Posted in Writing, Writing craft

What makes writing great? The five “C’s”

You know it when you see it, but if someone were to ask you what makes a piece of writing great, what would you say? And not just in a single genre. In general, across all genres, what are the characteristics of great writing? Perhaps even more important to those of us who write is this question: How can I use an understanding of these characteristics to improve my own writing?

The question of great writing is often considered to be subjective. Many readers will suggest that it depends on the style. No, it really doesn’t. And just because you like a piece of writing, doesn’t mean it’s great. The reverse is also true. Just because you don’t particularly care for a piece of writing doesn’t make it bad writing. (I am really not a fan of Ernest Hemingway at all, for example, but I have to concede that the writing itself is pretty good!) The more I’ve thought about it and read what others more erudite than I am on the subject have to say about it, though, I can identify five features that are the hallmarks of truly great writing. And it occurs to me that if all of us who write focus our efforts on improving these aspects of our writing – regardless of whether we write medical nonfiction, romance, dystopian fantasy or anything in between – our writing is sure to improve.

Studying the characteristics of great writing can help you to become a great writer – or at least, a better one.

So here are my “Five C’s of Great Writing” …

  • Clear: Great writing is clear. Clear writing means that there is no misunderstanding between writer and reader. Some might say that it means the writing is “easy” to understand, but I think that’s too simplistic. Sometimes the writing is above someone’s reading level. That is hardly the fault of the writer. On the other hand, if the writer considers who might read a particular piece of writing, then readability is a component of clear writing. For example, way back at the beginning of my own writing career, I was a medical writer. Some of what I wrote was for health professionals (such as textbooks), other writing was for the lay public (such as women’s magazines). I might focus on the same content area, but my writing necessarily has to be at different levels if my audience is going to understand. This is a lesson I learned a long time ago!
  • Concrete: The use of concrete language in writing follows from (and could, arguably, be a part of) clear writing. This doesn’t mean that you can’t present abstractions, it only suggests that the words you choose and the style you employ to string them together, need to be precise and specific. Sometimes, new writers overdo the admonition to provide details. How many times have you read a piece by a newbie writer that describes a glass of wine as “ruby red cabernet sauvignon from the XYZ winery with the gold label”? Someone who teaches romance writing must have hammered this into the heads of romance writers because this kind of excessive verbiage is all over the place. Precision doesn’t mean that the reader needs every detail. Keep your research in the background! The bottom line is writing that isn’t concrete is overly vague and ambiguous when it should be precise and specific. It is this precision that begins to set your writing apart from the writing of others.
  • Correct: This is a big one these days. Since the advent of self-publishing, there seems to be an odious and increasing sentiment that writing correctly is unimportant. If you read a passage that is riddled with grammatical errors, typos, stylistic problems – this is assuredly not great writing, no matter how good the story idea is. Correct writing is tied to the number one “C” above: clear writing. Even something as simple as punctuation makes a huge different in the clarity of writing. Who doesn’t remember Lynne Truss’s terrific book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves? Or perhaps she could have said, “Eats shoots & leaves,” Or even “Eats shoots, & leaves.” Different punctuation, different meaning. My own personal downfall in the punctuation arena is my lack of commas. No breathing space! I’m working on it. Great writing is correct.
  • Creative: This seems to be a no-brainer. Great writing presents innovative ideas. It is often said that there are no new ideas. That’s nonsense. You better hope there are. Ask a scientist. If they had no new ideas, so many things in our lives would be very different. So, why would a creative individual like a writer accept that there are no new ideas? There are. And there are new ways of telling old stories. The uniqueness of the story and/or the voice in a book is a very important part of what makes it great.
  • Compelling: Great writing affects the reader. It makes the reader think, or laugh, or cry, or get so angry he or she tosses the book across the room. One of the things I’ve noticed as my own fiction writing has improved (at least I hope it has improved – just saying!), is that it seems to be more evocative. Recently, I’ve had readers say that they laughed and even cried a bit when they read my most recent novel. When they send me a note and say it “resonated” with them, that’s so much better, in my view, than simply saying they enjoyed it. I want to know how it affected them. That makes me feel terrific. But, and here’s the most important part from your perspective as a writer – if your own writing moves you to tears when you’re writing it, you will compel the reader to do so. If you don’t cry a little (or laugh, or get a bit angry) while you are writing, your readers won’t, either. It isn’t compelling enough.

Okay. I’ve said my piece. Now I have to get back to the new manuscript. But I’m going to think about these aspects of great writing, not necessarily as I write, but certainly as I edit. I’m not quite there on the new one, though! Happy writing.

BTW, if you haven’t read Lynne Truss’s book, maybe now’s the time!

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Mourning the death of the adverb

“Think different.”  Apple ad

“Drive safe.” Everywhere

“Eat healthy.” So many ads.

