What makes good writing?

Thursday January 27, 2011 | By Hieronymus Hawkes | Blogging

I downloaded a free version of Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper on my iPhone Kindle app. I read the entire series many moons ago when I was a young man and my recollection of the story doesn’t match the reality I’m faced with reading it now. I remember the characters and the setting as being quite awe inspiring, and they are, but the prose are so heavy and overblown with description and obtuse phrasing that it’s very distracting from an author’s perspective.

I am starting to get the feeling that reading now is going to be like riding on an airliner is for me. I fly large jets for a living and I’m not a great passenger now, as I know what every noise is. I really don’t want the flight attendant to ask me if there is anyone onboard that can fly a jet. I find that spending the last couple of years writing and learning about writing has made me acutely aware of story and prose. I still enjoy well written books as much as the next person, maybe even more than before, but if the writing is marginal I have a much lower tolerance now.

I don’t think the Cooper’s books would sell today, at least not in their present form. Mr. Cooper would get a rejection letter that would tell him to keep trying, that his characters were memorable and the setting vivid, but his story just didn’t quite fit with their vision, and good luck. Does that make it a poorly written book? I don’t think so. The thing we have to remember about “the classics” are they were groundbreaking in their day and the rules for writing were different, as were expectations. Some of them hold up quite well, but idioms and commonly used words were often contrary from what we are used to now. I thought about trying to get my young son to read it, but I think it’ll have to wait a few years.

On average the populace is WAY more educated today and in this fast-paced, gotta-have-it-now world our expectations to have something user friendly and easily digested have dramatically increased. I think we all (well, most of us anyway) recognize good prose when we see them, and I really appreciate when an author has me feeling a scene instead of reading it. But even then opinions vary on what makes good writing. Some appreciate the sentence structure and rules of grammar as the gold standard of writing, while others want something that goes down easy and doesn’t bog us down with a lot of description or big words.

What sells? Is that important in your calculations of what kind of story to write and how you want to write it?

Ultimately I think you have to write for yourself. You can’t fit your square novel in the round hole of publication. You should write about things you have a passion for and in your own voice. You have to figure out what that voice is. And that is a blog for another day.


Clear Ether

4 Responses

  1. After practicing writing for a while, I developed a very low tolerance for poorly written prose. On the other hand, well written prose is like magic. For a long time, I worked in technical theater… and it's still hard for me to see stage productions now (even music) because unless the lighting is superb, I'm totally distracted by it. I always notice things that my wife never notices. The exception to this might be a play like Wicked…. which was so technically amazing that I didn't notice any of it… it just worked. Same goes for books… when the author gets me… I'm gone. I'll buy anything he/she tells me. I'm old enough now to understand that I have to be jazzed in the same way by my own writing. I don't write it any longer if I'm not feeling the pull of the story, the language, the image, the character, the plot. Nice post. Now off to read Jennifer Egan's A VIsit From the Goon Squad… great book so far…

  2. Same goes true, I think, for some science fiction that back in the day was fascinating for its ideas, but not for its story or prose. You (or others) may balk, but I read I, Robot by Asimov and was astounded at how poor the stories were. They were interesting, and an obvious sounding board for how his world of Positronic robots would work, but their plots were just kind of boring. (I loved Foundation and the robot novels–though it's been a while.)Times change and new ideas become old. To write for the here-and-now you need something good, but most importantly you need to tell it well and get inside of the characters.

  3. @Clark I get how you feel completely. The trick for us writers is to make the reader feel and get absorbed in the story and not distract them. I'm still struggling with some of the connecting tissue where the action is slower but necessary for the story arc. Thanks for stopping by Clark!

  4. @Clifton I love Asimov! I've read all the Foundation and Robot novels and a few others, but your right about his prose. Many people feel the same way about his writing, but he did have some great ideas. It's definitely more challenging today to not only have good ideas but be able to tell a great story.Thanks for your input Clifton!

I would love to hear from you!