Keys to Great Writing

High-bar standards for fiction and non-fiction.

Posted Oct 02, 2020

No author listed, pxhere, public domain
Source: No author listed, pxhere, public domain

Recently, I described keys to writing quickly. Today, I describe what tends to make writing—both fiction and non—great.

Of course, it's impossible to reduce "great" to a formula, but the following are common among the Great Ones.

Fiction (novel, movie script, play, short story)

Greatness tends to require three things:

  • Rich, believable characters, no caricatures. Usually, we see something of ourselves even in minor characters. That includes some psychological depth and realistic dialogue that's consistent with the character.
  • Fascinating details about some slice of life, whether medieval times as in The Pillars of the Earth or in a 20th-century military family as in The Great Santini.
  • A plot that moves, compels, is a page-turner. The key is conflict: The protagonist faces ever more difficult, important dilemmas. Perhaps ¾ of the way through, there’s an unexpected turn that forces the protagonist to change, revealing even more about this person’s essence.

My favorite 21st-century exemplar is All the Light We Cannot See.

Non-fiction writing (blog posts, articles, books

With so much content out there, you owe it to your potential reader to write something fresh, usually a new and maybe better take on a common problem. Stylistically, I like, for example, fellow Psychology Today blogger Susan Krauss Whitbourne, who uses a conversational style to provide practical implications of new research. Here’s her most recent piece.

As I wrote in my recent post on writing, alas, I don’t know an easy way to come up with ideas. The best I can suggest is, as you go through each day, keeping your antenna out for topics, examples, and bon mots. Keep a memo pad with you to jot them down.

As you’ve probably heard ad nauseam, only a tiny percentage of writers make even a sideline living from their writing. And many if not most of them do it not with their Great America Novel, film script, or New York Times column. They’re far more likely to make money as a technical writer, creating ad and catalog copy, nonprofit solicitations, corporate annual reports, and if they’re very skilled, dogged, and lucky: ghostwriting for a celeb, corporate titan, or politician.

The takeaway

Just because it’s tough to bleed green from the writing stone, doesn’t mean writing is a bad idea. Writing teaches you new things, clarifies your thinking, gains you credibility, and if you can learn to get your pleasure mainly from the writing not whether it sells, offers one of life’s great pleasures.

I read this aloud on YouTube.