A good piece of writing holds your attention. It flows smoothly and everything makes sense. It’s interesting and a pleasure to read.
Great writing, on the other hand, doesn’t just hold your attention; it commands your attention. You become lost in it. You can’t put it down, and when you do, you want to read it all over again.
The question is, how do we define great writing?
Some would say that great writing shows true mastery of the craft: every word is carefully chosen, every sentence is thoughtfully constructed, and every paragraph is brimming with meaning and purpose. If you’ve ever marveled over a superbly written sentence, you’ve experienced this kind of writing.
Others would say that what matters most isn’t the writing but what’s being said. As long as the story or ideas are communicated clearly and as long as they are captivating, who cares how sublime the sentences are? A great story doesn’t need to use word wizardry; it just needs to carry us off to another world.
So, do we identify great writing by the way words are strung together? Does story trump beautiful writing? Or do we want it all?
Style vs. Substance
Here’s how I see it: beautiful writing has style and practical writing has substance. It’s extremely rare to find writing that has both. Don’t get me wrong — it’s out there. Just peruse the 20th century classics and you’ll find tons of tomes that are brimming with wonderful words that relay mesmerizing stories.
But for the most part, we look to the literary camp for style and we look to genre (or dare I say — best-seller lists) for substance. Which makes me wonder, should we set the bar a little higher? Could we feasibly demand more from our literature and from our own writing?
Personally, I appreciate both types of writing, but I tend to look for beautiful turns of phrase, interesting images, and brilliant word choices when I’m reading poetry. When I read a poem, I want to be carried away by the poet’s style. I want to stop and read the same line again and again. I want to be in awe of how writers can take creative liberties with language. I don’t necessarily care what the poem is about. In fact, it may not be about anything. It could abstract, stream of consciousness. If it’s exquisitely written, I will appreciate it.
When I’m reading a story, all that stuff is nice, but I’m more interested in the ride. I want to care about the characters, be swept away by the plot, and be inspired by the themes. I want to read as fast as I can because I can’t wait to see what happens next. I want my thoughts and emotions to be provoked. I don’t necessarily want to stop every few sentences to marvel at the language. I want to keep turning those pages, and I don’t want to put it down.
I’m always thrilled when I find a book that has it all. But books like those aren’t good or great. They’re damned near perfect.
What Do You Look for in Great Writing?
How high are your standards? Do you want to get lost in poetic language? Do you want to be pulled into a story? Do you want style or substance, or do you want both? What do you think is the difference between good and great writing? And more importantly, in your own work, what do you strive for?