Reader Friday: Good Writers

“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” – Stephen King, On Writing


29 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Good Writers

  1. So what? Does King’s comment have any practical application?

    Isn’t everyone a bad writer when they start out? How do I know, when I start out, whether it’s possible to become a good or great writer?

    How does a teacher, editor, or beta reader know where on the developmental trail someone is? When should they tell someone, “Give it up. You haven’t got what it takes”?

    Some people are born with the potential to become great writers; others are born without that potential. But I’d need evidence that anyone is born a great writer.

  2. I think the key word in this passage is “make” and his repetition of that. This quote runs alongside King’s thought that writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned.

    The mechanics can be taught, but it’s up to each writer to apply what s/he’s learned, continue to learn and continue to practice. In other words, anyone can be taught to write, but few can learn to “be a writer.” As Heinlein wrote, “That’s why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants.”

    For me, it all boils down to priorities. I’ve observed that in most fields of endeavor, greatness is achieved by a Zen-like learning to let go of what’s holding the aspirant back, combined with passion, determination, and a work ethic.

  3. And how do you define “good” “great” “competent” and “bad”? Might there be a component of subjectivity? And if those words are defined by the success or acceptance of the writer’s product, might those definitions change with history? The common denominator is the desire to learn (or lack thereof) and the perseverance (or lack thereof) of the writer. And maybe, just maybe, none of us has reached that point of perfection where we are appointed to pronounce judgement on others.

  4. Hubby and I just had our 43rd anniversary yesterday (celebrating tomorrow on a dinner and dance cruise).

    I’ve been fortunate in that no one has ever told me I can’t write. I’ve had enough published and won things here and there that let me know I’m at least competent. My rejection letters have all been of the “try us again” variety. That gives me hope.

    When it came down to choosing career vs. family, I’ve almost always chosen family (early on I chose career. It was great for the bank balance, not so good for the family, so I shifted). I’m grateful I have a husband who still looks forward to date night and grown self-sufficient children who still like to spend time with us.

    This year has been about gathering my writing projects (the ones I wrote at ballet practice, soccer practice.) My blog got me back into writing again.

    I figure if all I do is finish my top 3 existing projects that I love, that’ll take me a year (less if I follow Ian Fleming’s example).

    And if no big publisher bites, I have all of you who’ve shown me that it is possible to do it yourself. Thank you.

  5. I’m with Steve here. What defines “good” or “great”? Wouldn’t that depend on the goals of the writer? Sell a million copies? Make a million dollars? Get invited on the talk show circuit? Have one person send a letter/email saying the book made a difference in their lives? Make a major best-seller list.
    If writing can’t be taught, why are there writing classes?

  6. No one can question King’s success as a writer, but I always hate those self important pronouncements of what is and isn’t possible. That quote tries to put everybody in boxes. For any person doing any thing, they’ll get out of it what they put into it. And yes, I know there are different measures of success, but everybody is capable of learning and growing if they want to.

  7. I enjoyed Stephen King’s book “On Writing,” and I got a lot out of it, but I think his statement about bad to competent, competent to good and good to great is baloney.

    I prefer the following quote from another excellent book on the craft of writing:

    “The Truth is that craft can be taught and that you, with diligence and practice and patience, can improve your writing.” — From “Plot and Structure” by James Scott Bell.

    Like so much in life, desire (diligence), hard work (practice), and endurance (patience) are keys to getting better at whatever you do.

  8. I just love how King pontificates on what is really a subjective topic. Nothing left to say, he’s said it all? Nobody, including King, hits it out of the park every time. Some work is great, some not so hot, and all from the same writer. We’re all working to take our writing to the next level, as so many NYT authors have said. My work is competent, can be entertaining, and some day maybe I’ll move up some levels to great. That’s my aspiration. King seems to think that’s a hopeless task. I don’t agree.
    Shayla McBride

  9. Judging by the six million books Mr. King blurbs every year, I’d say he’s been lucky in only witnessing “great” writers. LOL — Couldn’t resist.

