original comments -- I totally dug the teen piece.

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 04:06 PM


If you were submitting a fiction story to me, I would want, in no particular order:

Good grammar
Compelling story idea
Decent plot development and resolution
Interesting characters
Good dialogue and interaction

How do you do this? That's your job.

Some people are natural storytellers; some aren't -- however, I think that in writing as in many other things 80 to 90 percent of what makes a really good writer can be taught (natural ability is the other 10%), and if even if something doesn't come naturally, one can usually learn well enough to do it that it doesn't detract from the things one can do well.

Sam Taylor | June 18, 2007 04:30 PM

We can wax philosophical on this for weeks. Forgive the cliche, but it's true. The problem is this: There are different types of "good writig".

There's the basic level of good writing--when all your sentences, grammar, spelling, and paragraphs come out right.

There's the next level, when you can put together a cogent story. Maybe you can even tell a ripping-good yarn, here.

Then you get to the point where you can deconstruct/construct plot, character, theme, voice, meter, and pacing.

Then, if you feel like it, you start trying to reach beyond. To something that only you can see.

No, I'm wrong. Even before then, most of us are reaching for that next star. Not that one--the one first star to the left.

If your toolbox is full, you have a better chance of reaching it. But there are no guarantees. Sometimes you can only try :)

Sam Taylor | June 18, 2007 04:31 PM

Forgive the myraid of typos. I'm in a rush today.

Janiece | June 18, 2007 04:33 PM

I've come to the disappointing conclusion that I do not have the natural talent to become a writer of fiction, and so make no claims to the contrary. That does not mean I can't enjoy the work of people who do possess such a talent, and it doesn't mean that I cannot use the English language appropriately in my written communications. John's insistence on using grammar, punctuation and spelling as a benchmark for effective communication is one I think we get away from at our peril - it doesn't matter how fabulous an engineer I am if I cannot communicate my ideas and designs to the individual who makes the decision whether or not to buy.

Nathan | June 18, 2007 04:44 PM

A lot of authors (Stephen King and Mark Twain come to mind), play games with grammar, punctuation and spelling very successfully. I have no doubt that their ability to do this is based in their superior understanding of the rules they're breaking.

(Pardon me for ignoring that Mark Twain is, y'know, dead, and not doing much in the present tense these days.)

R.W. Ridley | June 18, 2007 05:04 PM

I think I suck, but I suck really well. I have an editor who doesn't suck. Does that count for anything?

Terry Karney | June 18, 2007 05:22 PM

This same rule holds for lots of things where skill and craft are involved.

I am a decent writer, but not of fiction.

I am pretty good photographer. They both have a grammar which needs to be grasped, and internalised, before really getting past, "the suck" can happen.

After that, it's attention to detail, and learning to see where one wants the narrative to go.

Chang, for rizzle. | June 18, 2007 05:32 PM

Suck is Suck at any age.

deCadmus | June 18, 2007 05:53 PM

A tuppence: I think I'm a sufficiently clever writer. I can motivate. I can persuade. I can make you *feel* with words. What I'm not so great at is weaving together the threads of a *story*.

Some come by storytelling quite naturally -- lucky bastards -- while folk like me have to work an idea much as a field too long fallow; it's back-breaking stuff. Which is why I'm keeping my day job... by comparison, it's easy.

Still and all, if the first step to not sucking is to identify what sucks, I'm there, and I'm sharpening my plow. ;)

Nonny | June 18, 2007 06:12 PM


I don't think that age has so much to do with it, to be honest. The reason that teen writers suck is because they are new writers. Most of the teen writers I've known didn't start writing until high school.

The ones that started at a significantly younger age and got involved with online writing groups earlier on (ah the wonders of the Internet) have been much more skilled than another teen writer of the same age who just got started.

I've seen writers in their 50s and 60s, though, who were just as sucktastic as a new 16 year old writer. I'd tend to say, then, that lack of writing experience is probably the most pertinent issue.

After that, you still have the issue of life experience. That varies wildly on the kid, to be honest. I've read work from some very talented teens that I could've sworn were in their 20s, if not older. (That's pretty rare, though.) It comes down to writing what you know about -- some kids have been through a lot, despite their age -- and then ability to research. So to some extent, I think it can be faked, but it's extremely hard to do so.

