Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Good Writing: Through a Glass Clearly

You and I want to be good writers, but what will make our writing good? Inspiration, perspiration, determination, and endless revision — all fine answers, but the biggest answer is: good writing captures life.

The little black marks of good writing don't squat dully on paper as do the little black marks of poor writing; good writing's marks burst up from the paper with all the color and energy of life itself. The heaving waves of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans overflow Moby Dick's cardboard covers; the seething crowds of London and Paris elbow their way out of the pages of A Tale of Two Cities.

So how can we make our writing capture life?

Let's make an analogy with acting. When watching good acting — Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull or Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, for example — we know DeNiro is not an aging boxer, and we know Streep is not a refugee forced to sacrifice her child, yet we react to them on the screen as if they were the characters they portray. We enjoy their acting even as we're fooled by their acting. The more DeNiro disappears into his role, the more his skill becomes evident; the more Streep tricks us, the more we applaud the honesty of her performance.

If we sense, however, that an actor is drawing attention to him or herself by sending out subtle or blatant signals that say, "Look at me, aren't I acting up a storm?" then the illusion collapses, and we realize that we're not seeing Hamlet or Hedda Gabler suffer and die, but that we're watching a small-minded egotist overact in a soon-to-be-forgotten hour on the stage.

Likewise, good writing doesn't draw our eyes to its own excellence; good writing instead becomes a window through which we can see so clearly that only on second or third reading do we notice how well made is the window we're looking through. Here, for example, is a passage from Gustave Flaubert's immortal masterpiece, Madame Bovary, found by letting the pages fall open where they may:

The table was laid under the cart-shed. On it were four sirloins, six chicken fricasées, stewed veal, three legs of mutton, and in the middle a fine roast suckling pig, flanked by four chitterlings with sorrel. At the corners were decanters of brandy. Sweet bottled cider frothed around the corks, and all the glasses had been filled to the brim with wine beforehand.

Flaubert uses no writing device to make us notice his skill — could any sentence be more mundane than, "The table was laid under the cart-shed"? — yet this is superb writing. Why? Because the writer, having seen Emma's rural wedding feast in his imagination, uses plain food and drink words — sirloins, chicken fricasées, stewed veal, mutton, roast suckling pig, chitterlings, sorrel, brandy, cider, wine — to makes us see, smell, and drool over the rich repast as if we were among the lucky guests.

Compare that with this sentence from A Farewell to Arms:

The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust and the leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Many critics have ooed and ahhed over these fifty words, but I find this writing poor. For one thing, Hemingway's few adjectives, "dusty, bare, white," leave his nouns vague: are those trees poplars, planes or olives? His version of Flaubert's sentence might have read like this:

On the table were beef and chicken and calf and sheep and pig meat and there were decanters of brandy and bottles of cider and glasses of wine.

Far less appetizing, wouldn't you say?

Still more damning to me are Papa's famous seven "and"s. Why? Because all those comma-less conjunctions create a sentence structure so unusual that, when reading it, we notice the writing more than what the writing reveals. This window isn't crystal clear, it's cloudy because it's overly decorated. Compared to Flaubert's quiet clarity, Hemingway's sentence has a pushy "Look at me, aren't I clever!" subtext that I find narcissistic.

Here's a sentence from Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Neither individually nor as a crowd could they be said to dominate the environment, as one comes to dominate a work of art he may possess, no matter how esoteric, no one knew what this room meant because it was evolving into something else, becoming everything a room was not; to exist in it was as difficult as walking on a highly polished stairway, and no one could succeed at all save with the aforementioned qualities of a hand moving among broken glass — which qualities limited and defined the majority of those present.

This window is opaque! If anyone reading this can elucidate Fitzgerald's ninety-three word sentence, please leave a comment below. "As one comes to dominate a work of art," the room was "becoming everything a room was not," "aforementioned qualities" — excuse me, but huh? Unlike the Flaubert passage, this Fitzgerald sentence is purest gobbledegook, and like the Hemingway sentence, it's pompous gobbledegook. "Ah, only world-weary sophisticates like you and me know how romantic it is to be beautiful and damned!" — that's the self-centered subtext I hear from Fitzgerald.

Not that writing must be as prosaic as the Flaubert passage above to be good. Shakespeare, Sterne, and Nabokov come instantly to mind as writers who use every known writing device — alliteration, allusion, antithesis, balanced phrasing, double entendres, puns, rhyme, and all the rest — to make their writing snap, crackle and pop. Reading them, we feel as thrilled by the verve of the word window as by the vision the window discloses. Even modest Flaubert, patiently searching for le mot juste, could bend his sentences to poetic lyricism:

She remembered the summer evenings all full of sunshine. The colts neighed when anyone passed by, and galloped and galloped. Under her window there was a beehive, and sometimes the bees wheeling around in the light struck against her window like rebounding balls of gold. What happiness there had been at that time, what freedom, what hope!

— and to poignant meditations:

...no one can ever give the exact measurement of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows...human speech is like a cracked tin kettle on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.

