Monday, April 23, 2012

A Subjective POV on Subjectivity

Okay... Im getting a little crazy deep today, so hopefully you guys can bear with me.

There's all this talk in the writer's world how everything is so subjective. With getting an agent, reviews, landing a publisher, even beta reads... But Is it???

If good writing is subjective then why do we take courses, go to seminars, read books, etc. on how to write better? If good writing is subjective then is there any reason to get better at it? If this is the case, then isn't getting better relative?

Let me clarify.

I get the whole "We all have different tastes. What's good to one, is not to another." But isn't there a difference between taste and the quality of the product? A good critic should be able to separate the two, yes? Just because I don't like pork doesn't mean it can't be cooked to perfection. The phrase "Good writing is subjective" is usually referring to taste, not quality. So we must make a difference between "what you like" and "what is well done."

Also, there is a difference between "good writing" and "good story telling." Some of us are better writers than we are story tellers. Good writing can be both--but neither can stand on its own.

The difference between subjective and objective is a real issue with book reviews. It's why I rarely publish a bad review for a novel. There are some stories out there that I can't give a review to because it's so poorly written. But I can see how others might fall into the story and love it. That's when I choose to be silent and let the reviewing to someone else.

I don't believe that publishers think good writing is subjective. They expect a writer to grasp grammar, summon emotion, create realistic characters, unveil plot twists, hook the reader, bring the setting to life, etc.

I think that good writing is not subjective, but what makes a novel enjoyable is. Once you have good writing, whether you enjoy the story is what is to be subjective about. Or in other words: Good writing is not subjective--what *is* subjective is whether you like it or not.

Hopefully my point is coming across. Agree? Disagree? Id love to hear your thoughts.

*Oh! And dont forget that Tiana Smith’s awesome blog design shop give-a-way ends this week. So pop on over to her site and check it out!

**And I hope all of your projects are going well? Im still debating which WIP to tackle next... Ive tested the waters with both, am deciding which one Im more passionate about.

Red. Head. Out. :D 


  1. "I think that good writing is not subjective, but what makes a novel enjoyable is." - YES, exactly that! I can't really comment further because you nailed my feelings with that one sentence! :D

  2. I totally get what you're saying! And like Kyra, I can't add anything to it. :)

    Good luck with the WIP! Whichever one you decide to tackle :)

  3. You make an excellent point. I've had the privilege of receiving personalized rejections, but it's kind of "eh" when they say they didn't connect with the writing, even though they thought the writing is excellent. Weird, huh? But what can you do? If it's that awesome, someone will connect with it. :)

  4. Hmmmm, I had never thought of it that way, but I totally agree. There are some books that I really disliked, though they were well written. There are other books that are really poorly written, though I love the concept. I guess people just say "subjective" when they're probably meaning exactly what you say.

  5. My comment will either read like a post, or I'll exercise self-control... we shall see...

    I've seen books with mediocre writing a fab stories get published, I've seen books with incredible writing and very little story line get published (the second is my fav if anyone cares).

    But you're SO right. There are more "scientific" elements in good writing.
    Story arc.
    Character arc.
    Phrasing words in unique and interesting ways.
    Creating, keeping, and holding tension.

    Wintergirls is about an anorexic. The writing is SO incredible, but if you're not into the storyline, you might hate it. Also, the story line isn't compelling (IMO) because not a lot HAPPENS, but the writing is so flawless I was there in every moment.

    I think what people forget is that the subjective part comes from taste. There are a lot of incredible writers out there pushing into publishing, but the agent has to find someone who has done enough research to have all the technical aspects down as well as feeling passionate enough about the story to sell it.

    I'm sure I just spoke in circles. But there's my comment/mini-post, and this is something I think about almost daily.

  6. You raise such a good point, Morgan. I think you're totally right——good writing isn't subjective, but whether your story is enjoyable is. I think you've hit the nail right on the head here. The trick is scoring big on both counts. I have also made a point of not reviewing books that I dislike. There are books that I really disliked, but I know there are those who loved them. Not to mention, I'm kind of the whole mindset that it could be my book someday that people are obliterating with their scathing reviews, so I take a bit of a Golden Rule approach.

    Very insightful post, Morgan. Thanks for sharing :)

  7. I am the opposite of Jolene. I don't like it when writer's use great writing as their in- let me show off how great my words are, so I don't need a plot. I think the best thing to do is find a cp who is opposite of you, so you can get a very different view point. My cp tends to be more like Jolene, with wonderful words and sentences, where I'm all action and plot- but sometimes forget to have voice. So I think we work great together.