    I know it’s vague, but I’d say all writers can improve from where they began. Can they be “great” one day? I don’t know. It’s truly relative. There are millions of commuter train passengers who’d say James Patterson is great while King would quickly disagree.

    Lately, I’ve been writing western stories. As a result, I started digging into Louis L’Amour’s backlist (ordered every paperback of his from Amazon, which now takes an entire bookcase). It’s amazing how many people trash L’Amour. In fact, I’ve read several tributes to L’Amour that essentially say he was garbage, which amazes me. Yet, how the hell was I able to buy ALL of his paperbacks in 2021 when the man died in 1988 and half of these books were written in the 1960s? His work must have value.

    • I enjoyed L’Amour back in my high school days, and I still recommend him to writers having problems writing fist fight scenes because he was very good, if way too long-winded, at it. But I picked up one of his later books about a month ago, and, boy, I had forgotten how wooden his writing was. But it was the writing style of the pulp and a writer churning out books to make a decent living. That’s not the writing style of today so don’t copy it. His content and knowledge of the West was great, though.

      • Marilynn:

        He used a lot of passive voice. Would sometimes meander quite a bit. And he was fond of what we now call “head hopping”. However, the man could transport a reader to a totally different time and place. For that, he’s beloved by many readers still.

        That said, my style of writing westerns is similar to Robert B Parker — very short chapters with cliffhangers and minimalist prose.

    • It’s not just L’Amour who has his detractors. I teethed on Zane Grey novels as a kid and he’s still my favorite novelist, but you can bet there are those who don’t appreciate his writing. My answer to those detractors is that he transported me out of a very boring state into untold lands of beauty and adventure and no one else was able to do that.

      So, as several have stated in this thread, great writing is indeed subjective.

  10. Ironically, after reading today’s TKZ post, another quote from a writer showed up in my inbox:

    “I really believe that everyone has a talent, ability, or skill that he can mine to support himself and to succeed in life.” — Dean Koontz

    A slightly different focus but relevant nevertheless.

  11. Out of the all the books that I have read on writing, both you (Mr. Bell) and Stephen King have differing opinions. But your books on writing and King’s memoir my favorites.

    You offered a great practical approach through Super Structure and Writing from the Middle. King tells us to produce characters and see where they go. As my got to guides, I know this is like putting ketchup on my strawberry jam, but I it worked for me and my style.

    Maybe both approaches struck a chord in me because there’s no pretentious attitude in the teachings. I really do hate books and lectures on writing where the instructor approaches the materials like a starving artist. I’m willing to work hard myself but I can’t understand how I’m supposed to “Bleed through the pages?” Let’s just say I don’t want to reach out and slap you upside the head for wasting my time.

    At least the two of you agreed to the aspect of hard work. Yes, I think a person has to have something to build on. If you call it talent—maybe potential—there has to clay to work into a beautiful pot. I would not dedicate the hours I do if I didn’t feel I had something to offer. I also get that feedback from others so I know it’s worth going forward.

    There’s a gut check book I read a while back called “No One Wants To Read Your S%$T”, by Steve Pressfield. That book was de-motivating, although a necessary read for me to think about my involvement with the craft. The lesson there was to stay grounded and be realistic.

    There’s a couple of others on the list that offer good sound bites, but you and King made the journey fun and motivating.

  12. The technical skill can be taught. My grammar will tell you the lessons don’t always sink in. “How to build a novel” can be taught.

    Storytelling! That is the art. I can learn when to use a semicolon. I can learn to start with action in the first sentence, but if my story is boring or hard to follow, I am not a good writer.

  13. So, it can’t be taught, and we’re all deluding ourselves? Let’s close down this blog, and John pull his writing book because it’s a giant lie. I’m already retired from teaching, but I’ll delete my thousand or so articles on the subject.

    To put it mildly, Stephen King is either an arrogant d*ck or delusional from all the drugs he used to take. More likely both. I can never understand why anyone would recommend his nonsense to newer writers.