MWT | June 18, 2007 06:31 PM

Coincidentally I was having an argument with my brother about this just last night. We have a cousin who has just enrolled into a creative writing course. The general consensus of almost every online writing community I've seen is that those courses are basically worthless. However, he disagrees; in his opinion everything can be taught in a structured institutionalized setting.

So now you're saying that 80-90% of writing skill can be taught. So which is it? Are creative writing courses worth the time and money? Is it that they somehow don't teach the 80-90% skill that can be taught?

(If it helps any, the cousin in question is in her 30s and has had a fairly successful career writing for newspapers and magazines.)

Evan Goer | June 18, 2007 06:33 PM

"John's insistence on using grammar, punctuation and spelling as a benchmark for effective communication is one I think we get away from at our peril - it doesn't matter how fabulous an engineer I am if I cannot communicate my ideas and designs to the individual who makes the decision whether or not to buy."

Very true. Particularly with the rise of email, I think engineering is a profession where expressing yourself clearly in writing is *enormously* important.

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 06:34 PM


I think a lot depends on the teacher and student. I didn't get a whole hell of a lot from the single creative writing course I took.

hugh57 | June 18, 2007 07:03 PM

j/c John, have you ever told Athena that her writing sucks, even though she's won more writing awards than you have? ;-)

John Scalzi | June 18, 2007 07:08 PM


I just said it to her.

Me: Athena, your writing sucks!

Athena: Don't make me hurt you.

So there you have it.

hugh57 | June 18, 2007 07:17 PM

I'd watch your back if I were you, John. ;-)

AliceB | June 18, 2007 08:53 PM

The other day, I had dinner with a friend who is a law professor. He described the learning curve for law students as follows: "What you need to learn to get from an F to a C+, you have to unlearn to get from a C+ to an A." And he meant, of course, that being wed to simple rules doesn't make you creative.

I think that applies to writing as well. You need to learn the basics of craft to get past the initial suck stage. But to be really good, you have to get past the rules of craft you're told, and use them creatively. Some people never make it. But I do believe that if you put in the effort, and learn to listen to people who know something, you can get there or close enough so that most people can't tell the difference.

Lugo | June 18, 2007 11:45 PM

"some because they only began writing in earnest when they became adults" -- does this mean that those who didn't start out as sucky teenage writers are doomed? If so, that's something you need to say to encourage the teens. =)

I'm trying to think of some authors who started writing only as adults, but none come to mind right now. They would certainly have more perspective / wisdom / life experience... but is that enough?

Lugo | June 18, 2007 11:50 PM

I thought of one - Tom Clancy!

I guess we can't know how much "sucky writing" he did before he did Hunt for Red October, though.

Devin L. Ganger | June 19, 2007 03:09 AM

I think every writer can learn how to be a better writer.

Unfortunately, I think they can only learn it from themselves. No matter what advice, technique, or theory they get from someone else, it does *no good* until they learn how to make it work for them -- which means trying, failing, looking at the failure, trying something different, and failing a little less. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are no shortcuts to learning how to be a better writer; you have to write a lot of bad stuff first. It's the ultimate trial-and-error experience.

Angelle | June 19, 2007 07:22 AM

some because they tried to cruise by on cleverness when they were teens and are paying for it now

Blissfully, I'm not paying for it (much) anymore, but this one had me bound and hobbled for years. Which is why when I see the same thing in one or two of the teenagers around me, I try to hold their feet to the fire just that little bit more.

CJ | June 19, 2007 09:43 AM

So do you think that once a writer gets to that initial stage where their work doesn't suck, they stay there? I would suggest that even the pros hae their moments where their writing is clearly on the skids. They get published because their previous books were good and did well, not because their current book is really worth it.

How do you keep your writing up on the level that you have already achieved?

How much of the suck is personal opinion? Or is there some objective standard past good grammar and realistic sounding dialogue?

Rick | June 19, 2007 09:44 AM

John Scalzi, stop that right now!
Why don't you pick on someone your own size?
I'm surprised at you!

Steve | June 19, 2007 07:25 PM

Creative writing courses don't (usually) focus on the parts of writing craft that can be taught. They tend towards the 'creative' parts, rather than grammar, punctuation, rules of composition, basic plot structures, the rule of Checkov's gun, rewriting initial drafts, the value of an editor, and so on.