    When I read I want it all. I want a great voice, plot, beautiful sentences with not too much or too little descriptions. ASH by Malinda LO- too much descriptions not enough plot- 3/4 through the book I sat it down and will not waste anymore of my time. Miss Petegrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs- I read like my life depended on it! Great voice and plot!!! I hated having to go to sleep in the middle of the story, but the second I woke up I resumed reading until the book was devoured :)- That's what I want to read and write :)

  8. I agree. The subjective piece, that makes writing hard, is knowing what's going to catch the zeitgeist at any given moment.

  9. I love you Morgan. You're so concise.

    This is my dilemma. I'm not sure where my strength lies. I've had people devour my WiP and ask for more (which makes me think I'm a great story teller) but good CP's find problems with the WAY I tell the story... like, inconsistencies that the others didn't catch, or weaknesses in characters... does that make sense?

    And, when I CP other's work, I'm crazy about typo's and sentence quality. Which makes me think I'm a great copy editor (I've actually had multiple people tell me this).

    Crazy! Honestly, I prefer a balance of both. It doesn't have to be FANTASTIC writing if the story line is good and the characters like-able. But I don't like if either is really bad. It's a fine line to walk for sure, especially for us writers!

    Lol, sorry for the long note :-D

  10. I completely agree. And I think it can apply to other art forms too. For example, I watched the movie Sweeney Todd (starring Johnny Depp) with my husband. He loved it, and I agreed that it was very well-made, but I still really really didn't like it because of the killing and gore.

  11. I'm discovering that I prefer more of a plot driven story than the great writing story. I put Wintergirls down because I didn't enjoy the writing style and knew the book didn't really go anywhere. I'm reading Shatter Me now and am not enjoying the writing style, but I love the story, so I continue on. With both of them, I can recognize their writing style as good or unique, but I don't necessarily enjoy it.

    It'd be good to see reviewers cover both these issues. Do you like the story? Do you like the writing? And why or why not?

  12. Oh I agree! I can tell if something is written well but the story isn't for me. I think that is the subjective part, for me it is more about the genre then the writing.

  13. I agree 100%. I've started a book and realized that the character is not my bag of chips and I set it down and don't do a review because it has nothing to do with the writing. Other times I see the writing is not good and I can't go on either. But I do wish as a querying writer that the agent would say-Story is not my bag or writing is not good enough. Then I might know if I need to fix something with my writing.

  14. I'm a plot guy, doesn't bother me too much if the writing has flaws as long as the plot hooks me. But hey, that's probably what my own problems are as a writer.

    J. Dog. Out. :D

  15. Well said Morgan. I've read plenty of good stories that I didn't like.

  16. Art is the same way. Something can be made well but it's up to personal taste as to whether someone likes it or not.

  17. I get what you're saying, and I agree. And yet, Rowling was rejected many times before Bloomsbury finally picked up Harry Potter. So how do we make sure our rejections are just a difference in tastes and not because we suck as writers?

  18. This is so true, and I've never thought of it this way before! I've gotten those rejections that say what David mentioned, good writing, this just isn't for me. Totally personal taste!

  19. If we voice our opinion then the whole argument is subjective. See what I did there?

  20. I am finding that the "subjective" stuff is usually the minor things. How to handle big gaps of time, what point of view to use, word choice, etc. If the writing is good, ANY choice in any of these categories is acceptable, though everyone will nitpick about what they think is "right" or "wrong."

    But if the writing is poor, then any choice in any of these categories could be blamed. "Oh, the story was boring because of the third-person omniscient. We found out too much, too fast." or "The characters were flat because the dialog wasn't believable." Guess what? There are plenty of un-realistic conversations had between some amazing characters, because the conversation fits who they are.

    So, what I am saying is that I agree with you. Mostly :)

  21. Totally agree with everything you've said. I don't write negative reviews for the same reason. And the writing is never subjective...the reader is.

  22. Excellent point, and I didn't have to swim back to the shallow end once! I think you're absolutely right - good writing is good writing is good writing. Doesn't mean I'll like it. My question is, can good writing be taught? Sure, we can learn character arc and plot twists and grammar, but can we learn that "X" factor that makes good writing great writing?

    If not, what's the litmus test to determine if we are, in fact, good writers?

    Okay, now I'm anxiety-riddled....

    Good luck choosing a WIP!

