How to write a novel (#5) – What is good writing?

Improvement. Like many would-be writers, I’ve been through a few periods where advice, information, tuition, critique were all doing their job well and I really felt that I was improving. Thrilling times. There’s no better feeling than a sense of rapid improvement at something you’re enjoying. That’s one reason why it’s such fun to be at an intermediate level – rapid improvement at something you’re beginning to get a grip on. But as you get better, it’s harder to improve. It’s not easy to be specific about exactly how we improve as writers, either, and I have to admit that I’ve also been through highly frustrating periods when not only do I appear to be getting no better at all, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to see where the next stage of betterment might come from.

One of my own most fruitful leaps came with the almost scientific approach to narrative form and three act drama. Lagos Egri, Rob McKee and Joseph Turner became my heroes and companions, and, helped by friends who were mastering film and screen writing, I came out at the other side of this journey with a new understanding of how much of this fascinating science should be balanced against other elements of fiction writing. The source of this particular pleasure in improvement  is interesting. It does come from a sense of the science, the hard factual foothold you get as you search for improvement. Can you write? Well, I know that x and y and z have to happen for a storyline to “work”. When you have this knowledge you can challenge your own writing, test it against principles, give it a bashing with the lump-hammer of  evidence-based plotting controls, and you can feel that you’ve got something that works, something that the critics will have to accept as “better” than your less rigorously-built pieces.

Science is reassuring but we can’t rely on such platforms in the arts. It reminds me of the episode the young Jude the Obscure goes through when he believes that his learning of Latin of Greek will come in some swift and secret trick that his new books will offer. Junior Jude gets an early taste of the miserable disappointments Hardy will drag him through, finding that there’s no quick fix, no single secret, and that learning the classics will take long labour, patient discovery, and a less than firm set of steps towards improvement. Improvement in the arts is more subtle, more nebulous, more troubled by a not-knowing. It requires leaps of faith, testing, probing and a following of hunches. It requires trust.

So when we look at our writing and wonder how “good” it is, what are we testing against? What’s the evidence that a piece has improved? That one piece is better than another?

Mysteriously, publishers are unable to be very useful in this.  Almost conspiratorially, the how-to-do-it books also struggle to be firm what good writing looks like. We know it needs to be clear and needs to have some flow of sense – this comes from all writing lessons from infant school onwards and is no great surprise. Beyond this though, what is good writing? Go on, ask a publisher or professional reader, scout or agent what they’re looking for in an MS submission.  I’ve heard a bunch of variations on the mightily vague “good”:  “It’s how the writing grabs you”, “it’s about a fresh voice”, “I look for a new approach”, “a good novel just hits you”, “the prose  sparkles”.


Now this isn’t very useful really, is it? Certainly it’s not presented as something that could be learnt or taught. This seems more like the stuff of miracles, of “inspiration” (talent that is breathed mysteriously into a being), or of sheer bloody good fortune. Maybe it’s a bit like rearranging furniture: you just need a willing husband to hump sofas round the space for a day or three until the ideal arrangement falls before the eye. At some point you’ll know the arragement is “good”, “suitable”, “nice”, or plainly “a good fit”.

As those who’ve tried designing anything will tell you, whether it’s circuit boards, cathedrals or the daffodil beds, there’s a difference between just hit and miss arrangements and a real consciousness of what works. It’s a difference of professionalism. Good design begins with good principles. Of course, we all know “good” design when we see it. The professional can do it again and again though, with variations and with very few misses compared to hits. That’s not to say there isn’t space for testing and trialling and feeling for what works, just that this needs to be done with a thorough knowledge of all the parameters and possibilities.

So whadawelearn wiseass?

I don’t think that just reading books is the answer, although this tends to be the favourite piece of advice from the inner sanctum of the publishing and the published. Further belief in the serendipity cum inspiration cum let-it-all-flow style of creative practice. Fine. You can have fun this way. But what if you want to move on? What is it that makes writing good? Good for whom? Good for what purpose?

