What makes a book a good read?

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from Dennis S.:

What makes a book a good read?

Great question, but there’s no easy answer! Which is true for most great questions.

The simplest answer is “are they engaged enough to want to know what happens next instead of doing one of the 100 other interesting things in their lives they don’t have enough time for?” which sounds nice, but what engages one person can turn off another. Which is why there are so many genres, styles and types of books. For fun, go read the 1 star Amazon reviews for your favorite popular book. Many people hated it and couldn’t finish it! Does this mean the book is actually terrible? Maybe, it depends on your preferences and opinions. Art is highly subjective. 

This fact is both wonderful and horrible. Wonderful because it means if you can find an audience for your particular approach to writing, you can be successful even if the rest of the world doesn’t like it. It’s horrible because success and what is good are entirely subjective which makes it easy to lose confidence, give up, or get distracted by looking for some mythical magic formula for “writing good books” which doesn’t exist. There are certainly good books on writing and story structure which are helpful, especially for new authors, but they’re more rough guides than step-by-step-magical-spells. Since books have no hidden parts, all the words are there on the page, it’s of great value to study books you and others think are good reads and ask “Why does this work the way that it does?”

It’s also useful to think what makes for a bad read. A bad read probably means:

  • The writer is very confused about what is interesting about their subject for the reader
  • The way sentences and paragraphs are constructed is confusing and hard to comprehend without reading them more than once
  • The book is organized poorly and it’s hard to understand why one story or chapter follows another
  • There is no momentum, emotional interest or curiosity created for the reader

Most serious writers have early readers who read drafts, give feedback, and help the writer understand what’s working in their current draft, and what it isn’t. They’re learning from actual readers which parts aren’t as strong as they think. All first drafts are bad. Many second drafts are too. The process of writing is rewriting and shaping material over many drafts into something good. A good read is usually the result of many revisions of a bad one.

Most serious writers also work with editors, particularly developmental editors who can guide and give advice broadly about what is working, or not, about each draft. The challenge is it’s hard to find people who give thorough and useful feedback beyond “I like it” or “I hate it”. You have to invest in finding good feedback givers, not to mention, being receptive to hearing things you don’t want to hear (which are probably true) and also being willing to make significant changes to a draft based on what you learned, rather than being stubborn or egotistical about it. 

My favorite one link to give people about writing seriously is Jane Friedman’s website, filled with resources, references and recommendations.

9 Responses to “What makes a book a good read?”

  1. Sean Crawford

    A bad fiction read for me is the literary type where there is an emotional distance, and I am seeing the character through a glass, from ten feet away. I like ones where I am right there, seeing everything and also feeling with the characters, not just viewing them. I guess that’s a reason for beginning writers to use first person.

    I don’t like too much tension. I had trouble reading a tense book by Michael Crichton, and then, when it ended, went back and finally read the prologue. That’s when I realized, too late, the prologue was to reduce my tension by assuring me there was a happyish ending.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Everyone’s different and that’s part of what can be hard to accept about creating things – you never get everyone. For me, I find it much harder to get into fiction than non-fiction. It’s too easy for fiction writers to do things that take me out of the experience – and it’s no surprise much of the fiction I enjoy is written with a sparser, more non-fiction style – I also find I often like young adult fiction as the authors don’t get wrapped up in the same kinds of pretense that writers writing for adults do (e.g. The Hobbit is a lovely little novel).

      1. Sean Crawford

        The Guardian quotes a poll that 55% of YA readers are adults.

        When I read YA, if “little” things are “very important” to the characters, then they are important to me too.

  2. James

    I think there are two parts to this question:

    1) What makes a good book?
    2) What makes an entertaining book?

    The first question can be answered in a somewhat objective manner. The fact that writing is a means of communicating means there are some criteria that must be met. It must follow certain rules, and if it breaks those rules the reader cannot comprehend what is going on. A book can be compared against these criteria and evaluated fairly objectively (as objectively as classifying organisms in biology, anyway). Of course, there are exceptions–Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll both tinkered just beyond the edges of comprehension, and it worked. But exceptions are to be expected in art, and it only works because these authors have a deep understanding of these criteria, which allows them to tinker with them.

