A good book is ultimately the result of a happy marriage between story and language. This is true both of fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction, we might sometimes need to substitute the word “information” for “story.” (But not always. Many non-fiction books are also stories).
When a manuscript is rejected, it’s often because the writer has failed on either the story level or the language level…or both.
The story level is simply a matter of: is this really a story? Does it have interesting characters, a good plot, a sympathetic theme, and an appropriate setting?
If we can think of the human body as a metaphor, the story is the skeleton on which the author must hang the flesh of language. Without a firm and reliable skeleton, even the best writing will amount to no more than page after page of words nicely strung together.
At the language level, we’re talking about the author’s ability to use exactly the right words to make the story come alive. Two writers might begin with the same great story idea and if one knows how to bring about a romance between the story and language and the other doesn’t, it will be the former who succeeds.
Two quotes come to mind here. First, it was Mark Twain who said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Really fine writers are always trying to replace the “almost right word” with the exact “right word.” That’s why multiple drafts of any manuscript are so important. On your sixth and seventh drafts, you should still be finding words that need replacing. One way to find those words is to read your manuscript out loud. This step is a must for all good writers. They know the power of the ear to catch glitches that the eye misses in silent reading.
The other quote is one of my favorite writing quotes of all time—and that’s saying a lot, if you could see the massive collection of writing quotes I have. This quote is from the highly prolific writer, the late Isaac Asimov, who said, “It either sounds right or it doesn’t sound right.”
Profound, eh? And yet, that’s what good writing is all about. It simply must sound right (to the inner ear of the reader) in order to succeed. And the skilled writer will persist with a manuscript until he or she is convinced every word is the right word for this story.
If you sense the “language” part of writing is hard for you, you may need to read more. Avid readers develop a keen inner ear for when the author’s use of language is working (or not working) in a given story. As a writer, you need to develop this skill too.
Most of the time I spend editing a manuscript for publication is simply exchanging good words for better words. Near-miss words to direct-hit words. You can do that too. You might have a rejected manuscript you’ve given up on, but still believe in. Bring the thing out into the light again and read it aloud. Does it sound stilted now after being in storage for a while? If the answer is yes, then you need to know that the manuscript was just as stilted when it came fresh out of the printer. You just didn’t see it then. Perhaps because you were less attentive to language and more attentive to story. After all, coming up with your story is the relatively easy part. It’s the constant reworking of the language that marks the professional writer—the published writer.