  23. This is a great post, Morgan! We always focus on the subjective aspect. It's easy to forget about the objective part. We just take if for granted.

    Of course, when agents send form rejections, they might say 'this industry is subjective' but what they mean is 'your writing skills are sadly lacking.' ;)

  24. You say things so well, and once again you've got it exactly right on. I was just thinking that being a writer is like being a parent, pretty much anyone can be one, but not everyone is good at it. I'm just starting my journey, and I have the tendency to hang on like a pitbull, so maybe I'll survive the rejections, but it's a little like someone saying they don't like your kids- it hurts!

  25. Wow that was deep.........I really like all your little pictures you use in your posts! haha! Just kidding....I got more out of it then just that ;) Lots of good thoughts. I'm curious to know which WIP (work in progress) you will choose!!!

  26. You made perfect sense! To me, writing is a lot like cooking: the technical aspects are all pretty objective, and things all chefs must master, but whether the food critic likes the final dish or not is another matter. If someone can't stand caviar, then no amount of technical perfection can make them like it.

  27. you made some great points. as a math person (& writer =) i believe objective is a single right answer, while subjective is an opinion based on interpretation, whether a person likes it or not. we can have all the writing mechanics down pat, but if we have a voice or style that no one likes, we wont sell our book...

  28. The writing it what it is. But how the writing or story is perceived, that's what makes it subjective.

  29. Very interesting post. I think it's definitely a good idea to get all the technical aspects nailed. We can control that, but we can't control whether anyone likes it... which raises the question, if a book is technically perfect, but no one liked it, is it still "good" writing??

  30. I agree with everything you said. There can be great writing that doesn't hook me because the story isn't what I enjoy reading. I've put a few books down because of this, and putting a book down is HARD for me to do. The couple I've put down, never to go back to are highly praised books too. But then again, I've read books that have decent, entertaining plots with not-so-hot writing. I guess you can tell what keeps me reading :)

  31. Good writing is not subjective--what *is* subjective is whether you like it or not.

    Spot on.

  32. Nothing is truly objective. For example, I am not a fan of lyrical descriptions -- I feel like it slows down the story. When I read, I will ask myself if that paragraph about the beauty of the mandolin furthers the story. If the answer is no, I always will vote to scratch it. A friend of mine really enjoys prosaic word painting in a story - and I know to expect that from her when she reads my work. That said, I do make sure whoever I'm critiquing understand exactly what I look for and my comments are never intended to be anything but helpful.

    I don't think I have to be a fan of a genre to help critique someone's work. I'll look for the same things -- a well written story, even if it's something I would never read for fun, has all the same elements. Just like Hope, I can read and enjoy something that's still rough around the edges because the story is gripping. I figure, when I critique, that I'm not grading a paper, I'm reading for content.

    By the way, none of this applies to critiquing poetry.

  33. Yep, I've read many a book that was well written, but I just didn't like it. The subjectivity comes from variables such as the story, or the style of the writing, or even the subject matter.

  34. This is what frustrated me to give everything a break. I understand and agree with everything you are saying. I guess you just need to take a chance and see what happens. I've personally decided I'm going back to the drawing board and doing it my way, the way I feel it should be written, and if people don't like it, oh well, at least I like it, and I'm happy with it, because if you aren't going to be happy with it, then what's the point?

  35. Reading is subjective...not the writing. There are so many examples of books I've read that were a joy to read, but I didn't connect with the material. Every reader has what I call a sweet spot, and thats where the subjectivity originates, not in anything the author may or may not due.

    Great post! :)

  36. Love this Morg! Glad you've made this point. It is true. There's good writing and there's good storytelling. "Subjective" DOES seem to be more about taste than quality. I'm kind of ashamed of myself for not thinking more of this earlier. :)

  37. It's entirely too easy to dismiss criticism as being an isolated thing that isn't shared or meaningful outside of the context in which it's given. It's just less painful that way. Unfortunately, it might not be the best thing for our writing.

    You bring up an excellent point about training and classes, etc. Why do them if you're already good by your own standard, and if you only value your own standard?

    We should always be in a habit of reflecting on critics and critiques. There can be value there, even if it is entirely subjective. We have to learn to filter the harmful from the useful, sure. But it's ultimately a part of getting better.

  38. Totally agree. Excellent post!!! :)

  39. I agree as well. But there are some things about "good writing" that are subjective, not universal.

    What I mean is, tips like "don't use adverbs" ARE subjective when it comes to "good writing." Some people don't care whether you use adverbs or not.


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