I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.
I love language. Most writers do, I think. We love playing with words, manipulating prose, casting metaphors and painting imagery. We love making the words dance on the page.
We hold great stock by all those writing rules, the ones aimed at making our prose tighter, our sentences more interesting: Show, don’t tell. Every word has to earn its place on the page. Avoid adverbs. Try not to repeat words or phrases. Stick to “said” and “asked” in your dialogue tags. And so on.
But being a good writer—even a great writer—isn’t enough if you want to sell your book.
In fact, here’s the big writing secret you need to know if you want to land an agent, see your book published, or gain a following of loyal readers: The success of your book isn’t really about the writing at all.
It’s about the story.
In the book world, story always trumps the quality of the writing. It pains me to say that, given how much I love words and language, but let’s face it—people don’t read for luminous prose alone, even word nerds like myself.
They read for story. They read for immersion. For entertainment. For excitement. Even in nonfiction, they’re looking for that story arc, for that overarching theme that keep them hooked, interested and invested. This is why there are so many books that aren’t necessarily well written but do very well commercially: because they have strong stories (example: The Da Vinci Code).
Fresh, gorgeous prose is a draw and a bonus. But it’s not the priority—not for a reader, and not for an agent or editor. And it shouldn’t be for you, the writer.
Think about it: a good line editor can easily and quickly help you improve your prose. But it’s much harder to fill in plot holes, or overcome a lack of tension.
If you want your book to sell, then focus on the story. Focus on the plot and the narrative, on character development, on tension and pacing. Get feedback on that story through beta testing or by working with a content editor, and use that feedback to hone your story.
Only after you’ve put your story through the ringer should you start polishing your prose.
And by all means, make that language shine. Make it as original and interesting as you possibly can.
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of writer friends getting really hung up on the language side of things—fretting about their metaphors and sensory descriptions, or over-relying on self-editing programs that only focus on line edits but offer little or nothing in the way of big-picture feedback.
It’s a good thing to try to improve your writing skills—to write leaner, to create more fresh and original prose. For many of us, that’s where the magic happens.
But if you want your book to sell, remember: story is king.