Friday Fun – What makes good writing?

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, writing-related question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTIONWhat do you think makes good writing? Where have you found it recently? Please share a link if you can. This can be for fiction or non-fiction.

Wendy Thomas: Good writing is when you don’t notice the writing. Seriously, I have read so many books and pieces that inadvertently but constantly remind me I’m reading. There’s repetition, poor editing, wrong use of words – *sigh*, shall I go on? A perfect example is the Twilight series, the writing was so poor that I started to pay more attention to that than to the story (now is where I tell you I stalled around page 100 of “Grey” for the very same reason.)

Good writing is invisible. It flows seamlessly. One way to judge if something is written well is how you remember it. If you recall it as text – then it was a nice try. If you recall it as a story you “saw” while you were reading it? There you go, that’s an author with talent.

As far as examples? Check out some of the travel essays in cookbooks. A Well-Seasoned Appetite by Molly O’Neill and The Tuscan Sun Cookbook by Frances Mayes come to mind. Not only do I “see” the landscape and adventures, but both of these authors have my mouth watering and me reaching for a glass of wine after finishing the chapter.

Diane MacKinnon: My definition of good writing (or good art) is that I’m still thinking about it weeks or months after I’ve read it (or seen it). And I don’t mean thinking about the typo’s or the fact that the woman standing face to face with the man could see the phoenix tattoo on his shoulder blade (“Wait. How could she see that? Does it wrap around to the front? Is she kind of off to the side?”), I mean that I’m still thinking about the story weeks or months later. Examples that come to mind are: Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham, I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb, and Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger. I still think about these stories, and I read them years ago.

Lisa J Jackson writerLisa Jackson: When I can get lost in what I’m reading — fiction, non-fiction, poetry — and actually forget that I’m reading, that’s my definition. If a piece pulls me in so well that the world around me is tuned out, call me completely satisfied. I love and savor those moments, and may spend time lingering in the moments, but then I move on and hope for the same response to the next thing I read. There’s so much to explore and find and get lost in.

Julie Hennrikus: For me, good writing has three components. First, that I don’t notice it. Nothing jars me out of the story. Second, that the use of a word or a phrase makes me smile, or weep, or do something. And three, that I can’t stop. Craft combined with storytelling.

Deborah Lee Luskin: Good writing transports me into the world of the story, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. Two stand-out examples of good writing that I’ve recently read include Jeffrey Lent’s Lost Nation (fiction) and Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (non-fiction). And here’s T.S. Eliot’s description, from Little Gidding, the last of the Four Quartets:

The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

Susan Nye: I like to get lost in the characters’ live and stories. It is wonderful when the rhythm and flow of an author’s words somehow just seems to match the tale. I’m happiest when a book draws me in and I get wrapped up in the people and their stories. I loved Henry and his stories in Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and all of the women in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I also like to laugh and Nora Ephron’s essays do that for me.

19 thoughts on “Friday Fun – What makes good writing?

  1. The book I read annually to my year 6 class (age 10-11) was I Am David by Anne Holm. It really affects children and opens up all sorts of discussions about behaviour, bullying, morals etc. I never cease to find it moving and have been known to have tears in my eyes at the end of the story. The last paragraph stuns children into silence and appreciation of just what David has been through.
    Here is a great review of the book from Book review
    I Am David by Anne Holm (1963)

    This is a story about a young boy’s epic journey across Europe, and his budding emotions and sense of the wonder of life.

    The facts are simple. David is a 12 year old boy. He has lived all his life in a concentration camp somewhere in eastern Europe. He does not know anything about his parents or where he comes from, or why he is in the camp. All he knows is that he is David. One day, without any explanation, a guard arranges for him to escape. The electric current is switched off from the perimeter fence for half a minute, just long enough for David to climb over. He is given bread and water and a compass. He is told to head south for Salonica, stow away on a ship sailing to Italy, and then walk north until he comes to a country called Denmark. And that is what David does.

    Now, what kind of person would you be if you had spent all your life in a concentration camp? The first thing you may notice about David is his extraordinary isolation. He has survived in the camp by never allowing himself to think further than the next meal. After the death of his friend and teacher, Johannes, he never permits himself to have any affection for anyone. Out of the camp and on the run he believes, not unreasonably, that ‘they’ are after him. Of all the people that he meets on his long journey, he doesn’t feel able to trust anyone. And so he shoulders the burden of the journey alone. Consequently, of course, all the judgments he makes about other people and their actions, and his own actions, are governed entirely by his own moral standards.

    He has very high moral standards. For instance, he refuses to accept payment for a small service that he renders voluntarily to a stranger. For him, I think, to chose to observe high moral standards is a symbol of his new-found liberty. And should anyone fall below his own exacting standards he is an unforgiving opponent:

    Haven’t you seen that David hates Carlo? Not like boys who fight and then forget about it because there is really nothing serious to fight over. David hates Carlo as a grown man hates. He talks to him only when he has to, and then he speaks politely and coldly and refuses to look at him.

    But as David journeys across Europe he begins to comprehend that he cannot live life entirely alone. He does need other people, Maria, whom he saves from the fire, and the dog, and perhaps a mother of his own … And it works the other way round – other people may need things from him. It is not good enough for David simply to hate evil when he finds it in others. If others say they are sorry for their evil acts then he must also learn to forgive, because relentless unforgiving is another kind of cruelty.