Apart from the science of narrative structure, on which there are plenty of good books from Aristotle to Blake Snyder with wise words as to what makes a good (aka well-structured) story, there’s also Rhetoric,  another topic with some sense of a knowledge base and a set of defined techniques that can improve your craft. Again, our Classical forefathers had sets of codes, sets of known effective patterns, and whether you’re using repetition or contrast or open-questioning there’s a set of marvellously detailed Renaissance rules aimed at Elizabethan poets, the majority of which will add a formal spice to your prose or poetry. There’s also a whole lexicon of arcane dictionary terms to impress your friends with and after a bit of study you can  spot a litotes and a zeugma on the darkest night. It remains unpopular as a formally taught discipline, though, and the ways into persuasive writing tend to be more through feeling than design these days, despite some well-known tricks around tri-fold repetition “Education, Education, Education” and so on that still fill the speechwriters’ packet of tools.

How do we find good writing then? How do we get writing of the brilliance that General Woolfe saw in  Grey’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, about which he apparently said that he would rather have written those verses than successfully take Quebec… that’s a hell of  good bit of writing, isn’t it? Can you imagine Norman Schwartzkopf saying he’d rather have written Simon Armitage’s ‘Harmonium’ than smash the Gulf?

Let’s start smaller. Maybe start with a hunt through your favourite six pages from a range of novels. Read them carefully, then read again. Why do they grab you – as pages rather than as stories or characters? What have they done? What will you need to do to match them?

I’ve tried this myself. And I’ve listened to tutors and publishers and authors. Below are a few of my own ponderings as to how we might track down an answer to what “good writing” is, by which I mean writing that is satisfying for readers. It’s not comprehensive, and may not even be what you want good to mean, but for the moment it’s something to be getting on with. I’ll make a couple of simple divisions:

  1. Good writing at a word and sentence level
  2. Good writing at a content level

Of course these need to work together for a truly “good” piece of writing to emerge. I’ve also got a couple of extra ones to save till later.

Good writing at a word and sentence level

The music of the English language

When I was learning to teach English, a lecturer pointed out that some of those languages which we as English speakers believe to be musical are not in fact as musical as English itself. Some for example are more rhythmic. Italian is a fine example, with a dactyl stress you can march troops to. What English speakers often fail to be conscious of is the wondrous musicality of the English sentence (and this rangy intonation proves highly problematic for those who are trying to learn English and failing to stress at a sentence level can make intermediate English speakers sound abrupt, rude or just bad.)

English is a musical language. The arc of an English sentence builds with the same shape as a finely worked piano etude, rising towards the end and with a dying fall to the perfect strain. Set a long sentence against short ones, add clauses to clauses until they seem to be at the end of a breath – to listen to English being well-spoken is to enjoy an immense tonal range and a splendorous rise and fall that  mirrors the narrative arc itself. Add to this the flexibility of English tone, the ways in which it has been remodelled to suit sub-cultures the world over, and how this remodelling has come back with its own set of over- and under-tones to the standards. One thing you know when you’ve got good writing in your hands is that it fits the music inherent in English. I read the stories in a penguin anthology of Russian shorts not too long ago and Oh, the revelation when the last one was a translation by Nabokov himself from his own early work (presumably with plenty of licence).  Compared to the hollow thud of a standard translation into English, to have a glimpse of good writing but through another language, this was an astonishing experience.

Do your sentences read with a rise and fall to die for? Some people can produce this music with what seems a minimum sweat, but of course its a sense of music that has come through years of listening. Train your ears, write pastiches and parodies, copy the masters – these are the traditional routes to learning the musicality of fine sentences. If the music’s there then whatever your content and structure, you’ll be onto something.

Here’s a favourite sentence  of sheer loveliness from Stephen Fry’s The Liar (Heinemann 1991), and although the theme and the echoes of Richard II and the compellingly wistful portrait help here, I think you can replace the English words with corresponding non-linguistic sounds and still hear the beauty of a masterly composer of words:

This fantasy of England that old men took with them to their death-beds, this England without factories and sewers or council houses, this England of leather and wood and flannel, this England circumscribed by a white boundary and laws that said that each team shall field eleven men and each man shall bat, this England of shooting-sticks, weather-vanes and rectory teas, it was like Cartwrights’ beauty, he thought, a momentary vision glimpsed for a second in an adolescent dream, then dispersed like steam in to the real atmosphere of traffic-jams, serial murderers, prime ministers and Soho rent.

