Great Writing is Invisible
Helping the hallucination
It is strangely difficult to clarify what good writing is.
You know it when you see it, and perhaps more when you don’t. You’ve certainly had the experience of putting a book down and never returning, deliberately or not, thanks to some failure by the writer.
If you write, you do not want to write badly. You don’t want your books forgotten on the nightstand, or articles languishing in the Inbox. So what is the difference? What is it that someone can do to move their writing from bad to good?
Typical writing advice is woefully unhelpful. Delete adverbs. Be concise. Don’t use flowery language. Engage the senses. These tips help, but they don’t really answer the question. And often breaking those rules is just as effective as following them.
The greatest compliment I think a writer can receive is that a reader couldn’t put the book down. And that compliment is not exclusive to fiction, non-fiction books can be page turners as well.
“Can’t put it down” does not necessarily mean it’s a popcorn, comfort book though. Different books will be unputdownable to different people. And that is not even the thing that makes it good, it’s a symptom of the goodness, like other potential symptoms including “I laughed,” “I cried,” “I learned something,” “I was terrified,” they all hint at some underlying source of greatness.
I think that greatness is best described as “invisibility.” Great writing is invisible. It might take you a minute or two to get into the flow, but once you’re reading it, you’re flowing through it and don’t even realize you are reading words. Your mind is hallucinating the story for you, so seamlessly that it feels like you’re imagining it for yourself.
Character development, plot, conflict, they’re all good if they fit what you could reasonably imagine having happened. It falls flat when it’s no longer believable.
Non-fiction works when it’s so well explained that you start feeling like you already know it, or like you could have written this yourself if you’d connected your ideas together a little better. You couldn’t have, it’s an illusion, but you feel it nonetheless.
If we approach the typical rules with this framing in mind, they start to make more sense.
Compare these two paragraphs:
“I know,” he said angrily.
“I know,” he grunted through gritted teeth.
The second one is generally “better” writing. But why?
The most basic explanation is: the first version uses an adverb. Adverbs bad! But why are they bad?
Well the better explanation is that the first version “tells instead of shows.” Saying “angrily” is not as vivid as “grunting through gritted teeth.” The latter is much easier to imagine.
But the best explanation is that the first version is visible, the second is invisible. The reason “telling instead of showing” is bad, and the reason the adverb is bad, is that they both make it clear a story is being told to you, instead of the story being hallucinated in your head.
When you read, “‘I know,’ he grunted through gritted teeth,” it is easy to simply imagine that scene. But when you read “‘I know,’ he said angrily,” you are partially imagining someone telling you the story too. There isn’t quite enough description for you to hallucinate it all on its own.
This is why flowery language gets in the way of good writing, too. It’s easy to hallucinate “he grunted through gritted teeth,” but if you read “he grunted through his clenched mandible” you instead experience yourself reading the sentence, instead of just experiencing the sentence. It kicks you out of the hallucination and makes you look at it for a moment, wondering why they chose that word, or in some cases wondering what the word even means. It breaks the spell, it makes the invisible visible.
The same can be said for concision vs. lengthy explanations. Being concise helps people move through their hallucinations faster. If you draw out your sentences and descriptions too much, the action stops in their head, and the image starts to waver.
Same for varying sentence lengths. You notice if every sentence is the same length. They all feel the same. It doesn’t feel natural anymore. It feels too repetitive. Like there’s a metronome to your reading. It isn’t very pleasant.
Varied sentence lengths creates a more natural ebb and flow to reading. As does varied word choice. If I use varied in every sentence, you start to pick up on it. The sentences aren’t varied enough. Varied varied varied. You notice you’re reading sentences, instead of hallucinating. It breaks the invisibility.
You also want to avoid obscure references or unclear explanations in non-fiction because they make it harder for someone to imagine themselves having the idea they’re reading. If they don’t get the reference you’re making, they can’t follow the logical flow you’re trying to help them hallucinate through.
But you must always make a choice for who you’re writing to. A book like Ulysses seems to break all of these rules. But Joyce was clearly writing it for a certain type of person to enjoy, probably his friends in Paris, and part of the joy is knowing how few other people can enjoy it. Dense philosophical works like The Metaphysics of Morals makes a similar choice. Or Kant was just a bad writer. But I prefer the former explanation.
So any choice about the references you make or the language you use is a choice about who will get to enjoy the work. Make it too simple, and someone more experienced in the field will get tired of the explanations. Make it too complicated, and you’ll alienate the curious but newer readers.
If you dig into most writing “tips,” most seem to tie back to reducing the visibility of the writing. They help the hallucination. And the times when those rules are no longer useful is when breaking them does help the invisibility.
We’re still unfortunately left with the question of how do we make our writing more invisible. The tips help, but there’s some greater, deeper quality they don’t touch on. I suppose that’s where the art comes in.
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