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?
* * * * * *
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).
His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
Top Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Interesting. It is certainly subjective, yet there are still many authors whom most people would consider great.
Few would disagree that Hemingway is a great author, and those who enjoy science fiction would no doubt put Frank Herbert up there along with Arthur C. Clark.
Great authors, in my opinion, are not simply 'literary' or those who have stood the test of time. There are great author who are relatively unknown, who meet the criteria above.
I think they should meet most, if not all these criteria. I recently read a book with an excellent plot and believable and relatable characters, but the editing was awful. Grammatical errors and wrongly used words on every page. I only finished it because I had promised a review.
There are certainly some writers who are timeless, but we also need to recognize that the criteria for greatness is a moving target. Reader's expectations change and evolve over time. I love authors like Steinbeck and Faulkner, but many readers in the current generation can't stand them. It's all in the eye of the beholder.
I also agree that you can't just meet one of these criteria, you need to hit on most, if not all, of them to take it to the next level.
I so relate to this. Recently read a published novel with an interesting plot but it was technically awful. Head-hopping; repetition of 'favourite' words; sudden endings to chapters. It really needed a decent edit. Such a shame because the ideas and characters were good. My writers' group holds me to a very high standard and I don't think anyone is above criticism.
Impressed by this post, Bob! I don’t think I’ve ever seen great writing summed up so well. I believe you nailed the crucial elements of writing greatness, along with your wisely selected honorable mention comments. Bravo!
One small observation: it is the tenacious writer who employs a boatload of hard work, persistence, diligence, a smidgeon of genius, and in some case divine guidance, in order to apply ALL of these great writer techniques into each work of art they produce.
It’s a little like being a Jedi master, right? May the force be with us!
Thanks, Kathleen. I agree with you. You need to master more than one or two of these points to reach greatness as a writer.
Thank you so much for this insight, Bob! I'm new at writing for adults - my history is with children. I found your words helpful. I knew someday I'd write fiction for adults, but I read something once that held me back until it was time. It was something in an old Grace Livingston Hill book. The protagonist was young and wrote about "The Shining Years" (also the book's title). An editor told her, "You need to live more of those shining years before you write about them." Now that I've lived many of those years, my insight into people is better, and I will hopefully bring wisdom and insight into my writing as well. I have a lot to learn about the writing world still! So thanks for your input.
Yup, it's the "with age comes wisdom" thing. The more experiences we have, the better we get at writing about them. One of my works in progress right now is something I started about 25 years ago. I quickly realized I wasn't capable of writing it back then. With a lot more living under my belt, I'm finally ready to tackle it.
The only thing about waiting for life to teach me enough for writing has been that my experiences have taken me down different paths than most people. What I have faced in life--a true crime committed against my family--was not acceptable to the Christian world because it took place in the military. (Politically incorrect in the Christian world.) It did would not interest the secular world, though, because I told of my faith and dependence upon God as I fought to save my husband's life.(Too unacceptable in the secular world.) So truth and life experience can only take us so far in the writing world if we tel the truth. But the experience itself gave me tremendous insight into how people feel when they are terrified, when they face stress, and how to trust God through it. I can use that insight in fiction.
This is pretty spot-on in my opinion. Thanks for sharing!
I'd have to add 'time spent' to that list.
Real life is erratic, and you can tell a story by just following interesting characters around and writing down what they say and do, but the point of fiction is to be BETTER than real life, pithier, less random.
To clean up a story which in the real world would have tendrils wandering in all directions, and tell only those which contribute to the main story, and to tweak those into a more perfect story. To have a point. To entertain better, to use, as one reviewer said of something I wrote, 'le mot juste.' Instead of just anything, with a quick pass for coherence, it takes me time to choose the right words instead of leaving it at the almost-right.
I do my editing AS I write, a scene at a time, because my brain is damaged and can't hold much more than a scene's worth at a time, but the page helps me. I can SEE the better version taking form, read it as many times as it takes to make it fit the mental slot I have for it in the finished novel, to do its job well instead of competently.
It takes time. Or rather, it takes ME time. I don't know how OTHER writers get to the sign-off.
Great points, Alice. I get the concept of making it better that real life. It's the same thing when writing dialogue, If we wrote the way we talk, we'd our readers in a heartbeat.
I love that you included editors on the list! They make a huge difference! I love my editor!
Yeah, I don't understand people who think they don't need editors.
Me either!!! They bring distance and a set of less invested eyes to the project. They can see what we can't when we're too close.
I have seen the products of a few bad edits, and my only guess is that people who think they don't need editors have never had the blessing to work with a truly great editor.
Those are great examples. I'll take a few of those a step further by saying a great writer will go deeper into POV and do a better job of story through showing instead of just telling. And a great editor will help the author draw that out, too.
Working with a good editor should be top of the list, in my opinion. My writing took leaps ahead when I hired an editor for my novels. It’s an invaluable tool and you learn so much. I recommend any new author to hire a pro editor or find a publishing company who uses one, I can’t stress it enough.
I agree with you, Edmund!
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