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The Difference Between Great and Adequate Writing
by m. y. mim   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Posted: Wednesday, May 03, 2006

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To be published in Inkwell Newswatch. An original thesis exploring the art and craft of writing well including what it takes to write, and guide to writing career decisions.


By M. Y. Mim
Inkwell Newswatch
Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Difference Between Great and Adequate Writing


Great writing requires four essentials:
1. Mastery of the craft and skill
2. Something to say
3 The passion and drive to say it
4. A touch of genius, or "spark," or the je ne sais quoi that allows transcendence beyond the ordinary.
These principles apply to all forms of writing, from the burning "Great American Novel" that lies in the heart of so many writers; to technical writing; to journalism; to menu item descriptions. In each lies both the satisfactory and the sublime.
The scope of this article is restricted to the written word, rather than writing for film, television or radio.

Modern, post-modern and "no-mo po-mo" reflections
Naturally a discussion of this sort sets up the debate about intrinsic worth. Does the sublime exist or is it all "in the eyes of the beholder?" Post-modern analyses have so pervaded our awareness that we can't evaluate the "worth" of art, or determine if a piece of writing has gained that status, without taking into mind the intention of the creator and the reaction of the viewer. It is absolutely valid to ask "Who the hell is she who sets herself up as an arbiter of taste?"
The debate about intrinsic worth will have to rage beyond the scope of this article. And since post-modernism demands the intrusion of the creator, I will reveal myself within this article and now is appropriate.
My disturbing fallacy is that I am, in fact, conflicted about intrinsic worth. Relying on metaphor, I am willing to unequivocally declare that the Nelson Bench I use in my living room is a design masterpiece, a genuine piece of sublime art that transcends ubiquitous, ordinary, mass-produced pieces. (Design is a convenient metaphorical tool since it surrounds us and we make design decisions daily.) At the same time, I know my proclamation regarding the Nelson Bench is fundamentally classist and elitist. People who have never had the opportunity for art and design education may not like it because it tests their comfort with the new. Does their ignorance make them wrong? There are others, well-schooled in design, who prefer the ornate and perceive my Bench as cold and stark. Is it, then, simply a matter of preferential taste rather than intrinsic genius?
When it comes to judging the "worth" of a piece of writing, many will dismiss this article merely because it is classist and elitist, it proposes acceptance of the concept of intrinsic worth, and allows me - the Almighty Author - to posit genius. I accept my own equivocation and write this argument despite it.
(The place of "outsider art" deserves a separate discussion and does attack straight on the issues of elitism. See, for example, The San Jose Mercury-News, Sunday, March 6, "Once-illiterate dropout writes book of vignettes," by Joe Rodriguez, or consider the graffiti artist/artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a tribute, at and, for counterpoint, "What Aerosols!" by Heather MacDonald, somewhat dated, that appeared in City Journal, Summer 2002.)

Mastery of the craft and skill
The four essentials (1. Mastery of the craft and skill, 2. Something to say, 3. The passion and drive to say it, and 4. A touch of genius) create a sturdy, four-legged basic fundamental for great writing. Removeany one of the four, and you've created a three-legged stool: Again, a reasonably sturdy piece, but not a solid foundation.
The lack of grammatical skill in a piece saddens me more than any other flaw. It's so easy to fix!
The new grammar books understand, as the nuns taught me some 35 years ago, that the purpose of grammar reflects the purpose of manners. It helps readers to find their way around sentences and keep them within tricky paragraphs. Grammar, punctuation, and word choice are as comforting as a postlight, and, actually frees the writer to adopt an individual tone that is contained within the clarity of grammar.
Writing well (if not greatly) really is simply mastery of a craft, as much as is learning the skill of horseshoeing or tailoring. And, yet, so few have taken the time (time being the only way to learn a craft or skill), that those who have mastered it can make a great living in any writing genre. Robert Ludlum, a great craftsman and perennial bestseller who is not a great novelist, knows well "the tricks of the trade."
However, not knowing the craft simply sets one up for embarrassment.
Here's when the Grammar Beasts begin their assault.
Some Beasts want to jettison the craft portion of writing because it "cramps their style." Many of this type, clutching their Allen Ginsburg (who would have Howled again at being misused this way) eventually abandon the ship, or the (pun much-intended) craft, and insist on writing narcissistic prose-poems, unreadable save only to the audience that counts (the author). They cannot be saved from their own solipsitic narcissism.
Other Grammar Beasts object: "Rules of grammar are hidebound, artificial and archaic!" This usually comes from people who have been force-fed grammar and have not learned enough of the craft to see how it is indeed applied properly to "new writing." A fun grammar course usually brings these folks around.
Most Grammar Beasts, if they are serious writers, eventually learn the safety-with-nets approach. They find that knowing the rules is the only key to breaking them.
"LILY, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.' begins James Joyce's sublime short story "The Dead," the key story in the collection The Dubliners. Was Lily literally run off her feet so that the poor girl continued serving the buffet on stub legs? Of course not. The genius of Joyce here is that he broke the rules. He used the language and perspective of Lily. Joyce could break the rules, and did so to great effect, because he knew them. By using Lily's colloquial thought-language, readers immediately sense the scene and laugh at the image of feet-less Lily, while completely understanding the way Lily thinks.
This part of this article focuses on the craft because these tools are the building blocks. While we've looked at some specific skills (word choice, for instance), the discussion stayed at the meta-level of craft on its own. The following discussions will explore the other elements.
About the Author: M. Y. Mim is a free-lance journalist based in Santa Barbara, Ca. She may be reached at, or through her agent R. Almqvist, 805-705-5349.

