While there is no common definition of great, all great books have the common feature of lacking content that isn’t great. Great writing does not contain “un-great” stuff.
The Internet is full of tips to improve your writing. Do this. Do that. Add this. Add that. Brainstorm this. Flesh out that. Adopt this structure. The list goes on and on and is full of wonderful and sound pieces of proven literary advice.
There is so much advice and knowledge accumulated over the ages, yet no one seems to fully agree on what makes great writing. It is more that we just know it when we read it. And many cannot agree on that either – think of all the rejection letters great writers have gotten from publishers. Think about the fact that we all have different favorite books. Some are perennially popular and historically important as evidenced by how they converge within “Top Books” lists. Whether it is Meyer’s Twilight saga or Dante’s Inferno, some books just stand out head and shoulders above the rest.
Great writing can have one or more great features, such as a super plot, memorable characters, or incredible novelty. There is no one formula. If there were, everyone would use it. That is the beauty of writing: It is endlessly creative. The door is always wide open.
If there is no one formula, how can there be one key to great writing?
The secret that accounts for all this diversity of writers, writing styles and books with high impact, is that it is as much what you do as what you don’t do. While there is no common definition of great, all great books have the common feature of lacking content that isn’t great. Great books do not contain “un-great” stuff.
Yes, this is an equally nebulous, but strict rule. It is a realization that great writing is in equal measure about what you write as what you don’t write. In this way, it is analogous to the concept of negative space in art and design.
Authors are free to include any content, contrived and formed in any way, as long as it is pleasing, meaningful, challenging, educational, or transformative – or at the best all of these. All great books contain strengths that compel readers to finish and remember them. What advances them further is that they lack the kinds of weaknesses that turn readers away. The best loved books will be those that reach the highest possible ratio of pleasing to unpleasing material.
This is, admittedly, a fickle concept. A great book to one person could be a total bore to another. The definition of “great” can change over time and in different contexts. Many famous authors were originally rejected by publishers or the public and later embraced, sometimes by the next or even a distant generation. Many celebrated authors or books have come to be all but forgotten over time. The perceived worth of books changes not because the words change but because popular perceptions of what constitutes “great” and “less-than-great” do.
So, it might be troublesome to define “great” since the palette can be so vast, but many will agree on what is “un-great.” The things on this list can easily be fixed so their presence should not hold anyone back indefinitely. A good editor can see when a great book lurks within and knows it is just a matter of time and effort to pull it out. Get your book to publication only after it has been critically evaluated and cleansed of these eight weaknesses.
- The usual suspects Banish grammar mistakes, typos, weak verbs, etc. These are the same kinds of things that we are taught in elementary school to avoid in our writing. If this is the only problem in your book, congratulations. A good copy-editor can easily magic them all away. These are the most superficial weaknesses in the history of writing, but also the least likely to find in a published book of great quality.
- Inconsistencies These gaffes are nominally more serious than the mechanical errors of writing but are clues you have not spent much time perfecting your writing. They are fundamentally disallowed as the point of a good book is to get the reader to suspend disbelief. If your lead leaves the house with his favorite umbrella because the weather forecast say 100% chance of rain you can’t later have him get drenched because he forgot his umbrella. If your lead is wearing a black shirt at the beginning of the day it should still be black at the end. As we all know even great movies can have lapses and YouTube has a cult built around finding visual errors. They do not ruin a great movie – or book – but best if they aren’t there.
- Problems of logic Sometimes behaviors or outcomes that seem to defy logic make books. Take for example the battered wife who inexplicably won’t leave her abusive husband in the first chapter. If done right, readers will be unduly curious to learn in later chapters the reasons that compel this smart woman to stay and will root for her to overcome, setting up a great ending where she does and then some. Stretching what is possible for a reader to imagine is core to many great books, the trick being never to exceed readers’ expectations of logical consistency. Authors retain full freedom to craft any possible world. If something happens that is illogical, you just need to explain it. If a ball rolls uphill, make sure your characters are on a planet somewhere with different physics.
- Ignorance of the facts I always loved that part in the Lion King trailer where the leaf-cutter ants walk across the branch. The fact that lions live in Africa and leaf-cutter ants are endemic to the Americas doesn’t bother most people. More serious lapses do. Serious conflicts with common knowledge facts are almost never seen mainstream books or movies – or garner ridicule. Lack of attention to historical or social context can be especially frustrating to people who know it better than an author. Being knowledgeable about the world you are depicting is essential because it speaks to your authority, a key aspect of allowing readers to suspend disbelief. If Harry is a rooster, you really shouldn’t have him lay eggs to heighten the humor when he gets scared by Lola the Lion. Factual issues can be fixed if you take the time – drop the eggs or make Harry a Henrietta. The only time a true rethink is triggered is when a key part of the plot rests on a false assumption. Then you have a deeper problem. Luckily, much good fiction rests on twisting, stretching and reimagining the truth.
- Extraneous or repetitive material If readers have plunged into your story they want you to stay on track. Tangential or completely irrelevant material will slow down the story at best and completely frustrate a reader to the point of putting the book down at worst. A special subclass of extraneous material is repetitious text (words, sentence or passages). Repetition occurs in the process of writing and for many legitimate reasons. Leaving it in for readers to stumble over is one of the worst possible writing transgressions. Readers are smart and they only need to read it once to get it. If you do restate something, elaborate upon it to give new information, and you are safer that it will be received with increasing curiosity. Intentional repetition signals importance and can be an incredibly powerful tool to guide your reader where you want them to go. Themes that emerge over the course of a book, duly explored and core to the plot, are often one of the highlight features of a great book.
- Confusing material Confusion is never intentional but most often results from the author not having clearly described something. Perhaps enough time was not taken because of the complexity of the mood, scene, feeling, or description of a physical object or process. Often writers are completely surprised to be told when a point in the story is not clear. They experience it so clearly in their mind but likely they have more background knowledge. More experienced writers will recognize the problem already, smile and say something like, “yeah, I had trouble with that.” Perhaps the writer just hasn’t thought out all the details and the vagueness or ambiguities still show. Readers will often fill in details you don’t tell them and it could take them in a direction you never expected.
- Flat material How to describe flat material except that everyone knows “flat” when they read it? This is like a bin for all writing that doesn’t fit into any of these other categories but is just obviously lacking in its ability to fire up and hold the attention of a reader. It is flat because it flags no emotions in the reader, doesn’t advance the plot and feels very different than the great parts. As such, it really serves no purpose.
- Lack of novelty All writers try to avoid clichés at all cost. It is rare to see downright plagiarism, but readers are very sensitive to whether a book feels novel or whether it rehashes too-familiar ground. If they get the sense they’ve read it all before, chances are they’ll move onto something else.
While the rule holds that great books lack this kind of chaff, the reverse does not hold. Producing a book without any of these weaknesses still does not guarantee it will be great. It just gives it a better chance. When the ratio is as high in favor as great as it can be, the book is ready to be birthed.