What makes writers – and their writing – great?

Here’s a question for you. What makes writers and their writing great? Let’s discuss.

Summer sun on New Year 2015.
Summer sun on New Year 2015.

To me, great writing isn’t just about whether the stuff engages with me personally or not. There are books where the content, the subject, whatever, makes me go ‘meh’. And that’s fine. Everybody’s tastes are valid and there’s no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. But, equally, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book or the author’s useless. The quality of the work is usually clear enough to me – it’s simply that I don’t happen to connect to the material. This is normal (I hope).

So what I’m getting at is that great books are going to have an obvious quality. And it isn’t too hard to spot, I suspect. Some authors are also able to produce those great books, one after the other. And – on the basis of my own experience in the field, stretching back now over 3 decades and more than 50 published books of my own, it seems to me that the way they do this isn’t just through talent and enthusiasm.

Both talent and enthusiasm are part of the mix, sure. But there are two other ingredients. Hard work’s one of them. A lot of hard work. And the other is experience. All writing’s a learning curve – as Hemingway said, we are all apprentices. But the fact remains that long-standing writers are less apprentice-like than beginning authors. Experience counts – in fact it’s vital to the transition to ‘unconscious competence’ where writing has become part of your soul. It seems to me that great writers emerge from the way this mix blends over time.

Most ‘aspiring’ authors (a term I hate, but which is probably apt here) start off with enthusiasm. Some also have talent for their work, and these are the ones who get ahead – I think a lot of enthusiasts drop out, perhaps in frustration, perhaps because they don’t feel they relate to writing after all (well, these days some of them self-pub on Amazon…)

Those who get further still are the ones who mix that enthusiasm and talent with hard work – which includes learning, often as they go, and which eventually has the payoff in experience. Combine all of those, over a long enough period, and you’ll get a great writer who produces great writing. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


12 thoughts on “What makes writers – and their writing – great?

  1. Good points, as usual. I am currently reading a book by a ‘new’ author. I read his first perhaps three years back. I remember I wrote to him because, although the story was fascinating, he had little undestanding of some words, and I felt sorry for him. This new book could almost be by a different person… but it is not. He has learnt his craft… as we all do.
    I do not have your years of publishiing but do of writing. I am currently trying to finish the first draft before I go to the US, so I can look at it with fresh eyes on my return. With an eye on the fifth book in the series, I am laying some groundwork now. A few years ago, with my first book, I would not have thought of doing that.
    Like your other commentators, I am still learning, I am a work in progress like my books, and I will not give up.
    Thank you for another insightful article Matthew.

  2. I hear you, as I am in the process of editing and re-editing my very first manuscript, to eventually be published on Amazon, again and again, unsure if my writing falls in the category of self published untalented author to fizzle into nothingness.
    I know from my occupation as a ski instructor that there is always room for improvement and learning, no matter how much of an expert you already are. I feel that it is the same with writing, so I keep at it, learning along the way and working hard, hoping my stories and messages in them will help some people out there find comfort in it, learn from it and find peace of mind and happiness.

  3. The one certainty I have is that I’ll never know it all and that’s okay. It’s actually more than okay. I want to be learning until the end. This was a great post and exactly right. Not only is there a lot to learn, but it must all be considered, evaluated, tried, and, if desired, adapted to the writer. While learning the craft we’re also learning about the writer we are, about our voice. I may never experience success as a writer, but I’ll always write. I know that because I’ve tried more than once to NOT write and it never takes. Always I return. There are stories inside and they become cranky if I don’t set them free.

  4. “Great” writing — never have been able to define it. I know the books I like that I think are great. The list includes books I’ve learned from as well as books I found inspiring as fiction. C.S. Forester and Nevil Shute are writers on my “great” list, mostly because they are consistent in their product. I don’t think I’ve read a book by either of them that wasn’t at least good, and many were great. Same for Patrick O’Brian. Is Robert Heinlein a great writer? He satisfies the consistency requirement — at least, up through about 1980. But for some reason, much as I love his work and would recommend it to anyone (especially a youngster just discovering SF) I hesitate to call him “great”. I’m not sure of any SF author, in fact, to whom I would apply the term. I write that even though I love and have been inspired by SF since I read Tom Corbett and Tom Swift as a kid.

    A lot of the so-called classics are not what I personally, with my own wholly and totally idiosyncratic values, would call “great.” Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a good book — might have been great if his editor had talked him into deleting that essay on the whale fishery in the middle of it. Charles Dickens only wrote one book I read through to the end: A Tale of Two Cities. That was a great book, but I don’t see Dickens as a consistently great writer.

    Edward Beach wrote one of the classic tales of submarine warfare, Run Silent, Run Deep. That was a great book, but although Beach wrote several others, even sequels to that book, they were (to me) barely readable. Something, some spark, was missing to hold the edifice together from those that RS,RD had. This despite, as far as I can tell, Beach’s style of writing remained consistent throughout everything I read by him.

    The same for Frank Herbert. Dune is a great book. It was the only one, again in my wholly and totally idiosyncratic opinion, that Herbert ever wrote. Although his Under Pressure is a good read.

    So as you rightly point out, our value systems are unique to our individual selves. Maybe the truth is, though, as far as writing goes, at worst we are good and competent practitioners of the craft — and sometimes, if we are lucky, we may be touched by “genius” and our craft transformed into true art, whose words are not read but whisper within one’s very soul.

    1. I agree, though personally I would put Heinlein up there. I read Herbert’s Dune but was not so enamoured I wanted to read the others: to me the quirkiness fitted the period Herbert wrote in but hasn’t stood the test of time. There is a lot of personal preference and in the end it is all about what works for the individual. I have had to put more thought into the more abstract aspect, though – I was asked to write a review article for one of NZ’s major magazines. The book I was reviewing presented itself as a compilation of quality writing, which begged discussion. That was quite separate from this blog post…

Comments are closed.