The Liar, Ch.9.,Pt.3

I love the second that in “laws that said that” and the rhyme of dream and steam,  the vowel progressions in the lists /or/ /ew/ /ou/. Super, fluffy and completely darlingie. Make sure this is on your reading list – this sentence is followed by one more to round to the paragraph’s end where the vision becomes the only reality and leaves its “image, scents and textures bottled and laid down against the long, lonely melancholy of adulthood.”

Now I, for one, would rather have written that sentence than be taken roughly in Quebec.

The right words

The basic principle seems to be to use as few words as possible, use them in ways that will be readily understood, but use them in ways that are eye-catching and maybe even breath-catching.

Conciseness is usually considered the best attribute of a marvellous writer. Accounts of the need to crop and cut and refine and hone are legend and of course this is a favourite part for most writers. Much nicer as a hobby to go back in and do some tweaking rather than stare at the blank page and wonder where the filling will come from. Perhaps this is what Wilde was enjoying when he famously noted on a proofing quest, “This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.”

Repeating yourself is therefore a complete no-no. It starts to remind us of those real conversations we have with friends or at home – or even in university colloquies – where the same thing is said again and again in cycles as though a problem is best dealt with if we can keep it in the front of us, and, who knows, perhaps that’s true. In writing, however, you can keep going back to the bits you want to read again so having something repeated by the writer is generally considered bad form. Don’t say the same thing twice, unless it’s clearly being used for emphasis. Don’t reuse a word too quickly (unless it’s a conscious stylistic device). Don’t over-use your favourites. Also, don’t repeat yourself.

There’s something about “le mot juste” that is essential to the “harmonious sentences” that Flaubert treasured. Readers appreciate a well chosen word. Favourite writers may even have use for an occasional word we don’t know, but will use it in a way that we feel its a new friend rather than an attempt to make us look ignorant. Beware overly arcane vocabulary – beware trying to use the vocabulary of sub-cultures unless you really know what you’re talking about. Use words in slightly unusual ways but which make complete sense in context – oxymorons and that quirky paradox of a phrase like “darkness visible” for example. Add an adjective to a noun it might not readily be associated with – colours with sounds, visuals with touches. Seek out the anti-cliche, something that sounds so neat it ought to exist already but doesn’t.

Get playing. Make lists, fill books.

Avoiding cliche is also highly  recommended as the first, basic job of a writer. Not just avoiding it but smashing it into irresolvable pieces and rendering it unusable. There’s a cute trick around defying cliche but managing at the same time to demonstrate how you’ve smashed it. Homilies can be subverted with new endings or  a tired metaphor can earn some new jazz. “I have nothing to declare but my genius” and so on.

Words, sentences paragraphs. Make them suitably neat, clear, error-free, with a music that feels unlike either the standard and acceptable tone, nor too much like a well known style.

If that’s asking too much then keep it simple and make the words neatly functional so that no-one trips over them.


Good writing at a content level

Bridging the gaps

Remember The English Patient (film) and the way the aeroplane at the beginning only makes sense once you get to the end of the film. Remember the beginning of Lolita? No, not the Lo-Lee-Ta bit, I’m thinking about the crafted Preface in which we learn about the destiny of Mrs Richard F Schiller, another beginning that only makes sense once you’ve reached the end and a bit of the book some readers never get.

Both of these pack their punch because of that love of the long gap, the way some seed retained in the memory suddenly flowers. Is this simply the smug bit of the brain being proud to have worked it all out? Or is there some electrical impulse that fires  pleasure across the dormant memory cell? Whatever the cause, it’s well known that gap filling is one great thrill for readers. The bigger the gaps the more sophisticated – the more literary – the work.

Gaps. Not saying too much. That’s seems to be one clue around so called good writing.  Hyper-detailed factual blow by blow narrative is usually not thought to be good… and the risk of unnecessary detail is high. It’s an easy trap to fall into if your technique is to write largely by imagining or remembering a scene and then adding what you see into the mix. Elements should be chosen because they bring out conflict or shape something, not because they’ve popped into your head.

