I commented back that I totally agree and thanked her for the reminder, but our exchange has been rattling ’round my brain ever since. I know I’m not the only one to ask what makes great writing, but I think it’s a worthwhile exploration.
I Googled what makes great writing and got over 31 million pages… the first one make it clear that my query was next to useless. I tried rephrasing to what makes writing great and got almost 276 million pages! (Almost 300 million pages? How is that possible? But I digress.)
Obviously I’ll have to come up with my own definition. Of course while doing this deep thinking the phone rang and it was a fellow writer who is about to launch her Alternative Granny blog. I asked her how she defined great writing. First she asked if I meant great writing from the reader’s standpoint or the writer’s. Now asking about this from the writer’s standpoint never occurred to me.
We talked awhile and I realized I did know what she was talking about. I do know when the writing I do is “right.” There is a click letting me know I’ve done a decent job. Great? Well, maybe – probably not likely. But I do have a sense when I’ve done a good job. I’ll bet you do to.
What About The Reader?
My first thought on this subject was a fairly inarticulate “if the reader understands what the writer intended.” Which turns out not to be so inarticulate after all.
Sure, I could add qualifiers like “the reader is moved,” or “the reader is changed,” or “uplifted” or any number of other ideas along the same lines. But wait. Consider:
- Great copy writing gets the reader to take an action, usually buy.
- Shakespeare probably wrote plays to inform and entertain, and sonnets to move the emotions. The same might be said of Dickens, Samuel Clemens – well, the list could go on and on.
- Great non-fiction – I think first of Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine or Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcylce Maintenance, (fiction or non?) A Brief History of Everything Book and many others.
Every year prizes are given for various types of writing, mostly fiction. I must confess that every time I try to read one of these prize winning books I find them, well, turgid and hard to read. Given what I know about their sales stats, which admittedly isn’t much, I gather I’m not alone. Usually I end up having no idea what the writer is trying to communicate. I’m not engaged and I don’t care about the characters nor am I caught by the story line.
Obviously someone likes those books – they communicate with at least the judges of the contest, and, most probably many more people than that. But do prizes mean it’s great writing?
The real test of great writing is, of course, time. That’s why we know about Shakespeare and Clemens and the better known Greek philosophers. I wouldn’t even try to guess which of the prize winners or the non-prize winners will last 100 years or more.
The best I can do is to work to make my writing communicate to my readers.