By M. Y. Mim
Inkwell Newswatch
Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Difference Between Great and Adequate Writing


Something to say

This second section, following an analysis of the craft of writing, examines the precept "something to say."
Again, using the analogy of a three-legged stool compared to the firmer foundation of a four-legged chair, imagine a well-written piece passionately written by a gifted writer that's about nothing. How many times have we tried to read a story only to find ourselves mystified at the end. What was that about? Why did I waste my time reading this?
This does not mean the subject is boring. It means it's presented that way. This occurs when a journalist covers an incident and can't find the "story in the story." Perhaps the reporter lacks the time, or perhaps there really is no story, or perhaps the reporter is preoccupied with a romance. But she or he files in something anyway. And the publication, eager for something to fill the pages, prints the non-story.
Printed pointless pieces appear every day and for a myriad of reasons.
It's also known as the curse of the second novel. Anne Rice's brilliant first novel, Interview with a Vampire, reached the level of masterpiece by presenting a well-crafted story that raised questions about immortality and involved the reader in examining his or her own feelings about it. Every suceeding novel by Ms. Rice exists as formulaic pap. Never again did Ms. Rice reach genius and never again did she have anything original to say, which is not to detract from the fun of reading her franchise.
Many thriving novelists and nonfiction authors write successful stories that fill a need and sell well, despite lack of substance.
Formula and niche writing may make a successful writer, but it's highly unlikely anyone reading it will find anything new, and even more rarely, that touch of genius. Each writer needs to ask her or himself, what is it I want as a writer? If you can be successful at formulae, then enjoy it and achieve financial goals. In other words, if this level of writing satisfies you, and you are not lazy, then you are a happy writer. You may or may not be a great writer, and it doesn't matter.
But pity the unhappy writer who excels at the craft, has the passion and ambition to persist whatever the cost, may even have that "AHA" touch, and, in the end, has nothing to say.
The concept "having something to say" is elusive. It refers not simply to a moral, as in Aesop's Fables, but, on a metalogical level, to creating a resonance between the piece and the reader. It means invoking in the reader a sense of "I understand this, this has happened to me," or "I don't understand this but I feel its worth." The reader may simply learn something new and be delighted she or he did so. The piece may invoke a psychological or emotional response that need not be conscious in the reader. The reader may only be aware of "Hmm. That was interesting." That's enough.
Passion and something to say are identical twins. On the surface, the differences prove difficult to perceive. However, having something to say, if you choose great writing, supercedes passion, although one must have the passion to persist.
When I was in the third grade, I declared, dramatically, that " "I will make my living by the pen!" Of course I had no idea what I was talking about. I had organized the neighborhood kids into a writing group. We wrote on topics such as "What it would be like to be invisible." I thought writing meant journalism or novels.
After earning, naturally, a Literature degree, I wanted an academic career, researching and writing analyses. Finances and a desire to try the world first deterred me. One might say my passion wasn't strong enough.
I began my career in publishing. I liked it and did well. The process of publishing a book (at least in those days of cold type) began with a nine-month minimum schedule. I decided I needed quicker gratification. And I wanted to say something different rather than editing others' words.
So I easily switched to advertising, and while I enjoyed ad copywriting enormously, ad agency work didn't suit me, not least because of the endless hirings and firings that came about whenever clients changed their minds. And I had chosen new obligations: a child, a family, a mortgage.
By the mid 1980s, technical writing was the main game in town, so I became a technical writer.
I could go on, how I got to The Seattle Times, why I couldn't stay (serious illness), but the point is that I kept to my passion to write, to live amongst words, yet I shifted milieus to meet the needs I had created. My "something to say" was dictated by ad clients, techies, then editors.
While working at The Times, my passion to write fiction reawakend. I took a graduate course, joined a writing group and eventually was accepted into a prestigious MFA Creative Writing program. My illness halted that, but when I examine myself with rigorous honesty, I realize I lacked (and still do ) any burning desire to impart any truth, wisdom, image or message. Today I write about those aspects of my life about which I am truly passionate: writing, horses, art, music and whatever presents itself.
While having something to say is one of the four fundamentals for great writing, this element serves another purpose as I hope I've demonstrated by telling my story: Knowing what you want to say provides indispensible assistance to directing your writing career.
The kind of writing we do varies according to what we have to say and the depth of passion we feel to say it, as well as our choices regarding life circumstances. As free-lance journalists, we work hard simply to be published. We persist, though, because it is our passion.
In the next installment, we'll examine passion and genious.

