Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Bad, the Competent, the Good, and the GREAT

I took the title of this post from Stephen King’s book ON WRITING, a Memoire of the Craft.
Confession: I’m one of the few who has yet to read a Stephen King novel, though I know I have read one of his short stories a long time ago. This very good and uber-successful author writes horror stories. I don’t read horror. Ah, the horror!

But I got a strong recommendation to read his book on writing, and it turned out to be a delight. The writing advice is solid if standard fare, but the memoire parts are a testament to why he is the Stephen King— a vivid story teller of the first order.

Mr. King puts members of his profession into four categories.  He sees this classification much like the government’s food pyramid, with the bottom having a larger mass than the pinnacle top.
At the bottom are the Bad Writers. Mr. King hints that a few are commercially so successful they live a life of luxury in the Caribbean. (Who could he be talking about? I have my list)

Above them, in smaller numbers, are Competent writers, who comprise much of the work-for-hire, journalistic, and other pretty decent writing we encounter. Competent writers have the ear for cogent expression, but their stories lack wings.

Above the competent are the Good writers, and Mr. king suggests he is in that layer. Good writers have solid technique and tell good stories.

At the very top are The GREATS.  Think Shakespeare, Yeats, Faulkner, or Eudora Welty.

Mr. King believes that no amount of teaching will turn a bad writer into a competent one. They lack the ear, or they wouldn’t have been bad to begin with. He insists that no how-to course or mentoring will make a good writer into a GREAT. The Greats are divine accidents.

The teaching and coaching have a place in the middle of the pyramid. There, the competent, who, if they listen well, try hard, and work at it, could become good.

I tend to agree. I see this in all fields, though it’s most pronounced in artistic pursuits. It fits with a certain perception, one divergent from Malcolm Gladwell’s and his ten-thousand hours of work to any expertise.

But then I wonder: how wise or true is it to have rigid classifications? It organizes the mind, and is fun in its way, but how deeply true?

Here is my other confession for today: I really don’t know, and I know that I don’t. Organization and classification (like these pyramids) make for easy, comprehendible and jauntier stories.

I don’t know about the substance of King’s notions, but trusting some of the best readers I’ve known, Stephen King is nothing if not a Great storyteller.  Maybe his system is just another one of his stories, cooked for easy digestibility.


  1. Ummm...I hope I'm at least in the competent level. But I guess it's all in the eye (and mind) of the beholder (i.e.,the reader).

  2. I understand what he's saying, and I agree. Not everyone is meant to be a writer. They can try, but it doesn't mean they'll ever be good at it. That's fine. I could study art until I'm on my deathbed and I'll never be able to draw or paint well. I'm okay with that. ;) We all have our talents. I do think if you have a talent, you can make it better. I think that's what King is saying.

  3. I don't think I trust a classification system for writers. Good or not-so-good is more fluid than that. I read one of his novels: Carrie. That was the end of King for me.


  4. I like his classifications. If by great he means the classics for all time, then probably very few genre writers of today could reach that mark. I don't think he's being falsely humble, and I don't think it detracts from what a fine storyteller he is. And I'd agree that many of the classes and workshops help competent writers become good writers. Some of the greats really are a law unto themselves, having flashes of genius. Many of them never took a writing class or joined a writing group. They just leaped into their talent.

  5. Maybe making the leap from competent to good depends on how much time you spend learning while writing - I sure hope so!

  6. King writes other genres besides horror, although that's what he's best known for. Two of my favourites--11/22/63 (time travel historical) and HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (realistic historical--aren't horror and are very well written.

  7. I haven't read his stories either. Horror isn't my thing also. But I have heard good things about his writing book. Very interesting bit here. I may have to check out that book.

  8. Very interesting. I never heard of a writer's triangle! Too bad he doesn't think how-to writing books, etc can help make a writer better.

  9. And a lot of what is competent vs. good is a matter of taste, so there's that layer to think about. I do believe we can all improve our craft no matter where our starting point is.

  10. Interesting post:) Happy Holidays :)

  11. I guess this same pyramid could be used for any of the arts. Some have a gift and others are tone deaf. I think the biggest crossover might be from competent to good (which as others have said can be subjective) and I would think a few beginners could move up from bad to competent, as well, with a lot of practice. Interesting to think about!