There are a wealth of different kinds of gaps. There are those Lolita moments – hints that many will never notice. There are those that complete the story or offer a twist, a retrospective revision of everything we have experienced, the end of Corrimer’s I am the Cheese, Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  There are those that are neater, compacted into a chapter perhaps, scenes which start you in an unfamiliar environment and then take you backwards in time to explain, or forwards in time, with the initial befuddlement becoming understood through the growing context.  A gender that isn’t initially clear, the work you have to put in to guess at what relationship characters have, or how old they are. The identity of the narrator as in Nesbitt’s Treasure Seekers. Get us a bit disorientated, makes us work for the meaning. The popularity of Pulp Fiction was not only in its snappy dialogue and loveable criminals, it was also in the diegesis, the narrative that leapt across the times of the story and kept hitting you with familiar characters in different clothes or with a new knowledge-base. The more this needs piecing together the better for a sophisticated reader. In this way some of the gap filling becomes like a reward, you puzzle things out and then after a well judged inverval, a clearer clue is given.

Basically if you can make someone’s brain work over for a few seconds before they work something out, then that’s a short cut to good. My favourite of Graham Rawle’s masterful Lost Consonants was always a picture of Andrew Lloyd Webber at the piano and underneath “Andrew Lloyd Webber writes another hit musical”… have you got it yet?  – When you do, that’s the gap that is working.

Avoiding the commonplace

It’s easy to emerge from literature studies with the idea that good writing can never show activity. Books that have “action” are to be shunned by those whose recognition of good writing has come from a sound education. Activity without action, without meaningful plot action, is worse. It’s tempting then to look at a few pages where characters are in motion and think they can’t possibly be good.

?? But our screenplay experts fill books with the importance of quality suggestive motion and gesture. Can good writing only be thoughts, reflections and philosophies. Or could it be good and give a description of the race-about world.

Part of the answer to that may lie in an understanding of what is commonplace activity and what is uncommon. What the activity does in order to engage you.

One of the functions of  gaps is its sidestepping of what is commonplace, what is inherently dull. It is very easy to launch into a description about something that has interested you – much harder to find what’s of interest to others. The commonplace is boring even if it’s hectic. We know that already. Good writing helps us see something we don’t know or a refreshing new angle on something we thought we knew.   I’m grateful to Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer for reminding me of this quote from Chekhov:

Commonplaces such as “the setting sun bathed the waves of the darkening sea, poured its purple gold, etc.” – such commonplaces one ought to abandon…. one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes you get the picture.

This comes in one of the best sections of Prose’s book, and she goes on with further statements that lead towards this sense that the avoidance of the commonplace (as with the avoidance of the cliche) is what good writing has as its primary trait

Mediocre writing abounds with physical cliches and stock gestures… not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states. Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer, 2006, p.210

She goes on to describe writing that is perhaps familiar to many, whereby actions are placed in the middle of conversations, simply to avoid the reader’s rushing through them. In such ways come the weighty pauses and the cigarettes and the turning and staring back out to sea where the settling sun bathes the purple gold of the waves….

Spinning the yarn

While no one wants the same thing repeated, everyone wants more writing, that’s why they read. Some of the greatest pleasures from a passage of writing come when the author spins a conceit for miles, talks lyrically and expansively on something that could have been dismissed in a single word. It’s especially effective if this is counteracted by its opposite, something major that is reduced to single words.

Witness the marvellous description of Tom Jones’s beating from Thwackum and Blifil:

… he dexterously drove down the fist of Jones, so that it reached only his belly, where two pounds of beef and as many of pudding were then deposited, and whence consequently no hollow sound could proceed. … And now both together attacked our heroe, whose blows did not retain that force with which they had fallen at first, so weakened was he by his combat with Thwackum; for though the pedagogue chose rather to play solos on the human instrument, and had been lately used to those only, yet he still retained enough of his antient knowledge to perform his part very well in a duet.

The History of Tom Jones, A foundling, Bk.5, Ch.11.

Goodies to unpack

What we are looking for in good writing is the sense that there are goodies here to be unpacked. Goodies that take a brief moment to apprehend and, ideally, further goodies that reward a patient and close reading. Making your writing look like such goodies exist there – but without it becoming so dense that no-one wants to bother – this is where the goodness lies.

This leads to that popular and useful creative writing course exercise:  describe a barn/chair/pencil from the point of view of a grief-stricken character without referencing the grief itself. If you haven’t done that one before it’s a very good warmer.