About the Author: M. Y. Mim is a free-lance journalist based in Santa Barbara, Ca. She may be reached at, or through her agent R. Almqvist, 805-705-5349.

By M. Y. Mim
Inkwell Newswatch
Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Difference Between Great and Adequate Writing


The passion and drive to say it

Generally, writing is difficult. Dorothy Parker famously said (I paraphrase), "Writing is easy. You just get up, slash your wrists, and bleed to death."
Writing is work. For most people who engage in it, it doesn't even pay well. Much wiser to be a bank lender. Then why do it? The passion to tell your story, to reveal your truth.
True writers can't imagine doing anything else. We have a passion to write, to see ourselves as writers, to define ourselves thus. Passion keeps us going, keeps us alive and enlivens our work.(Caveat: Passionate writing requires rigorous application of the craft of writing less the piece becomes hysterical.)
In the world of writers, an elitist hierarchy persists. The novel-writer is perceived as the "purest" writer, the top of the heap. To me, this smacks of classism and probably reflects the era when people could afford to spend their lives writing stories - usually because they came from wealth and/or had a wife to take care of the mundane chores of life.
Later came the romantic notion of the artist suffering in the garret - think of Mark Twain or Edgar Allan Poe. Many a would-be writer has devoted his or her life to alcoholism, mistaking drinking as a requirement to great writing.
However, both fiction and non-fiction book writers do display a very different level of passion. That intense drive to write a novel comes at a high cost, often the price is a marriage and family, or a social life at all. In the "old days" men wrote the books (or the symphonies, or painted, or sculpted, etc.), while women made the men's work possible. Of course this pattern exists today, but women are demanding to be heard, and giving up even more to do so.
The complexity of passion, as it applies to the art of writing, intensifies at different stages of our lives. Passion may wax and wane. Passion may demand sacrifices, or be reevaluated. I am not a novelist. Does this mean I have lost my passion? Clearly not: I have written this essay with intense passion, bringing to it a life-time's work with words, and making painful, physical sacrifices to complete it. By embracing a post-modern, self-reflexive approach, I've even brought my self into this article.
My thesis is that great writing necessitates four essentials, one of which is passion. I believe all writing (indeed, all art) must be created with passion for the subject. I believe passion brings alive even the most pedagogical piece, and that it enlivens the author. I believe that passion is transmittable, even as The Passion created transubstantiation. I believe there is Holy Power in passion. I also believe that writing solicitation letters (Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em what you've told them) is on equal par with writing a novel, given that it is written with passion and conviction, demonstrates a grasp of the craft and may even have that touch of magic.


This last requirement for great writing is indefinable, making this section a very short one!
We use words such as "genius," "magic." "gifted," "natural talent," and others fairly interchangeably to describe the indescribable, something that sets apart the mundane from the magic.
Some circles assign a certain spirituality to the achievement. I certainly have no answers. Some people believe the ability to write beautifully is innate. Others recognize the importance of nurture.
My son writes exquisitely. He was raised in a reading and writing environment, by a professional writer/editor/artist (his mom) and a professional editor (his dad) as well as an accomplished artist (his godmother). That and my constant admonitions: "Good grammar, good manners and good grooming will get you through because you weren't born with a good fortune!" fairly sealed his fate. He grew up absorbing the craft and he has the touch of genius. Whether or not he chooses to use his gift (passion, something to say) is his choice, far beyond my influence.
I do believe it's possible to cultivate genius, or at least set the stage for her arrival. If one wasn't born with the delight of a nurturing environment, create one. Learn, relearn, apply and relearn and reapply the basics. Write all the time. Most important: Read well.
Explore the other arts for inspiration and a nudge to look at the unfamiliar. Steal from the fundamentals of visual art: "Art elements: line, shape, form, space, texture, value and color."
If you consider what you write is art, even engineering specifications and product brochures, you invite the muse.
"Not what man knows but what man feels, concerns art. All else is science," Bernard Berenson, 1897.
And finally, to achieve greatness may take some blood, sweat and tears along the way, but reaching that sublimity is sheer joy.


About the Author: M. Y. Mim is a free-lance journalist based in Santa Barbara, Ca. She may be reached at, or through her agent R. Almqvist, 805-705-5349.

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Reviewed by Irina Karstein (Reader) 3/5/2007
Good article.

Re: genius, I think it's a combination of nature and nurture, but genetics probably plays a greater part in this.
Reviewed by m j hollingshead 5/7/2006
it is a little long, sometimes breaking an article into two will draw more to read
Reviewed by - - - - - TRASK 5/3/2006
A Little Long In Length--

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