What makes a piece of writing outstanding? For fiction, there’s an engaging plot, layered characters, a theme that touches our hearts, scintillating dialogue. Nonfiction needs a novel premise and intriguing points backed up with well-researched information. Many authors can accomplish these. But what lifts an author from being merely a popular writer to a place among the all-time greats?
It’s the quality of the writing. What marks them as master wordsmiths is the way they manipulate words and use rhetorical techniques to expert effect. This may seem difficult to quantify, but we can identify some of the strokes that make the rest of us sigh, “I wish I’d written that!”
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Let’s analyze a powerful excerpt from one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver. In The Poisonwood Bible, Leah’s missionary father has moved his family to the Congo. They have endured all manner of hardships, including fire ants, a flood, hunger, and little Ruth May contracting malaria after hiding her quinine pills. Now a green mamba has killed Ruth May. Leah narrates:
A honeycreeper sang from the bushes outside the window. It seemed impossible that an ordinary, bright day should be proceeding outside our house. Mother spread a small, soft hand onto hers and washed the fingers one at a time. She cradled and lifted the head to rinse it, taking care not to get the soapy water in Ruth May’s eyes. As she dried the limp blond hair with a towel, she leaned in close, inhaling the scent of my sister’s scalp. I felt invisible. By the force of my mother’s desire to conduct this ritual in private, she had caused me to disappear. Still, I couldn’t leave the room. After she dried and wrapped her baby in a towel she hummed quietly while combing out the tangles and plaiting the damp hair. Then she began to cut our mosquito netting into long sheets and stitch the layers together. At last we understood. She was making a shroud.
Writing ain’t easy–even if you love it. But at least you usually know whether you’re doing something well or not. One thing, though, might be slipping beneath your radar. If you don’t pay attention, it’s guaranteed to make your writing fail. See if you can figure it out before it’s too late. Here’s an example:
He wrote some lovely sentences. Those words sing clever news. I do hope that you read ’em all. They’re stuffed with everything!
Would you continue to read WowPow if I wrote like this? (Rhetorical question!) Did you notice how sing-song-y it sounded? But what exactly is wrong with the writing that makes it fail? Can you figure it out if I break apart the paragraph like this—?
He wrote some lovely sentences.
Those words sing clever news. I do hope that you read ’em all. They’re stuffed with everything!
Now the problem becomes evident—the sentences are all the same length. This gives them a regular, bouncy rhythm, not unlike The Cat in the Hat[Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss!] or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Delightful when you’re a toddler, like my granddaughter, but not so endearing, otherwise. Now, I’ve created this extreme example as an illustration, but you’d be surprised how many writers unwittingly think in measured ideas. They might sail “in and out of weeks, and almost over a year” [Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are], have aminotaurat the center and be full of ten-dollar words, but if those sentences are all the same length—epic rhythm fail. [You make your own joke here.]
Shakespeare. Churchill. Kennedy. Friedan. These writers inspired generations and changed our world. Each knew that neither poetic language nor logical argument alone would propel readers to action; a conscious synergy of the two was required. As Maya Angelou put it so powerfully using her own creative phrasing, “The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” That’s the key–writing must engage the mind and the emotions. Continue reading Writing must touch hearts and engage minds
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