In my last post, I wrote about some practical tips and approaches for writing better prose. Then someone asked me about the qualities I think make writing good or even great. It was an earnest question, but the question, itself, is a bit of a trap, I think.
My tips, generally speaking, will be broad or even unbearably mechanical. Some might consider them vague or esoteric. Others might consider them unhelpful.
Without turning this post into one about creative writing pedagogy, I think it’s vital to grant writers the space to be themselves, to explore their own tastes and desires in literature, to become the writer they were meant to be not the writer the world thinks they should be. (I acknowledge there are writers who want to write to market, and that’s great, but I’m not the best teacher for those writers.)
Which is to say I’m never going to tell you what to do. I’m going to try to guide you toward figuring that out for yourself.
So when I was asked how I see the lines between bad, good, and great writing, I felt a little wary of defining bad, good, and great writing for others. I think saying the lines between them are subjective is a bit of a copout, and I think it’s wrong. I think we can define good art, though importantly, I think the bar for what constitutes good art should be set perhaps shockingly (to some) low.
No More Digression, Tim! Focus!
All right! This is how I define bad, good, and great writing, and I think it’s totally possible and that there’s plenty of space for other writers to define those lines for themselves.
There’s prose and there’s writing, and I think of them each distinctly. I think prose is generally what people are referring to when they say something is written well.
Bad prose fails to achieve the standards of good prose, and it does so to the extent that the reader is unable to devote the majority of their attention to meaning and because the flaws in the prose are so apparent. Bad prose may even obscure meaning by its nature despite being technically sound, which is to say the fundamental purpose of prose is to communicate meaning. If prose does not communicate meaning, it is bad no matter how mechanically interesting it may be.
(Important note: Poetry absolutely appeals with the fundamental nature of language in sound, rhythm, etc., but one of the defining elements between prose and poetry is not merely measured line breaks but the conveyance of meaning. If prose doesn’t communicate, it fails at one of it’s primary tasks. Poetry isn’t measured by this standard.)
Good prose demonstrates effective use of grammar, compelling word choices, and interesting syntax. Sentences and paragraphs are varied in structure and rhythm, but voice and tone are consistent. Good prose demonstrates proficiency in language. Good prose provides interesting elements in its very construction. Good prose provides intermediate and advanced readers material to appreciate without the need to access meaning, though good prose effectively communicates its meaning.
All of that vanishes for the reader in great prose. The reader stops noticing mechanical choices, and the prose instead forms a direct connection between the reader and meaning. Great prose isn’t only about avoiding bad prose or providing the reader mechanical elements to appreciate; it’s about the prose disappearing and yielding to thought, emotion, and human experience. Great prose is written so well that the elements that make it good yield to prose’s primary function: to convey meaning.
Writing is everything from a piece’s very concept to the form it takes when viewed in completion from orbit. It’s the entirety of the composition, from the Earth’s solid iron core to every hydrogen atom of its exosphere. It’s the title, the final line, and everything in between. Like prose, writing’s primary goal is to convey meaning; however, writing uses prose to accomplish goals that are greater and more global than any single passage.
Bad writing exhibits flaws in structure, consistency, composition, logic, meaning, experience, and/or creativity. Its mechanics break down on the micro or macro level (or any level in between) to the point that the reader is unable to primarily focus on meaning. Bad writing may even be technically sound but obscure meaning or produce an unintended experience. If writing doesn’t communicate meaning and provide a desired experience, it is bad no matter how technically sound it is. (Example: If a story intended to disturb audiences instead produces laughter, that may be a sign the writing is bad.)
Good writing features effective structure, compelling composition, logical progression, meaningful content, satisfying experience, and sheer creativity. Good writing, like good prose, capably utilizes all of the mechanics of writing to provide an interesting and appreciable experience for the reader without the need to access meaning, though, like good prose, good writing effectively communicates meaning.
Great writing leaves the reader in awe, wonder, and a driving mystery of how the writer accomplished such a feat. Great writing is a magic trick, an illusion. It transports the reader to the world the writing contains. The reader is able to use the writing to immerse their consciousness into that which they are reading. Instead of here, you are there.
These Are Unpopular Ideas
In both cases (prose and writing), the reader defines the line between good and great, which means it makes total sense if you read something someone else told you was great and think, “meh.” If the words don’t disappear, if you aren’t left in awe, that makes total sense; you’re a different person. By that same token, you may disappear into a piece of writing that someone else shrugs at.
By these measures, I don’t think any authoritative body that awards a work of literature or declares it part of some literary canon (as if it’s not all canon) is illegitimate, but I don’t think any piece of awarded literature or literary canon is inherently great by virtue of that recognition. I think it’s obvious works of literature can be recognized for infinite reasons, none of them being the perfect or ideal work of literature; however, this idea still seems to be controversial (“But it won the Booker Prize!”) because we’re human beings (fact check: true) and humans like having clear differentiators between goodness and greatness. We like the act of recognizing greatness to be simple, but I just don’t think it is.
Despite my concept of a relatively low bar for goodness and a murky, subjective definition of greatness, I think it’s the duty of every reader and audience member to acknowledge and appreciate prose and writing that is good, even if they don’t feel it’s great. Practically speaking, even if you didn’t particularly like a piece of prose or writing, I think you should be able to acknowledge its good qualities, and if you didn’t particularly like a piece of prose or writing, that doesn’t make it bad.
I realize this framework produces a big, fat field of good prose and writing and that, for some reason, many readers and writers are uncomfortable with that. I believe it makes for a literary world full of beauty.
Can I Produce Great Prose and Writing Without First Producing Good Prose and Writing?
I think it’s cosmically unlikely a writer who is not capable of producing good prose and writing will be capable of producing prose and writing that is great. In any technical discipline, that idea makes total sense. In most arts, the idea of natural, intuitive ability might take precedence, and we find stories of these mythical beings inspiring because they keep open the doorway of possibility that we might be one of them. There’s the idea of the prodigy, the savant, and the natural, the artist who one day sits down with an instrument or brush in hand and produces something great because greatness was inside them all along.
While that can happen, of course (Kurt Cobain was a terrible guitarist and singer but a naturally great songwriter and performer), I think literature is something of an exception in this regard because it is built on a language that first has to enter the reader’s being through understanding before it can have any other kind of effect. Music or visual art, for instance, are more natural, visceral human experiences, whereas literature is something we created to connect intellects. A great story must first be understood before it can be felt, and that is part of what makes literature unique among the arts.
All of which is to say maybe we should stop striving for greatness and instead focus on that which we can control. We can broaden our literary perception by continuing to read. We can advance our technical skill by continuing to study what we read and explore it in our writing. And we can expand our concept of literature by living and synthesizing that experience through our reading and writing.
Which is Tim-philosophical-speak for just keep reading, writing, and living. Try to be good in all things, and let others worry about the moving target that is greatness because, if I’ve learned anything as a writer and artist, it’s that you and your concept of greatness are in a state on continuous change, and what you consider great today may not be what you consider great tomorrow. Greatness rests on the horizon, and every step you take is good enough.