On Writing Beautifully

Beautiful words are daunting.

Well, let me restate.  Trying to write beautiful words is daunting.  Beautiful words are beautiful— it’s the writing that gets hard.

Neil Gaiman.  Laini Taylor.  Patrick Rothfuss.  These people have beautiful words flowing from their pens on every page.  Maggie Stiefvater.  Cornelia Funke.  Miriam Joy.  (Yes, I’m including her, because, guys, her book.)  With all of these people, it seems like they roll out of bed spouting poetic prose.  Even their headdesks are eloquent.

Then there’s me, who’s still trying to get his protagonist’s head on straight.  I can maybe make one pretty word in a million, but a whole string of them?  That makes me headdesk, and that just emphasizes the point: I am not naturally poetic.  Those of you following the Teens Can Write, Too! blog might have noticed by now: John Hansen posted this exact complaint a couple days ago, about his own writing.  We have this in common, I guess.  Pretty writing is not natural to us.  In his post, John affirms that it’s okay to use Orwellian prose (prose as a clear window to the story, not distracting), and your personal style is always better than copying someone else’s.  He’s right.

Some of my favorite authors have very clear, Orwellian prose.  Brandon Sanderson is the most notable; several times on Writing Excuses, he’s claimed— even boasted of— his non-poetic style.  It’s true.  He tells his story plainly, without any of the frills or vivid descriptions that often characterize fantasies.  He writes what the story needs and no more, preferring to emphasize his setting, his plot, and his characters.  Personally, I set more store in those three things than the style of a book.  As long as the words are serviceable, I’m fine with them.  I’m not going to dock points for plain prose.

Especially at the beginning of a writer’s learning curve, I’d rather have a coherent plot and good characters than pages of brilliant writing.  Without purpose, those words are useless.  It’s more important for a learning writer to gain skill at creating and developing a story than at obsessing over the Right Word.

If I agree with everyone, why am I writing this?

Brandon Sanderson told a story in the middle of a creative writing lecture he has on YouTube.  He said that once, he wrote a paragraph of description and worked to get it as beautiful as it could be.  He sent it off to his editor in the middle of a manuscript, and when the notes came back, his editor told him to tone down the poetry on that paragraph.  Why?  Paraphrased, “If you do it there, you’ll have to do it in the rest of the book.”  So Sanderson dropped the poetry and went back to his serviceable prose.

First moral of the story: Your style has to be uniform across the story, varying slightly as necessary, but never standing out as far more or far less poetic than the rest.  That’s when you run into trouble.  Second moral (the one Sanderson didn’t intend): anyone can work to make their prose better, but it takes time.  We saw this before with Patrick Rothfuss.  What does this mean for Sanderson?  It means, unfortunately, that he gave up.

Put down your pitchforks.  Sanderson knows so much about the craft, and has worked so hard on producing amazing books, that it’s difficult to accuse him of giving up on anything.  But that’s how I see it.  If he wished, he (and his editor) could have stepped back and worked to make that book as poetic as possible, in the same way that they worked to make Warbreaker use humor as a devastating tool, or the way they worked to make Mistborn and sequels as twisty and surprising as they did.  He’s no stranger to taking time to improve; but this time, he didn’t.

This problem— contentment— is a recurring problem with new (and experienced) writers.  It’s important to learn the craft of storytelling before you tackle the extra things like beautiful prose, but don’t be content to sit on your pile of writing knowledge.  Keep looking for new ways to make yourself better.  When you take time once to make yourself excel, it will begin to come more and more easily.  Even if you’re on top of the bestselling charts several times a year with brilliant, imaginative stories, you can still learn, and you should still learn.  Giving up is not an option.

Mini-rant at one of the best authors in fantasy over, let’s get down to brass tacks.  I just claimed that Brandon Sanderson gave up on a learning opportunity, but earlier in this post I asserted that poetic writing didn’t come naturally to me.  Am I giving up too?  I also asserted that John Hansen was right to say you should stick with your own style instead of copying someone else’s.  Am I contradicting myself all over the place?

