Story v. Style

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Writing

Last week, I gave a presentation to the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild on how to be your own editor. I offered tips on how to think like an editor when revising, polishing, and submitting your work, and in doing so, I had to point out some of the bleaker realities of publishing: that journal editors often read only the first page or two of a submission, that you often only have one chance to make an impression on an editor or agent — and of course, I emphasized the importance of editing, language, and making your work the best it can be.

Thursday’s New York Times challenged all that with a few comments about the quality of the writing in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. (Disclosure: I have not yet read The Da Vinci Code. I’m actually waiting to borrow it from a slow-reading family member. You know who you are.) But another reason I’ve not yet picked it up is the informal reviews from friends and colleagues, whose collective opinion is that the story is so good and the writing so poor that while most have enjoyed the book very much, others have not even finished it.

In the Times‘s review of the film, A.O. Scott referred to the novel as a “best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence.” Scott also quoted a sentence from the book — “Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino with long white hair” — and this example was not presented as a compliment.

I would agree that the above is an unfortunate sentence. But to the millions of Da Vinci Code readers and moviegoers, does it matter? As a writer (who is also married to a writer, hangs out with lots of writers, and teaches writing), I find that language and style is as important as a good story — but that’s just me, and perhaps writers in general. When most readers talk about books, it’s usually about the stories they tell, not the style in which they’re written.

As writers, we want to tell a great story and tell it beautifully. But what do readers want? (And, most important to writers, what do editors want?) During my presentation at the Guild, I made a point of saying that if a great story has a few typos in the manuscript, a missing word or two, or even a few really bad sentences, editors will overlook these things. And that’s true. But perhaps editors are overlooking even more than that when they see a bestseller in the making.

In an ideal world, a good book is good all around, and as writers we should hold ourselves to these strict standards — even if we can’t fully achieve them, we should strive for them. But despite the myriad views of Brown’s prose, as well as the controversy over the book’s subject matter, he has certainly achieved what most writers dream of: Millions of people are reading and talking about his work.

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