We’ve all read one: a book so badly written that it made us want to fling it across the room rather than put up with reading another chapter. (Some of us will have struggled through to the end, while some of us might actually have flung it across the room…) When a book is badly written, the writing draws the reader’s attention away from the story and to the words being used to tell it (badly). Badly written stories are not enjoyable, and at its worst, bad writing has the power to ruin a good story.
Most books that we’ll read are well written – it’s one of the basic requirements for getting published, after all. The thing about good writing is that it flows: the words feel ‘right’ and the reader can focus on the story, rather than on the words that are being used to tell the story. Good writing brings the story to life.
Brilliant writing goes a step further, using words in fresh and unexpected ways to create effects that surprise or captivate the reader. Brilliant writing makes us marvel at the way the author has arranged familiar words to view the world from a whole new angle. Take a look at these examples:
“The night curled into itself like a frightened woodlouse.” (Scarlett Thomas: Our Tragic Universe)
“A vault of stars hangs overhead…” (Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See)
“The sunlight for a moment seemed to be filling the room only with a bright bare emptiness.” (Graham Swift: Mothering Sunday)
“The lawn was white with doctors.” (Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar)
With bad writing, it’s easy to pick out what the problems are – common examples include telling instead of showing, the use of clichés, or overly colourful speaker attributions (she extolled frustratedly). The good news is, of course, that it is relatively easy to turn bad writing into good writing, by editing out those issues!
Going from good writing into brilliant writing, on the other hand, is significantly more tricky. Coming up with something so original that it stuns the reader with its cleverness is hard work. The good news is that no-one thinks you should aim for brilliance in every single sentence you ever write. Good writing already has the power to keep the reader turning the pages and enjoying the story – and in fact, if you hit your reader over the head with one incredible sentence after another, it can make for an exhausting reading experience (not to mention an exhausting writing experience).
Instead, aim to impress your reader with a gem of a sentence every few pages: sprinkle them here and there amongst your good writing, and let them shine. Look for opportunities for brilliance. Where could you give your reader a fresh angle on something familiar?
Go on. Write your own gems.