    Writing is a craft, and a craft can be taught. Almost everyone willing to learn can be taught competent craft. True genius at it is pretty dang rare, but we enjoy what we do and improve out skills, and, maybe, people enjoy reading us.

    • If the craft can be taught, then the people who say “It can’t be taught!” are no better than any others and they lose their claim to being specially appointed messengers from some place the rest of us will never intrude upon.

  14. Wow, many of you read King’s statement entirely differently than I do. I read his words as inclusive, not exclusive. Hopeful. They also resonate as true.

    I consider myself to be a journeyman at my craft, and the success I’ve seen (use whatever metric you’d like for “success”) is the direct result of a lot of hard work, a lot of failure and more than a little good fortune. But there’s nothing “great” or “important” in the stories I tell. My works will never be taught in literature classes, and I’m fine with that. I don’t understand why that would chafe.

    No amount of desire or practice or lessons could enable me to be a sculptor or a portrait painter, because that link simply does not exist in whatever neuro-stuff connects my eye to my brain to my hand. It’s just not there. Believe me, I’ve tried. I feel no shame or insult in that.

    • I like your comment.

      The quote from King used for this blog needs context with the rest of the book. I think what King really meant to say, or my take, is if you have a hope in hell you need to work hard. Otherwise I don’t think King would have bothered writing the book.

      I don’t think King was trying to motivate everyday people to be authors. That wasn’t his intent. I think King was trying to prepare budding authors with sage advice.

  15. I had a great time reading King’s book. The weird thing is that he and I have approximately the same attitudes and methods–though if the photo is any indication, I’m a bit neater than he seems to be. The not-so-weird thing is that he’s famous and rich and I’m not. . I found his book interesting in that it does rather mirror my own thinking even while I neither read nor write horror. I’ve read some of his work, but not much. I think I read “Needful Things” and possibly “Carrie,” some years ago but can’t recall anything else. Still, my lack of interest in his genre in no way makes his book less valuable to me. I have many more James Scott Bell works on my bookshelves. .

  16. King’s statement says nothing, badly. It’s a series of context-free value judgments stated in a bizarre form. Taken literally, he seems to bemoan our lack of skill at brainwashing: we can’t turn people into great writers against their will.

    In any other context, he’s not saying anything. He’s just producing an example of, “I can sound wise if I assume my conclusions but conceal this by not showing my work.”

  17. It is also very hard to flat-out impossible to influence the kind of writing you do without altering the kind of reading you do. Mr. King himself has said that you can’t write without reading first.

    I am not aware of any research having been done on this, but I would expect that if you did not read extensively/obsessively during your young teenage years, you may not ever be able to make yourself even a decent writer. I recently read something by a writer who said that she spent her teenage years imagining weird and wonderful stories; as a result, she had very good ideas. However, her lack of reading showed itself in odd phrasings and clumsy constructions. As well, some things we simply don’t do in English (not grammar but sentence structure). She was, so far as I could tell, a native speaker of English, but her lack of reading was squarely in her way as a writer.

    If you believe you have that problem as a writer, start reading now! Can’t hurt, and it might help. And, it’s fun!

  18. Some possibly relevant aphorisms and half-aphorisms:

    1. Life is not fair.

    2. Being obnoxious means never having to say you’re sorry.

    3. There are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

    4. More people make money from writers than from writing.

    5. If there’s anything that sells books, everybody does it ’til it doesn’t.

    6. “In each of us there is an ʘther whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.” –Carl Jung

    7. “Mostly I daydream. I use that well-known effect whereby when you get in your car at the end of the workday, unless you stay alert, your hind-brain will drive you home…” –Gregory Benford

    8. The creative center of the writer’s mind is the Unconscious, because it lacks a conscience to tell him he’s writing sh*t.

    9. “The more you write, the more you will realize that the form is organic, that it is something that grows out of the material, that the form of each story is unique…a story is good when you can continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.” — Flannery O’Connor

    10. The conscious mind allows itself to be trained like a parrot, but the unconscious does not. . . ” –Jung

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