by Eldred “Bob” Bird
I love perusing the Twitterverse for writing questions. One caught my eye recently and set my brain buzzing. The question was, “What separates a good writer from a great writer?” Interesting question, right? While I’ve studied countless authors and attended a ton of classes and seminars, I’ve never really looked at it from this angle before.
As I read through the responses to the question, I quickly realized there are no hard and fast criteria for good writing verses great writing. Where we draw that line and what it takes to cross over the threshold are subjective at best. Still, I found myself settling on a few key points that seemed to resonate with a large percentage of the writing community, and with me.
Plot is an obvious place to start, and a lot of respondents agreed. As readers, we like it when we’re surprised. Unexpected twists and turns can push a good story to the next level, especially when they make us suck in a deep breath and say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!”
Good authors may have a solid plot and execute it well, but the great writers push things to the next level. They can take an otherwise normal chain of events and turn it on its head.
Great writers also know how to keep these hits coming without “jumping the shark,” so to speak. They know just how far they can push things without losing the reader.
The next most popular response was around character development. One of the best ways to pull a reader into a story is with characters they can relate to. Let’s face it, if we don’t connect with the characters, we aren’t going to care about what happens to them. That can render even the best plots moot.
Great writers create characters we understand and bond with on an emotional level. Their characters have depth and a certain familiarity. We may see people we know in them, or more often, ourselves. Even the worst of the villains have at least one redeeming quality we can sympathize with. Sometimes a really great writer will almost have me rooting for the bad guy!
When it comes to separating the good from the great, voice is high on my list. It’s possibly the single most distinguishing trait a writer can possess. A writer’s voice is like their literary fingerprint. With time and practice we all tend to develop our own unique writing style. The voice of a great writer can be just as recognizable as the playing style of a great musician.
Just as great musicians can alter their style to fit a particular piece of music, great writers will often alter their voice to fit a different genre or point of view. Like a chameleon, they are able to shift the color and tone of their voice to match the narrative.
For example, a third person narrative will have a different voice than one with a first-person point of view.
First-person POV requires the writer to live in the skin of the character telling the story and writing in that character’s voice, rather than their own. Multi-POV stories take things a step further. It takes a great writer to pull off a multi-POV story with different narrators successfully and not lose the reader in the process.
Many people in the writing community said great writers owe their success to great editors. I agree wholeheartedly. The right editors can take a manuscript from good to great…if we’re willing to listen to their input. I’ve met some writers who feel they are good enough that they don’t need outside help. They are wrong.
If we want our writing to improve, we need other sets of eyes to point out the issues in our own writing that we’ve become blind to. If you can’t afford a topnotch editor right away, at the very least join a critique group or round up some beta readers. Getting feedback from other writers can help you fill the holes and smooth out the bumps that are keeping you from rising to the next level.
There were hundreds of responses to the Twitter post, far too many to cover here, but here are a few more that caught my eye.
“Passion. A writer who lacks passion can only ever just be good. Greatness requires passion.”
“Dedication, truly hard work, commitment. ‘Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,’ said Thomas Edison.”
“They continue learning with each book. You can tell when a writer decides they don't need to learn anymore.”
“Great writers are willing to leave a little piece of themselves behind on every page.”
Like I said at the beginning of this article, trying to nail down the elements that take a writer from good to great are highly subjective. What one person considers a great work of art another might find a mediocre effort. It all comes down to personal preference.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that will catapult us to the top of the bestseller list, but if we concentrate on the small details that separate us from the crowd and build strong words and ideas on that foundation, we all have the potential to achieve greatness in the eyes of our readers.
What do you think separates a good writer from a great writer?
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).
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