This is a question I asked many groups of various ages while I delivered workshops as writer in residence at Hastings Library. The answers were varied, and I kept hold of the post-its I wrote them on because they give an interesting insight into what readers look for.
The answers revealed personal preferences of individuals, as well as some broader pieces of advice for writers. Each time I collected a list from a group it led to a good discussion.
Hearing why some of the more obscure preferences were mentioned could be interesting, and there were odd similarities and differences between groups. Younger groups were more likely to talk about devices like personification and alliteration, and older groups more inclined to discuss personal preferences.
So, what came up? What makes for strong writing?
Showing, not telling
Groups articulated this age-old adage in different ways. Some look for detailed description, but a balance of narration versus dialogue. Someone mentioned how they like to see information about characters revealed through dialogue and action. I'm certainly very turned off by a rundown of every new character's hair and eye colour.
We talked a lot about characterisation, and how writing that achieves a strong sense of character is often successful. Stereotypes have their place, but that place is perhaps in the background.
A confident voice
I've used this heading to sum up a few things participants said they look out for. They wanted writing to be engaging, to have a strong voice, and a rhythm (and rhythm doesn't only relate to poetry). As readers we want to have confidence in the author, and for their output to be written confidently without being pretentious.
Devices – personification, alliteration, list of three etc
Yes, these came up quite a lot. That's not to say though, that just because a device exists every piece of writing should use it. I equate these to the sense of rhythm discussed under the last point: some of these devices might help a writer find or develop their rhythm.
Participants expressed this in a variety of ways: they were looking for a well-structured plot, and for a piece of writing to be believable (within its own reality or the rules it's set up for itself).
This too came out in a few different guises. As readers, the writers I talked to were looking for a sense of place and time, sensory language, and for the reader to feel part of the story.
What is a story if it's not original? Even a retelling of an ancient tale needs to come from a new angle. For me, you have to balance originality with whatever it is that keeps the reader coming back to your genre or style. Detective stories will probably always star detectives, or detective-like characters, but we've seen enough white, male, divorced, ex-military, recovering alcoholic detectives.
A few personal preferences came out too. One person said she likes swearing in a story, as it gives it reality (so tying into authenticity, above), others liked suspense or to be surprised, which I suppose all stories have an element of even if they aren't thrillers. Some people have a particular affection for a linear storyline, whilst others are fine with it jumping about.
We talked about spelling and grammar, which it's important to get right so as not to provide an unnecessary distraction to the reader. You can't say there's a right and wrong way of doing it though, because there are plenty of books out there written in dialects with phonetic spelling, and books without any paragraph breaks (which is perfectly legitimate, though definitely at the more literary end of the scale).
Another personal preference was for reality over fantasy, which could take us off into a whole other conversation about genre. Each genre has its own conventions, and the expectations of a reader could be very different depending on what it is they're dipping into.
Although I received I variety of answers to my question, for the most part each group responded similarly (the ones I've used as headings above). There are exceptions to every rule, though. As I would tell my workshop participants: there is no right and wrong when it comes to creative writing.