I was idly scrolling through Instagram stories one day when I saw a story from a Bookstagrammer who is self-publishing a series of fantasy novellas. They had posted a brief excerpt from one of their stories and they were clearly proud of it.
I thought the writing was terrible.
And maybe I’m a prose snob, but it got me thinking: What makes good writing?
I posed this question to some bookish friends, and their answers mirrored mine. Good writing shows that the writer has an intimate knowledge of the language they are writing in. It is evocative without falling into purple prose. It is clear and concise, and not padded with unnecessary detail. It shows a sense of gravity or lightness that is appropriate to the scene.
I would add that good writing shows the writer has a strong sense of the subtle shades of the meaning of words and has a feeling for the rhythm of language. What does this mean?
The words ‘small’ and ‘little’, for example, have the same basic meaning. They describe things that are not large (or big). But they evoke different things. ‘Small’ can have negative connotations: No one wants to be ‘small-minded’ and being called ‘small’ feels like an insult. ‘Little’, however, has connotations of youth and sweetness. We might call a child a ‘little kid’; I could describe my cat as a ‘little cat’ to give you a sense of her adorableness.
In one a famous line from Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre, Jane describes herself as little:
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!”
If Jane had described herself as ‘small’, the phrase would read differently:
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and small, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!”
It’s a minor difference, (a small one, a little one), but it makes a difference. If a writer lacks a sense of what feelings their words will conjure, can they effectively write an evocative scene? Will they know when to use simple words instead of complex ones? Or will they constantly turn to a thesaurus to find fancy words to make themselves sound smart?
Good writing also makes use of a language’s inherent musicality. You only have to hear a slam poet improvise a rap song from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, to realize that language itself is musical. Our sentences– written or spoken– have a rhythm to them whether we intend it or not. Great writers understand this and can harness the music of language to create lyrical prose that doesn’t turn into the dreaded purple prose.
This doesn’t mean that a writer needs to use complicated words to describe something. Fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien thought the phrase ‘cellar door’ was one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language. It doesn’t use big words and it doesn’t describe anything special. It’s just a door. But the combination of sounds that make up the words ‘cellar’ and ‘door’ flow together in a way that turns them into a bit of music.
But what about grammatical rules and vocabulary? Surely it’s important to know the basics of grammar and have a broad vocabulary?
Yes, of course it’s helpful to know a noun from a verb from a preposition in order to form intelligible sentences. It’s also helpful to know a lot of words so you’re not constantly describing a dark thing as ‘black as night’.
Grammar isn’t everything, though. I’ve read plenty of stories where the best thing I can say about them is that the writing was grammatically correct. The rest of those stories were tedious at best. Great writers know their subject from their subjunctive, and they also know when to bend grammatical rules to craft amazing sentences that eventually turn into incredible stories.
So, Readers, I pose the question to you. What do you think makes good writing?
As an example of what I think is excellent writing, here is an excerpt from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel:
“And beneath Cornwall, beyond and beneath this whole realm of England, beneath the sodden marshes of Wales and the rough territory of the Scots border, there is another landscape; there is a buried empire, where he fears his commissioners cannot reach. Who will swear the hobs and boggarts who live in the hedges and hollow trees, and the wild men who hide in the woods? Who will swear the saints in their niches, and the spirits that cluster at holy wells rustling like fallen leaves, and the miscarried infants dug in to unconsecrated ground: all those unseen dead who hover in winter around forges and village hearths, trying to warm their bare bones? For they too are his countrymen: the generations of uncounted dead, breathing through the living, stealing their light from them, the bloodless ghosts of lord and knave, nun and whore, the ghosts of priest and friar who feed on living England, and suck the substance from the future.”