Flaubert, however, didn't write the poetry and philosophy of these passages to show off his own brilliance. He wrote the first to deepen our insight into his doomed heroine, the second to deepen our insight into her cynical lover, and he wrote both so that we could look with him through a window of words and see the never-ending, ever-amazing, twists and turns of the human heart.

That is good writing.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 5th 2013, 7:22 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
That is good writing, as is yours. To proffer a window is much better than errecting a mirror.
Thursday September 5th 2013, 8:01 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Flaubert is indisputably one of literature's greats (and even better when read in the original French). I can't help wondering, though: Are you reading a version translated in the 19th century or is it a modern translation of the work?

I'm afraid I can't agree with you at all about your condemnation of Hemmingway and Fitzgerald. If they were such poor writers, why are they generally classed among the greatest American writers of the 20th century and on the required reading lists at many schools and colleges?

There are 60-80 years between publication of the first and the later two works. If you liken these authors' writing to art movements, Flaubert is a mid-19th realist who paints it like it is. Hemmingway is more of an expressionist, and Fitzgerald is verging on abstract. But all of them are products of their time.

Life is not always and cannot always be "snap, crackle and pop".

Hemmingway's sentence with its seven "ands" is a masterly echo of the ceaselessly trudging, tired feet of soldiers marching past. "Dusty, bare and white" are precisely the right adjectives to describe the overriding impression of unpaved roads in an arid Italian landscape in the fall. The mood is one of exhaustion, desolation and lack of hope. It simply does not matter what kind of trees are involved.

As for Fitzgerald, if I remember rightly he was writing about mental illness in that book, how perceptions differ and change and the way things may suddenly get beyond one's control. I'm not quite sure why you object to "aforementioned qualities". Presumably, the qualities (or characteristics) were mentioned a paragraph or two earlier.

However, I would like to thank you for citing all three works because this has given me an incentive to reread them after many years.
Thursday September 5th 2013, 8:56 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I fully agree with Alice above. I'm waiting for your response.
Thursday September 5th 2013, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
Your idea of "word window" is new to me. I like it. I have previously used the window concept only while evaluating actors.
Thursday September 5th 2013, 10:26 AM
Comment by: John P.
"Why did God make the flowers?"...

"because he had beautiful thoughts"

- Sasha 1999
Thursday September 5th 2013, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I first recognized overly-decorated prose when I read a book I was enjoying and suddenly felt I was tripping over so many jewels in the road I was bruising my chin. Myself, I don't like Fitzgerald at all. I thought I was alone in this, and I abhor Hemmingway.

But I've been reading Pat Rothfuss' THE NAME OF THE WIND and he manages to change voices, going from 3rd person to first-person past tense to embedded first-person present tense and back again. The 3rd person is very poetic, though stark. The direct monolog highly colloquial, but the speaker is a dramatic individual, so for me that works. The same man speaking in present tense is very simple. The fact that the poetic 3rd person is never more than a page and a half and rarely introduced means it hits me like a shot to the midriff. I am in awe of his ability, but never to the point that I lose interest in the plot or characters. I don't know how you would react to the book. I read on until I fell asleep in the early hours on the couch.

Different kinds of windows work for different writers, I think, and a touch of stained glass in unexpected places is welcome.
Thursday September 5th 2013, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Ted G. (Fairfax, VA)
Michael, you are a rock star!
Thursday September 5th 2013, 3:15 PM
Comment by: Marie (GA)
I agree with Michael. Writers should be invisible and allow readers to be caught up in a place full of life where they see, hear, and feel what's going on. With me, that happens when the writing is so clean that images appear while the text seems to disappear.
Thursday September 5th 2013, 10:15 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I agree with Michael and Ted G. of Fairfax, VA.
Friday September 6th 2013, 11:59 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Since Roger Dee is waiting for my response to Alice M, I'll get right to it.

First, I like spirited discussion of writing and writers, especially when we disagree--with respect of course.

About Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's reputations: the awe with which many readers approach these two writers has long baffled me. I just don't get it. To me they are self-absorbed and sentimental romantics. Among American writers I infinitely prefer Theodore Dreiser. In his clear, vivid realism I see the world I know myself. In H & F I see swirling vagueness, la-di-da fanciness that turns me off.

I see what Alice M means about the weary feel of Hemingway's "and"s sentence, but I do think it matters what kind of trees are in the scene. If the author doesn't say, readers have to guess. I like Balzacian exactitude. Think of this scene as a Monet painting--he would show us what kind of trees were there!

But all this comes down to personal taste, and everybody has their own likes and dislikes!
Monday September 9th 2013, 3:58 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Thanks for your answer, Michael.
As you say, it's all a matter of taste.
Monday September 9th 2013, 7:43 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for your answer, Michael.
You provided the perfect answer: I am and scientist, AND a dreamer!
Monday September 9th 2013, 7:57 PM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
Nicely done, Michael; all the way to the last exclamation mark!

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