Karen Miller | June 19, 2007 07:40 PM

CJ, I think it's a matter of published writers staying honest with themselves, and making sure they're surrounded by people who are honest with them, and staying humble enough to recognise that at any moment they could start coasting, get lazy, fall victim to the suck.

The writers who do that, who never stop challenging themselves and questioning the quality of their own work, and who maintain a healthy respect for their readers, are far less likely to turn out crap. Especially if they require their agent and/or editor and/or beta readers to be equally exacting and vigilant.

As for being able to absolutely quantify Good Writing -- I think it's almost impossible. Everyone possesses a different yardstick, everyone ranks the criteria differently. I mean, I know how I define it, but that's just my opinion. And for every writing rule you can usually find a writer who breaks it, and makes that work. Often, I think it comes down to a case of: I know it when I see it. At least for me.

MWT | June 19, 2007 11:41 PM

Good Writing is invisible. It's the kind of writing that, when I'm reading it, I don't realize that I'm looking at words on a page because I'm too caught up in the ideas/concepts/story. Words on a page are a tool to communicate something, and when the tool is working well, you can completely ignore it and focus on whatever is being communicated.

Jim Winter | June 20, 2007 12:04 AM

Wish I knew it was OK to suck when I was 16. I'd be making a good living at writing by now.

Oh, well, some people are late bloomers. I'm one of them.

Brad Selbst | June 21, 2007 12:40 AM

Good writing is like pornography, you know it when you see it. Although it effects you in a different way. At least, hopefully it does. Or am I making assumptions that I shouldn't be? If it effects you the same way, I guess that's OK.

I don't think grammar really matters. Because a story can flow without good grammar. Grammar is just something to be graded on or something you have to have for work, like if you have to give a speech or if you are writing an executive summary.

Now if a story flows and has good grammar that is OK too. Just because not having good grammar does not preclude a story from being good, having good grammar doesn't mean it is bad. But, not being confusing is important whether you have good grammar or not.

Now, is it OK to write a whole story in the vernacular, even though it's in the third person? Why not? I haven't really seen it before but it would be cool. I guess some of the old school noir fiction could be considered like that even though it is stylized.

So, can you write in the vernacular and not be stylized? That would mean you're writing in a particular voice and not being aware of being in that voice, which is to say you are not conscious of it, which would be logically inconsistent.

Anyway, good writing makes you want to read further and bad writing is boring. Are you bored? I hope not, because that would suck.

MWT | June 21, 2007 02:07 AM

Good grammar is important. Bad grammar makes the reader pause at every point where it exists, and forces them to think about what ought to be there instead. This causes the reader to notice that there are words.

Spelling counts too for the same reason. Take Brad's use of "effect" in his first paragraph. Both times my mind was forced to stop taking in the flow of words and mentally substitute in "affect" before I could continue. It distracts from the point he was trying to make.

CJ | June 22, 2007 10:52 AM

I like the defition of good writing being invisible. It is part of the reason for studying grammar and spelling - so they don't get in the way of your message.

But what about authours who put something into words that you could never say well enough? The times that you look at a sentence or two and think "Damn, I wish I had said that"?

Even excluding poetry, there are authors whose work I love partly for the way they express complex or universal concepts. Words that I will sometimes quote to friends because I like them so much.

Surely that is a mark of excellent writing?

Melrose | June 23, 2007 09:49 PM

From my experience in creative writing class, I got a lot of ideas from it. It really depends on the teacher, I guess.

I agree with MWT about good writing is invisible. I think that's when you know that what you wrote is good: People get so engrossed into the story, the character, and such.

As for grammar, I find it very important in a story. Nothing turns me off faster from a story than bad grammar and spelling.

MWT | June 25, 2007 10:33 AM

Bad writing is where the words get in the way of what the writer is trying to say.

Good writing is invisible.

Great writing is where the words do such a spectacular job of conveying the writer's meaning that the reader must stop to admire it.

Marja | June 25, 2007 11:00 AM

Writers who started to write when adults: didn't Heinlein do that? I think he was past 30 when he wrote his first story. First published story, anyway.

Well, if you're talking unpublished, me. I started writing in earnest when I was past 40 (and I'm 47 now...). So I don't have any hope?

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