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 matter more than 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 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 — bestseller 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 be 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?
I’m willing to forgive poor style for a cracking story. On the other hand, great style can never make up for a poor story. Is it too much to ask for both though?
Ah, that bears repeating: “I’m willing to forgive poor style for a cracking story. On the other hand, great style can never make up for a poor story.” I couldn’t agree more. No, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for both.
Good writing is style or substance. Grest writg has both.
That sums it up!
When reading a story, I speed to the end. Consequences for characters that catch my attention will trigger a fast-paced read of a story. No frequent braking allowed for appreciating scenic descriptions of places and things whizzing by the windows of my imagination. Some authors have the skill to slow the race to the climax with lines that demand attention. Then I idle while marveling at their creative phrase or idea.
Once I discover a writer who can interject substance with style, I will buy all of their work. Dean Koontz’s “Odd Thomas” series contains many lines that slowed my sprint to the last page of each book. Although I read four novels of the series in one week, certain passages entice me to visit again.
Yes, I’m the same way. If I come across an author with excellent style and substance, I will read all their books. It’s like finding a treasure!
I think for me, story is more important, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate great prose when I read it. I think Teri is right about Dean Koontz. Great writing can ocassionally do both style and substance.
It seems like most people, if forced to choose, would take story over style but would rather have both.
I don’t mean to seem hoggish, but I want both. I appreciate a well-turned phrase and an exciting and captivating
plot. But I don’t want the sentences to be so flowery and syrupy that I have to wade through them to get to the meat of the matter. I also don’t care for weak structure and vocabulary, which says the author is lacking in these
areas and only cares about action. So a balance is what I like the most, and I think it’s entirely obtainable, espe-
cially since I’ve read books which have both.
I agree. One of the reasons I wrote this post is because over the past year, I’ve read a few books that were all style and no substance and a few that were great stories but not written in a very elegant style. I found that if there’s no substance, I put the book down and move on, and I was surprised at myself because I do love a good turn of phrase. If the stories were riveting (if not wonderfully written), I couldn’t put them down, even if I was occasionally grimacing at the language. I find it all rather fascinating.
Maggie Stiefvater is author that blends beautiful words and images into character driven plots that keep me loving the story long after I’ve shut the book.
I recently took a class on poetry and discovered two things: poets are incredibly talented wordsmithies and I’m drawn to the poems that make sense. It must be the practical side of me, which is weird because I write fantasy.
In my writing I’ve decided the most important element is Emotional truth. If I can write that into each scene, I’ll count it as a success.
I have to agree that emotional truth is critical in a story. No amount of style or storytelling can make up for a story that lacks it.
I lean towards story. As a writer myself I can and do appreciate a great line, or a poetic passage. But there are two things I’d like to add to that.
1) It is all about the line or the passage. If everything in a novel is trying to be beautiful, I think you run the risk of alienating readers. Not all of course, as many people care only for the prose and not the plot or the characters. But a lot.
2) Even I can appreciate a story of literary quality, if the literary quality is up front and center. That is to say if I can tell what is happening by reading the highly poetic and symbolic language, I am fine with it. But if the attempt at being literary makes the prose so thick with meaning and double meaning that I have to literally stop and study each page for an hour or more just to decipher what the author’s supposed brilliance is trying to convey, I won’t be reading long.
I have friends who love to slog through literature like that. They feel they have accomplished more if after reading an re-reading a single passage from a novel 40 times they finally “get it”. I myself think that once language and symbolism become so clever that reading a novel is more like trying to solve a puzzle or crack a safe than it is experiencing characters and a story, it has lost it’s way, drowned in its own pretensions.
Personally, I don’t want to read a passage forty times in order to “get it.” My philosophy is that it’s the writer’s job to communicate what’s happening clearly, whether they write beautifully or not. If I have to reread every sentence several times, I think the writer has failed in the most basic part of their job, which is clear communication. Having said that, there are lots of old pieces of literature (written in Old English, for example) where I would have to slog through the text, but when it was written, it was (perhaps) quite clear. Of course, I wouldn’t count those as failures to communicate effectively.
This is a great point. I’ll make the assumption that we all have lives to live and that reading is a massive investment for all of us. It’s not like sitting down and watching a 21 minute sitcom where we can get a story over and done with. Unless we’re studying literature, reading should be fun, stimulating and rewarding – not a chore! (Although some may argue studying should also be fun).
This is a timely post as I’m trying to find my style and voice as a writer. I’m now learning that I shouldn’t “try” so hard in the style side of things. Most mental efforts are now applied in planning the story and fixing plot holes, ensuring motivations of characters are realistic and good endings reward the investment the reader has undertaken. My style then comes by simply being myself and not “trying”. Easier said than done though!