No.  Poetry does not come naturally to me.  It doesn’t come naturally.  Neither does learning German, yet I’m doing it.  Neither does writing, really, and here I am doing it.  Neither does making friends, and yet I’ve become frighteningly good at it.  (Frightening to myself, that is.  Have a cookie.)  Poetry doesn’t come naturally, but there’s a list as long as my arm of things I’m not naturally good at, but have conquered.  Everyone is the same way in this respect.  Everyone can learn.

Poetry can be learned.  Just like character development, just like outlining, just like worldbuilding, poetry can be learned.  Not only that, you don’t have to wait until you’ve conquered storytelling to learn poetry; you can multitask.  What am I telling you?  Here it is.

Write in your own style, like John Hansen said.  By all means, write simply, like Brandon Sanderson says.  But never sit on that state of being.  It’s going to be difficult— learning always is— but you can learn to write as beautifully as all the authors I listed above.  More beautifully, even, if you take the time to learn.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to teach you in this post.  I promise you, the next post you see will be about poetry and how to improve it.  If you put in the effort to learn, I’ll do my best to teach you what little I know about writing beautifully.

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25 thoughts on “On Writing Beautifully

  1. Oh my gosh, I needed a post like this! My writing is not poetic or beautiful at all. It is very straight to the point and probably a little bit too fast paced. I stress myself out trying to make my writing poetic.

  2. “If you do it there, you’ll have to do it in the rest of the book” <– I love that. It's so, so true. The best style isn't necessarily the one that's the most poetic or beautiful, but the one that's the most consistent.

  3. I should really go back and see how my writing has changed since I was nine years old, just to see if there are any patterns I need to know or should continue…
    Being the detail-oriented, insane perfectionist that I am, I’ll sometimes go through a thesaurus for some time in looking for the word I really want to use… I tend to try and describe things so that I have a definite picture in words, but recently I’ve been told that I should try toning it down. I guess I’ll just have to experiment and see what I prefer…

    1. I actually wouldn’t suggest revisiting your nine-year-old self. It might not be a fun trip, unless you’re determined to laugh at yourself.

      Don’t believe everything you’re told, but if the word pictures are getting in the way of the story, that definitely needs some work.

  4. Being brain-dead from exams, and not feeling like organising a coherent comment, I will make a few disconnected points:

    – I think it really depends what your primary purpose is in your story. For some, the purpose is fascinating suspenseful plot; for some the purpose is creating deep and fascinating characters; but for others… the purpose is poetry. Just making the words beautiful almost for their own sake. Of course, most stories will want to do all of these, and success in one often feeds into success in another (beautiful writing contributes to the beauty of the characters, etc), but for this reason we can’t judge the success of a book on a predetermined measure.
    – “Beautiful” takes different forms. “The Wednesday Wars” and “Okay for Now”, by Gary D. Schmidt, are one kind of beautiful, coming from a wonderfully developed narrative voice (also Bruce Brooks’ The Move’s Make the Man). Then there’s “The Hunger Games” which in one sense isn’t “beautiful” at all, but in another sense achieves a powerful effect through it’s short sentences and first person present tend which really ramp up the tension. And then of course there’s more traditional lyricism. Almost any style can be beautiful if it’s used powerfully and skilfully for a particular purpose — even the most lucid of prose.
    – I think at the moment I do better with “beautiful” writing than with creating interesting plots or well-developed characters. I too want to improve the well-roundedness of my writing repertoire, but I’m coming at this from a somewhat different direction to you, I think.

    Alright, I’ll quit this essay now. But I might still read and comment on your other post before bed.

