Grammergency #7: Is My Book “Good”?
Written by
Annie Tucker
March 2015
Written by
Annie Tucker
March 2015

When people ask me if I specialize in editing one literary genre, my standard response is, “You name it, I’ve edited it.” One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to read so many different kinds of books that I might not otherwise have come across on my own, so it’s an easy question to answer. Where I get a bit tongue-tied, however, is when an author I’ve been working with for a while asks me, “Is my book good?” Today, I’m going to explain why that line of questioning isn’t the most productive for your work as a writer.

Asking me if your book is good is the equivalent of asking if a Jackson Pollock painting is good—there are just so many variables involved. Some people think Pollock’s drip-painting technique is revolutionary; others think it’s merely chaos on canvas. Some people relish the challenge of trying to establish an intimate connection with abstract art; others get angry when they try to make sense of it. The point is, everyone has a different opinion, and no one’s personal take is any more or less valid than the next person’s.

The same goes for literature. Take Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel, The Goldfinch—a Pulitzer Prize winner, written by an established author. You know what I heard most times I asked someone who’d already read it whether it was good? “Meh, it’s way too long,” or “I don’t like the ending at all.” And then what happened when I finally read it myself? I loved it.

I should have known better than to ask anyone that question, because when I’m editing a book, I’m thinking not so much about whether it’s “good” as about whether it covers the bases of effective narrative development. I’m asking myself questions like: Is the dialogue plausible? Does the story flow logically? Are there any dead ends in the plot? Do any important scenes feel too rushed? Do I have a strong emotional response to the main character(s)? And, perhaps most important, what important, universal themes is the author trying to teach me about? I am responsible for ensuring that your work in each of these areas is as strong as possible—and then it’s up to your readers to decide individually whether the finished product is “good.”

The next time you work with an editor, consider the specific elements of your storytelling that you feel less sure of. If you can’t decide whether to use first-person or third-person point of view for the protagonist of your novel, ask your editor, “Which POV makes you feel closer to the character?” If you’re concerned that your memoir reads too much like a personal journal, ask your editor for help identifying potential reader takeaways. We’re here to help you get your money’s worth, and asking targeted questions like these will get you where you need to go: into the hands of readers who truly appreciate you.  

Have a question? Leave it in the comments below.

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  • Constance Hanstedt

    Many important points. You're a terrific editor, Annie!

  • Mardith Louisell

    Excellent post. I clipped the questions and will keep it in front of me when I work on stories. Thank you.

  • Andrea Miles

    I didn't know you (editors) could ask about POV! I've been working on two different books and that's one of the questions I've been struggling with! I always thought once it was with an editor, POV was a done deal. Thanks for the insight!

  • Jane Hanser

    A superbly written post. Thanks also for including the importance of ones writing containing universal themes.

  • Marcia Mabee Bell

    I love the Jackson Pollock analogy and I resonate with your description of your editing tasks -- I am the lucky beneficiary of these efforts!  Thank you so much!