    The book is not set in a real time or place. Although the circumstances seem real enough, David’s background is a synthesis of all the terrible persecution that happened during the Second World War and the subsequent years of cold war communism. This helps to make David a very powerful and pure figure. I don’t think he is particularly real. Anne Holm uses him as a blank canvas on which can be drawn the first experiences of life – beauty, knowledge, trust, religion, love, everything.

    And what pleasure he discovers in the simple things of life:

    Before he had come to the town he had known about nothing but death: here he had learnt to live, to decide things for himself; he had learnt what it felt like to wash in clean water in the sunshine until he was clean himself, and what it felt like to satisfy his hunger with food that tasted good; he had learnt the sound of laughter that was free from cruelty; he had learnt the meaning of beauty –

    More of a discussion paper than an adventure story, but atmospheric and quite thought-provoking. If you want to know whether David eventually finds a place to settle down, you will have to read the book.

  2. What makes good writing in other’s work is judged by how I get drawn into the characters. Definitely being transported…and feeling the nuances of the character’s emotions, even the ones not spelled out by the writer. I think the most recent book I’ve read that did that to me was ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barberry. I cried at the ending. When a book can make you sit at the kitchen table and cry like a baby, that’s pretty powerful stuff.

    In my own writing – DREAMS make good writing. I dream stories, or dream about my characters. It’s why I love writing in the morning. A hot cup of coffee, the silence in the house, the sound of birds, fresh from dreaming about “my people”…it doesn’t get any better than that.

    • I love that you call your characters “my people”. Am very envious that you get peace in the house in the morning! My peace comes in the afternoon 3 times a week while hubby is on dialysis – rest of the time is just razy – and I am retired!!

  3. I love this week’s “Friday Fun.” As I read each of your answers, I thought, “Wendy’s right. Oh, Diane makes a good point. I agree with Lisa, too” and so forth. There are so many things that elevate serviceable writing to good or great writing. This is a wonderful reminder writing is all about the reader’s or audience’s experience. Thanks for posting!

  4. 30 years of teaching h.s. writing/creative writing, taught me that the books on the required AP list were not always the best reading. Lately, I’ve swung to the British side, and two books, especially, have amazed me with the UK attitude, style and humor. Tana French’s entire lineup of characters in the mystery FAITHFUL PLACE, and the mother and her young sons in any of Gil McNeil’s books transport me to another time and place.

  5. “A perfect example is the Twilight series, the writing was so poor that I started to pay more attention to that than to the story (now is where I tell you I stalled around page 100 of “Grey” for the very same reason.)” Haha wendy. I so agree with you. Many writers have the need to repeat their plot over and over agin to convince us that there is something worthwhile in their story. One of such stories that i read was Midnight’s children by salman Rushdie. His language was eloquent but it sucked! and then i read A thousand splendid suns by khaled hosseini- brought tears to my eyes! his language is simple and precise and the story is soo gripping!

  6. When I finish reading something (novel, non-fiction, blog…) that makes me want to re-read, to study the author’s hand, that’s good stuff. I’d add Patterson to Wendy’s short list of the wildly popular and wildly bad. Does anyone have an explanation for their mass appeal?

  7. I just found this blog and this particular post had me nodding vigorously in agreement with each of the authors’ response. I completely agree, great writing is able to paint with words a world that can absorb you, that flows, without distracting you with repetition, typos and/or lapses in logic of events. I find I value this whether I like the story or not. It makes me sad that such bad literature as Twilight and Shades of Grey is so popular lately.

  8. I look books that make me feel emotionally. I loved “The Longest Trip Home.” A true story, it made me laugh and cry. Two more true stories that I read in a week because I couldn’t put them down were: “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand and “Zeitou” by Dave Eggers. To me they were spellbinding.

  9. I love Diane’s definition…I find myself thinking about certain series or films months later…I usually end up re-reading, re-watching. You know art has depth when it makes you think. I guess that means that great art asks questions of its audience more than it furnishes answers. I think the reason for this is that answers are so much more powerful when we discover our own.

  10. While I agree about getting sucked into a story and forgetting where I am in the real world is good writing, I cannot understand why people always bach Twilight? Because I felt completely sucked into that story and didn’t notice the writing. But then I’ve read stories that are more “ok” to read according to more literary people than I, and I just thought they were so hard to “digest” because of the fancy phrases …

  11. Some of the best writing I’ve enjoyed comes from people who have studied and written some poetry. It just feels so good to read fiction that flows, like “Calgon, take me away…” for readers. Ahh….

  12. I will join Susan in stating that Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a current favorite (she is a homie of mine from Jackson,MS!). I have also been revisiting some of Ann Perry’s Victorian suspense novels. She really knew how to intertwine the time-period cultural settings with very lively action and three-dimensional characters. Of course, Tale of Two Cities continues to be one of my all time-favorites, as well as Alice in Wonderland.

  13. Sounds like a good plan. I haven’t decided on how much of a gap to give myself for the writing and subbing parts. I have five stories that are ready for submission with only minimal edits so I will probably do some work on them before this year is out so I have a few weeks worth if I don’t feel that the ones I am writing have sat long enough to polish for submission. If it doesn’t seem like I have a big enough gap I can always go back to one of those for a week or two and make the gap bigger.

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