“Come quick.” What everyone seems to be saying

grammar copyMost writing style gurus who mourn the passing of the adverb seem to do so on the basis that we’ve been told to eliminate adverbs and adjectives from our writing.  I, on the other hand, see the death of the adverb not as death-by-overuse, rather death-by-misuse.  In other words, the way I see it, adverbs are only dying because so many people are grammatically challenged: they seem to think an adjective will work when and adverb is required. Or you change the meaning of a sentence.

I’m not a stickler for precise grammar in every instance if breaking the rule adds to the meaning: sentence fragments, for example, can be used for effect. Really. And beginning a sentence with a conjunction…well, sometimes it works given the pacing you’re looking for. (How about that preposition ending a sentence there?) However, when a grammatical mistake seems to muddy the meaning – making it impossible to avoid miscommunication – then it needs to be fixed.

Here’s are some particularly egregious examples that illustrate the trend:

  1. When Apple started using as an advertising tagline the exhortation: “Think different,” precisely what did they mean? Did they mean that our thinking should be different?  If so, then it should say think differently.  If they mean that the thoughts that we think should be different from previous thoughts, then that is a nuance of difference.  They should have said, “Think different thoughts,”  or maybe even, “Think something different,” different then being the adjective modifying “something.” There is a difference between the thinking process being different and the outcome – the thoughts – being different.  Although I’d accede to the fact that these two may be related.  And, oh, it just sounds bad. Not badly.
  2. Then there’s the “Drive safe” exhortation. If one more person says that to me as I leave somewhere to get into my car, I just might smack that person. The advice is for me to “drive safely,” or just shut up.
  3. And what about the “eat healthy” catchphrase? Isn’t there something missing here? Eat healthy what? Eat a healthy dinner? Snack? Oh, or do you mean to heat healthily in general? The meaning is as clear as mud.

Every day I mourn a little when I hear those radio advertisements that are rife with grammatical errors – and the loss of the adverb seems to be the most common. Is it really so difficult to figure out what you want to say and then say it clearly? NOT clear!

Posted in Grammar, Writing craft

“Grammar is important”…really?

I was listening to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) noon-time ‘open-mouth’ show on the radio as I drove from one appointment to another on Monday.  The guest ‘expert’ that day happened to be a grammar expert: I missed the introduction, but I inferred that he was a high school English teacher.  He and the host discussed various aspects of grammar,  and people called in with their grammar-related questions, as well as their pet peeves.  In his attempt to avoid the jargon as he put it, his explanations of why certain English grammar rules are what they are lost something in the translation making it difficult to view his explanations with much credibility.

The show ignited my inspiration to write this blog post and then, oddly (is grammar in the air this week?), colleague Alison Delorey wrote a blog post on our students’ newsletter on the very same topic.  Truthfully, though, her post is on grammar as style and you should read it.  She suggests that “Grammar can be creative, interesting and exploratory…” and I agree with her; my concern in response to the call-in show, though, is that grammar is first and foremost a framework or structure for verbal communication in general.  Grammatical mistakes frequently result in failure to communicate, and so your message, whatever it may be, is lost.

A caller to the radio show guest asked him the simple question: What is the difference in usage between ‘bring’ and ‘take’?  It was his answer to this particular question that started to get me riled up about over-simplification of the rules.

His response was to tell her that “I bring” and “You take.”  I started thinking about this as the caller also tried to process this new information.  I was thinking that this couldn’t possibly be right since you can also bring clarity to a situation (you wouldn’t’ ‘take’ clarity to a situation), and I can take action on something (I wouldn’t ‘bring’ action).  Clearly you can also decline both of these words:  I bring, you bring, he brings etc.   So, it sent me flying to Margaret Shertzer’s The Elements of Grammar (a kind of companion to Strunk and White’s classic  Elements of Style, and my bible for all things stylish (although not my wardrobe!).

According to The Elements of Grammar the difference between the two words is this: to bring means to convey toward (the speaker); whereas to take means to carry from (the speaker).[1]  There, now I feel better.  He had over-simplified it and muddied the ability of the speaker to convey a message.

Although messages can be the victim of the grammar-challenged among us, for me it’s often more of a simple stylistic issue – which takes us back to Alison’s point.  In fact, most of the grammar mistakes that I find particularly annoying (somewhat like the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard in my world) are personal peeves.  So, now it’s my chance to rant a bit.

For the love of god, let us stop turning nouns into verbs!  It’s beginning to get out of hand.  One curmudgeonly grammarian on the internet came up with examples that even I haven’t even heard.  “I’m going to suicide,”  “after I enema it all out”, for example, then this grammarian questions when we stopped “writing” books and began “authoring” them.  Hmm.

Now if I could just banish the word “impact” used as a verb in my students’ writing, I think that I will have had an impact on (not impacted) their style!

But that’s just me.

[BTW The title “Grammar is Important” is the title of my grammar text from elementary school – other books have come and other books have gone, but I still have this one on my bookshelf from about grade four.  What does that say about me?]


[1] Shertzer, Margaret. 1986. The elements of grammar. New York: The Macmillan Publishing Company, p. 144.