A discussion on writing style, publishability, marketability, and constructive criticism

As evidenced by my many posts on writing, as well as all of my reviews of books for writers, I have some strong opinions on the field. Recently I got into an interesting discussion with web comic author Ananth Panagariya [defunct link removed] (of Applegeeks) regarding publishability vs. marketability [defunct link removed] and similar issues. Several interesting topics came up, and I kind of wanted to collect my thoughts on them here. You can visit the page above to see the discussion in its original form or to read the snippet of fiction that started the discussion.

Publishability vs. marketability: Publishability can be a tough call because it’s as much market-driven as quality-driven. You can write something stunningly beautiful and still have trouble publishing it if it isn’t what editors or readers are looking for right now, and you can write something that isn’t all that amazing and get it published if you hit the timing (or the market’s needs) just right. Publishability also depends on qualities that aren’t evident in a piece of writing: a writer’s reliability and how easy she is to work with from an editor’s point of view, for example.

Writing unusual material can be either good or bad depending on how lucky you get with respect to finding the right market for it. Find the right market and having a unique voice will pay in gold, but it could be difficult to find that market. For me publishability breaks down into those two elements: a subjective evaluation of “quality” (which will vary from reader to reader) and a somewhat more objective–but still fickle–evaluation of marketability. You can’t ignore either one for the other.

Description-intensive writing vs. a spare style: These days a lean, spare style tends to be looked upon favorably by many editors. I can understand the drive toward a more spare style; it has several inherent benefits. There are certain types of bad writing you can’t accidentally fall into if you write with a spare style, such as overblown metaphors and purple prose. A spare style also forces authors with certain bad habits into better ones–it makes you choose your words particularly carefully; when you can’t rely on a ton of adjectives you need the very best nouns and verbs, for example. It’s also true that if you write with a spare style your writing will be applicable to a wider variety of markets, such as journalism or magazine articles, where folks want to be able to zip through a short article while they’re waiting in a doctor’s office and don’t have the time or interest to linger through metaphor and description.

All of that doesn’t inherently make metaphor and description bad, however. It just means you have to be particularly good at it in order to get it right, and you have to know which types of writing it won’t apply well to.

Constructive criticism: I think the problem is most people take one of two extreme stances–that you can’t improve without extremely honest, critical feedback at all stages, or that you can’t feel safe to develop your creative ideas if someone says something negative about them. Both have a kernel of truth to them; IMO the key is twofold.

First, a creative work isn’t one entity, and it requires different types of feedback at different stages. When you’re just starting out with an idea you don’t need all the hardcore nuts-and-bolts criticism yet, and you need a little freedom to feel you can play with an idea before someone comes down on it too hard. By the time you’ve done rounds of editing, however, if you can’t handle some heavy-duty criticism then you really have no business putting your writing out in public. There’s a continuum in there, where you start with broad criticism (does this plot have any major plot holes in it?) and move gradually toward the more specific (spelling and grammar).

Second, I think very few people really understand what “constructive criticism” means. It doesn’t mean saying only positive things while ignoring the negative. It also doesn’t mean being as harsh as possible under the assumption that someone won’t improve otherwise. It means pointing out what works as well as what doesn’t work, and offering suggestions for improvement instead of just pointing out flaws. It means having a desire to help rather than a desire to hurt, but understanding that you can’t help a writer improve without telling them what you think doesn’t work in their writing.

I’m currently reading Jerry Jenkins’ “Writing for the Soul” (yep, review book), and he mentions that when he was a very young reporter, his mother showed a bunch of his clips to a reporter she knew. He wanted to hear he was the best thing ever; the reporter thought he wanted honest feedback and gave it to him. He of course was crushed at the time. Jenkins admits what few writers do–that when they say they want honest feedback, they really want to hear they’re the next big thing. That’s human. It’s natural. Unfortunately, if they want to improve they have to get past that reaction and learn to really look for honest feedback.

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One comment on “A discussion on writing style, publishability, marketability, and constructive criticism
  1. Joseph says:

    “Constructive criticism: I think the problem is most people take one of two extreme stances–that you can’t improve without extremely honest, critical feedback at all stages, or that you can’t feel safe to develop your creative ideas if someone says something negative about them. Both have a kernel of truth to them; IMO the key is twofold.”

    The latter is definitely very discouraging for me even though I know it’s necessary. I tend to appreciate it only after a work has been thoroughly developed, and even then I don’t need it to be too brutal to be helpful!

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