    1. No problem. You make good disconnected points.

      – I agree. Personally, I want to make stories as good as possible in every area I can. That means plot and setting and character come first, because without those, the rest is useless. But prose is definitely a big part of a lot of literature, and in many circles, it’s enough.
      – Indeed. That’s why, in my other post (The Right Word), I scrapped the phrase “beautiful writing” in favor of “the Right Word”. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so you’re absolutely right. Each book has different requirements, for which the Right Word will be different.
      – That’s good. You probably don’t need this post, in that case. I’m glad you know what you’re doing.

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughts.

      1. “I’m glad you know what your doing”. Oh, I assure you, I don’t 😀 But I hope I’m getting there (wherever “there” is).

  5. First off, stop making me blush.

    Second, I think poetry is quite a *hard* thing to learn. It’s less about writing and more about looking, about seeing the world, the same way that drawing is less about moving a pen on the paper and more about understanding perspective and depth. That’s why, despite having mostly lovely handwriting, I can’t draw still life to save my life: because I don’t have the skill of *looking* the way some people do.

    Therefore, writing beautifully in that way isn’t about the words you use, because it’s not particularly difficult to use flowery language. The difficulty lies in deciding *what* to describe. Am I going to say that the room smells like home, or am I going to notice that ‘home’ is “toast and fresh laundry” (which is how my room smells on Saturdays, and it makes me happy)? Because it’s the observation that makes it poetic and creates colour in the description. A lot of ‘poetry’, particularly modern poetry, revolves around drawing unexpected associations. I spend a lot of time playing with verbs like “slice” or “spark” to describe emotions, because the juxtaposition is what makes it symbolic rather than just narrative.

    (I’m not sure if I’m making sense here. But anyway.)

    So writing in a poetic style is less about the words you use and more about what you’re seeing. It’s about how you view the world, the same way drawing still life is about depth perception. I can see the world poetically. My depth perception, however, is so terrible that I regularly crash into things and I can’t draw to save my life. That’s just how I’m wired. You can be taught how to phrase the things you see, but I’m not sure you can be taught how to see them in the first place.

    Does this comment even make any sense? Do you think I’m mad? It’s possible I’m talking rubbish.

    1. If you stop writing amazing stuff, I’ll stop making you blush. (But don’t. I like your amazing stuff.)

      I think you’re right, but although it’s difficult to learn, it’s possible. Even with this, practice can bring improvement. You can learn to look with an artist’s eye— it’s not a textbook that teaches you, but experience. If you force yourself to practice it, you’ll get better.

      And about seeing things in a certain way, you’re absolutely right. In the follow-up post for this (The Right Word), I tried to emphasize the point that you need to know what you’re trying to achieve with your words. That, I think, means knowing how to see things. How do you as a writer view the world? You’re going to describe it one way, because your purpose is to show others what you see. How does your character view the world? You’re going to describe it a different way, because your purpose is to show others what the character sees. Depending on who’s doing the seeing, your poetry changes.

      One of the big quotes that inspired this post (that I wish I could have included, but I didn’t work to weave it in) is from Twitter, actually, a quote from Anne Enright: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.” I haven’t read any of her writing, but that quote works really well, and I think it fits with what you’re saying as well.

      We’re all mad here. Thank you so much for the comment (and for the poetry, and your follow-up post).

      1. Thanks for giving me the chance to formulate ideas that have been loosely in my head for a while. I still wait eagerly for a proper review from you, though. 😉

      2. Ah, yes. I’m going as fast as I can, but I must stop and admire every word. When I do finish, I’ll review it on Amazon and GoodReads and as many places as I can.

  6. I read this post and had something to say, but…then I didn’t say it. So I apologize for my…eh, boring comment, since now I have no clue what I was going to say before.

    Um…right. Good post!

    I think it might be better for me to just stick with trying to master other parts of this storytelling business, though. Like my world-building and trying to have three-dimensional, unique characters and actually finishing a project. I’m terrible at multitasking, y’see. Everything that I’m supposedly “doing” always ends up pushed into the background, or else I get horribly stressed out.

    Anyway, yeah. Good post, even if it doesn’t so much apply to me at the moment.

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