    The second question is the one this post seems to be answering–that purely subjective “Did I enjoy it?” question. This is going to depend heavily on the individual, because communication is a two-way street. We bring our own past and conceptual framework with us when we read a book, and that matters. I know, objectively, that The Enchanted Forest Chronicles aren’t great books–but they were the first fantasy series I fell in love with, at a young age, and I still love them for what they did for me, which was nothing less than unlocking the world of literature.

    I think that these two concepts can be dissociated. What I mean is, a book can be objectively poorly written, but still enjoyable. Or it can be fantastically written, but not enjoyable in the least. The Star Wars Extended Universe books are not great literature, by any means. There are many failures in these books to match these criteria. But they’re a fun way to kill a rainy afternoon. Many have said that The Bible is a perfect work of literature, and most recognize that it is technically high-quality–but few people will sit down and read the book purely for entertainment value.

    (None of this applies to technical works. I have a book that is nothing but references–300 pages of the same sort of thing that is found in the “Literature Cited” section of a scientific report. It’s one of the four most valuable books I have, and fantastically written, but only by the standards of a VERY specific audience. No one, not the biggest nerd on Earth, would consider it a fun read!)

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment James.

      My first draft of this post started off with a similar outline to your comment – but along the way it shifted in another direction. Anyway this means I agree with your premise.

      It’s fun to look for interesting counterexamples – Celine for example almost never used periods, he insisted on using … instead, which some people find irritating but others enjoy or don’t mind. Burgess, for A Clockwork Orange, invented his own language more or less – in both cases a reader could argue these changes made the book harder to read, but for others, it helps bring them to life.

  3. Vinish Garg

    A good read is not entirely a book’s (or a writer’s) experience, let the reader too contribute. :)

    Many a times, people read books when not in the zone, such as fragmented reading because they are traveling, or checking their phone. Or, they pick a book that is not really relevant to their work (non-fiction), or to their mind.

    It happened with me a few times where I did not like a few best-sellers because I found too many stains (violence) in the book, it challenged my conviction.

    So, a good read needs some contribution from the readers too.

  4. Jim Hunt

    “Good” read: After a little thought and perusal of other’s comments, this is clearly a much larger discussion than the short question initially suggests. A few first-thoughts to share…

    I think “good” is not only subjective to the individual, but also to the individual’s purpose. Example, I always enjoyed reading “The Thirteen Clocks” as a kid, and even a few pages now and then as an adult. The writing is extraordinarily poetic and colorful. It tickles me in a way difficult to define. Contrast that when I’m reading a few pages of a programming tutorial. Poetic and Colorful get in the way for that kind of reading, and would engender frustration. Clarity of the subject gets top marks for stuff like that.

    So my experience of what is a good read depends on what I want from what I’m reading. For leisure/pleasure, I tend to most enjoy those books that draw me in gently but firmly, allowing me to step into another world and stay there for a while. I get genuinely grouchy when I encounter clumsy sentence structure or grammatical errors that divert from the story and don’t fit, because they jerk me out of the simulation back to the present reality. I want the writing to be effortless. I truly don’t care so much about actual grammer, spelling, and structure, as long as it fits.

    For a short while I also enjoyed high-tension books, but at least for me they have not stood the test of time. I outgrew them, I think. All that tension started to come across as annoying, and a cheap cover for what was otherwise mediocre writing (there is good writing too, but it is tainted by association).

    I suppose when I think of good writing/reading, I think of something nonspecific, and difficult for me to define. But I know it when I see it. A truly masterful writer can take any topic and make it an enjoyable read, simply from the use and structure of language. And by ‘any topic’ I’m being literal. The topic could be microwave oven repair, or the instruction manual for my car… anything. Of course that is my subjective (and hazy) point of view on this topic. And, if I actually wanted to know how to repair my microwave oven, I wouldn’t appreciate artistic and poetic writing on the subject. I only mean as someone who would typically be highly-uninterested, the reading could be enjoyable if the writing was good enough.

    Best regards,


      1. Jim Hunt

        Exactly! Perfect example… :)


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