How to be a “good” writer (tips from a book editor)

Did I mention I was a professional book editor for many years?

Here’s the important thing I learned: you don’t have to be a good writer, to be a professional author. That’s what’s so interesting about the whole “#AskELJames” thing on Twitter. A lot of people are pissed because they think she can’t write.

A lot of people think it’s stupid that she’ll be offering a writing class or book about writing. What can she teach us about writing, people ask, if her prose and dialogue and plotting is terrible?

Here’s the thing though; she’s sold 70million books.

That means, even if people hate them, a lot of people secretly loved them. Even if they aren’t “good“, they are still satisfying.

The worst thing you can give an editor is a book full of amazing writing, where nothing interesting happens. I can’t fix anything that can be fixed. The writing is great, I’ll say. I can’t help you. But you’ll never sell more than 100 copies.

The second worst thing you can give to a book editor is a poorly written book full of grammar and spelling mistakes with stunted dialogue and terrible pacing and a twisted plot that doesn’t end well, and flat, unsympathetic characters who shriek and run around doing stupid things all the time for no reason.

But at least that one will keep me busy. I can do something. I can rewrite and fix everything and make it so much better. But you’ll still probably not sell more than 100 copies – if the story isn’t satisfying.

And actually, even if you have that same terribly written book, but it has a really good, satisfying story, it’s going to do better – even without an editor.

My point is that having a satisfying story matters more than “good writing”. Editors can improve writing. We can’t really fix story, and story is all that matters. (Yes, you can spend thousands of dollars on a developmental editor to help you fix story and teach you the basics of plotting… but why do that when you can buy a few books and actually learn to write?).

And personally, I want to sell a ton of books. I want to sell at least a million. I don’t give a shit if I’m not technically a “good writer” or if people make fun of me. If I can sell a million books, it means my stories were good enough to keep people buying and talking about them.

Literary fiction? Who needs it. I’d be happy writing and selling a million time-travel sexbot erotica books (which I’m actually writing, under a pseudonym). You’ve got to make a choice: do you want to improve your writing, until you can actually make beautifully meaningful sentences, and publish one, amazing, literary novel that sells a thousand copies but gets great reviews?

Or do you want to publish 5 different trilogies in popular genres and make a good living from your writing – enough money so that you never have to do anything for anybody else, ever again.

They aren’t really the same skillset. You can do both, probably, but you have to decide what to focus on.

“Good writing” isn’t really a money maker; which means it isn’t really a valuable skillset.

“Story telling” however, done well, can make great money.

So if you have to choose which skill to invest your time and energy developing, always go for the second.

Also, story telling is pretty easy to learn, and it can be taught. Learn it FIRST. Good writing is mostly a matter of practice. You might figure it out on your own after writing for a decade. But writing for a decade may not teach you anything about telling a great story. You need to learn that. There are rules involved.

People will continue to argue about what it means to be a “good writer” or what’s considered “good writing” – but I think the sales numbers are the greatest definitive proof we have for what kind of writing is valuable/valued.

Shades of Gray has had almost as much cultural impact as Harry Potter.

Name any literary fiction in the last 20 years that can say the same.

PS) We put a little guide together of self-editing tips for indie authors/common writing mistakes indie authors make over at www.BookButchers.com, it’ll save you some money if you check it out and go through the list, before you think about hiring an editor.

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