When well-done, this sort of exercise gives students practice in what to say and what not to say. It helps a writer understand how to make the reader burrow in amidst the words in order to look around and, from new perspectives, to make a meaning for themselves.


Finally some thoughts on how what you choose to write about can be good.

Human nature is at the heart of any story, so it follows that any story can be a good one. However there’s a certain kind of prize given to a certain kind of book and this regularly gets tagged with the label “good.” We’re talking Man Booker good or Orange good. It’s a bit different from other kinds of good, but we know what to expect and when it’s good it’s very good. This isn’t just worthiness, the charitable cause or some universally understood testament to the plight of human misery – although that all helps too. Make sure, if you’re trying to impress, that you’ve got the right themes for the right audiences. Make sure they can trust you.

We want to trust our writers. We also want to spend our time well. Ideally the time spent reading book x will result in: A) something to talk about after having read it; B) a few little gems, facts or alternative slants on subject matter. If your page leaves people feeling they’ve gained knowledge, or had knowledge affirmed, this is a quick passport to ‘good’ writing.

Clever humour. That’s another way to be good. Not too much of course, that would make it either silly or daft or kiddish or jokey or tiresome. No, you need that droll half-gag that raises a slight curves at the mouth of the most imperturbable barrister. Something about farts or willies probably. No but seriously, that serious slant on humour does get you called good in the right circles. Literary types just love to show how they understand true comedy, Swift, Kundera, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson, all comedians at heart, but deliverers of that wry and irreverent snook-cock that could never be mistaken for anything but goodness.

And, as a final final pointer, don’t forget the meta- para- meta-meta supra-textual world, one replete with goodness, cleverness and super-humourousness. A good text is often in some way about text. This can be boldly symbolic – books’ graveyards, text blankets etc – or can be more subtly evocative of how or why books are written, words deployed and phrases ingested. It includes all sorts of techniques of writerly revelation and what can be very tedious, self-conscious references to one’s self as fictionaliser. Nevertheless, build this in subtly and it will amuse and delight everyone at parties with an English degree and a bent for modernism.

Good writing at an achievement level

There are other things that just have to be in place. You need good, clear writing structure – and I’m not so much thinking about plotting and narrative structure here, heroes’ journey and the turn of the second act – I’m thinking more about the elements that just lead us forward and make us want to read. What have you done to make your writing clear, what have you done to flag up the direction and what have you done to engage the reader? This tends to be the lessons in the earliest days of writing, but don’t let that stop you from keeping the good work up. Basic techniques of flagging the theme of a paragraph, moving through explanation and detail and leaving a thread to carry into the next paragraph. There needs to be the throat grabbing opener, and every paragraph needs to have something that makes it worth reading. Unlike readerless blog writers, novel writers can’t afford to let a dull paragraph escape into the final draft. Keep it up. Make them all useful. Make them all engaging. Make them all achieve.

Of course good writing has a simple definition and one that excuses all manner of vagueness when it comes to stating what “good writing” really is. Good writing must work on the reader, must achieve what it aims to do, and as all readers are different, this can be a tricky task:

Good writing must engage its readers intellectually and emotionally.

Some works fail to do both of these, or are at best a horrible imbalance. Whichever of the two extremes you end up with, a blubbery mess of pap or a dry, rigid treatise, neither is good writing. One of the things writing does for us is to bring together the ways we react intellectually and emotionally to people, problems, effects, causes and situations. For the entertainers and fictionists, it’s only good writing if you’ve done this.


Tips for Writers – make a check list for your own good writing

Make your own, it’s the only way to learn. But here are a few examples to get going with:

  • Have I removed all cliche – two or more words that are commonly placed together but needn’t be, especially if there is a metaphorical intent. Good as gold, piercing stare etc.
  • Do I appear in control of my language – no words you can’t quite use or edits that don’t quite hang together
  • Have my statements been ordered to produce a clear sense of sequence, direction without inappropriate looping back. Have I removed any ideas that fork into two suggested threads, only one of which we can deal with immediately.
  • Do my phrases have a musical cadence to them.
  • Is there some disorientation to motivate the reader – a satisfying where am I, what’s going on?
  • Has each paragraph elicited bemusement, curiosity, wonder.
  • Do all my gestures and words show some character trait that is not overtly described.
  • Is there a memorable phrase, succinct idea or compelling character?