What is Good Writing?

Excerpt from Margaret Atwood, The Best American Short Stories, Introduction: Reading Blind.

“Whenever I’m asked to talk about what constitutes a ‘good’ story, or what makes one well-written story ‘better’ than another, I begin to fell very uncomfortable. Once you start making lists or devising rules for stories, or fro any other kind of writing, some writer will be sure to happen along and casually break every abstract rule you or anyone else have ever thought up, and take your breath away in the process. The word should is a dangerous one to use when speaking of writing. It’s a kind of challenge to the deviousness and inventiveness and audacity and perversity of the creative spirit. Sooner or later, anyone who has been too free with it will be liable to end up wearing it like a dunce’s cap. We don’t judge good stories by the application to them of some set of external measurements, as we judge giant pumpkins at the Fall Fair. We judge them by the way they strike us. And that will depend on a great many subjective imponderables, which we lump together under the general heading of taste.”

Perhaps, I thought, my criteria are very simple minded. Perhaps all I want from a good story is what children want when they listen to tales both told and overhear – which turns out to be a good deal.

They want their attention held, and so do I. I always read to the end, out of some puritanical, and adult, sense of duty owed; but if I start to fidget and skip pages, and wonder if conscience demands I go back and read the middle, it’s a sign that they story has lost me, or I have lost it.

They want to feel they are in safe hands, that they can trust the teller. With children this may mean simply that they know the speaker will not betray thm by closing the book in the middle, or mixing up the heroes and the villains. With adult readers it’s more complicated than that, and involves many dimensions, but there’s the same element of keeping faith. Faith must be kept with the language – even if the story is funny, its language must be taken seriously – with the concrete details of l0cale, mannerism, clothing; with the shape of the story itself. A good story may tease, as long as this activity is foreplay and not used as an end in itself. If there’s a promise held out, it must be honoured. Whatever is hidden behind the curtain must be revealed at last, and it must be at one and the same time completely unexpected and inevitable. It’s in this last respect that they story (as distinct from the novel) comes closest to resembling two of its oral predecessors, the riddle and the joke. Both, or all three, require the same mystifying buildup, the same surprising twist, the same impeccable sense of timing. If we guess the riddle at once, or if we can’t guess it because the answer makes no sense – if we see the joke coming, or it the point is lost because the teller gets it muddles – there is failure. Stories can fail in the same way.

But anyone who has ever told, or tried to tell, a story to children will know that there is one thing without which none of the rest is any good. Young children have little sense of dutifulness or of delaying anticipation. They are longing to hear a story, but only if you are longing to tell one. They will not put up with your lassitude or boredom: if you want their full attention, you must give them yours. You must hold them with your glittering eye or suffer the pinches and whispering. You need the Ancient Mariner element, the Scheherazade element: a sense of urgency. This is the story I must tell; this is the story you must hear.”

Steven King talks about writing in his book, On Writing:

“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it – for years people have argues about whether or not such a thing exists, folks like J.B. Rhine have busted their brains trying to create valid testing process to isolate it, and all the time it’s been right there, lying out int he open like Mr. Poe’s Purloined Letter. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation. Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but even if I am we may as well stick with writing, since it’s what we came here to think and talk about.

One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose – one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

Good writing on the other hand, teachers the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creating of believable characters, and truth-telling. A novel like the Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy – ‘I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand’ – but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened, in fact – is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

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