I’m using the same approach. Right now, I just want to figure out the story. Style can come later (that’s what rewriting is for!).
I agree with this article to an extent. I think too many people equate style with elaborate, flowery language that strives for poetics over everything else. I’ve never agreed with this line of thinking. I prefer reading and writing language that is clear and concise. I do put stock into the camp that emphasizes word choice, but don’t forget that the right word doesn’t have to challenge a reader’s vocabulary. The right word is often a common word the reader knows by heart and doesn’t think much of, until you use it in a way that alters it slightly. I love books that change its language and its form according to what is happening in the story and the emotion coursing through it. For those sweeping emotions, use a little flair. For those tense moments, short, declarative sentences that don’t impede a reader are best. In my eyes, you can’t separate style and substance. Substance should influence style and style should properly reflect substance.
Well said, Rachel! I agree 100%.
Great question, style v. substance. I used to prefer style, but as my taste in genres has changed, you just helped me realize that I now prefer substance. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten older and have less patience, but I’m with Ty. I don’t want to have to keep rereading a passage to “get it.” I really appreciate a writer who doesn’t try so hard and lets the story tell itself.
That certainly seems to be the reigning opinion! I’m starting to think that story is not an ideal place for playing with language.
Melissa, you make an interesting distinction between stories that offer a fast ride and those that demand considered thought. Perhaps it”s the difference between fast and slow food, the readerly and the writerly approach. Do we consume a story then leave it on the deck chair – or take it home with us to re-read at our leisure?
Personally, I think that the former defines a ‘good’ and the latter a ‘great’ story. But where we draw the line is a matter of taste. For example, I’ve found some of Lawrence Sanders’ Ten Commandments thrillers to be ‘great’. I’ve re-read them several times – the true test of great fiction. James Patterson? A similar genre but formulaic and disposable. I wouldn’t dream of re-reading him.
Perhaps that’s because Sanders is not afraid to play with words. On a second or third reading, we find yet further hidden meanings. Joy! But, as I’ve suggested, it’s all a question of taste.
I agree! I like a book that I can’t put down. The only kind of book I like better is one I can’t put down the first time and enjoy slowly the second time while discovering hidden gems that I originally missed. A book (or a film or TV show) like that is a true treasure.
Hi Melissa: In order for a novel to capture me the language doesn’t have to be poetic, in fact that can be distracting, but it has to be above average in quality or I will loose interest. Yes, I also need to have a good plot, nice rich characters, and plenty of action as well; but if the writing has no style, or the descriptions are not well done, then I will not finish the book. Even non-fiction books need to be creatively done or I find them hard to read, too much like an old text book. I think one of the most important skills a writer needs is the ability to create a nice rhythm and make the passages flow so smoothly that I am barely aware I’m reading, as if it takes no effort at all. That is how I would like to write.
Rhythm in writing is essential. I don’t think the mind can stay focused on a piece of writing if all the sentences and paragraphs are the same length and have no rhythm!
I think both are required for the betterment of our goals to be achieved, liguistically and emotionally. Just like bread needs flour to be called that.
I really appreciate this great site and goodness of it.
Thank you, Numanu!
I believe we can have both beautiful writing AND a great story that follows the story arc, but a lot depends on how much time you want to spend on the ms.
Story always trumps beautiful writing for me!
I agree! Thanks, Sherrie.
In general, I consider content more important than style. But below a certain level there’s no content that can keep me going.
A nice thing about (great) books is that we can reread them as many times as we want. That can be an incredibly rewarding experience. In fact, while books don’t change over the years, we certainly do. So every time we reread them we discover new bits of ourselves too. At least, this is so for me.
So true, Peter. Thanks!
I think we all aspire to be great writers who can invoke an emotional response in our readers, or completely immerse them in our story so they feel like they are inside the story with our characters.
It takes great skill, and creativity to pull that off.
Keep writing everyone.
I agree, that kind of writing takes great skill, and I would say, a little courage. I’m not sure that’s the goal of all writers. I think some people just want to express themselves or entertain. But it’s a goal of many writers, and a noble one.
I seem to be willing in practice, though not in theory, to accept mediocre writing if the story and characters grab me. But when you started talking about getting both, and your reaction to literary fiction, I had to laugh, because I feel mostly the same.
BTW, for a writer who I think nails both amazing language and stories that (for me, anyway) are completely compelling, try Ivan Doig. I think The Whistling Season is my favorite.
Thanks for the recommendation. Yes, it’s truly a treat when we find a great piece writing, and I think it’s rare. I recently listened to the audio book Where the Crawdads Sing, and it totally carried me away — the story, the characters, the language. So wonderful! It’s been years since I lucked into a novel like that. Definitely a book I will revisit (I rarely reread books). Highly recommend!