The Influence of the Classics: What Makes Great Writing? by HomeschoolMagazine

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									The Influence of the Classics: What Makes Great Writing?

By Amelia Harper

One of the best pieces of advice for any student is to read classic literature. Throughout the
ages, this one thing has defined a man of letters and is more likely than any other aspect of
education to produce a leader among men. The more you read “classic” literature, the more
knowledge you gain about the character and accumulated wisdom of man. Reading good
classic literature also tends to improve your own writing style as the stylistic elements seep
into your subconscious mind and influence your forms of expression.

However, there is much discussion within literary and educational circles about what exactly
defines a “classic” book. Of course, this is a fairly arbitrary term, one that often depends on
your own worldview. Yet, in the simplest terms, classic literature is great writing that has
stood the test of time.

So what makes writing “great”? How can you join with the host of ordinary mortal men and
women who have succeeded in producing such influential literature? This month, we want to
examine six elements of great writing that you can use to help evaluate works of literature
and that you apply to your own written works. In future months, we will deal with some of
these in more depth.

Great writing clearly conveys a message.

The purpose of writing is to communicate ideas, whether this is done through direct
methods, such as those commonly used in most nonfiction prose, or through more creative
methods used in fiction, poetry, and drama. You, as a writer, should have a clear overall
message in mind as you begin to write. And your goal should be to make that message
clearly understood to the reader. Take the story of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, one of the
most familiar English tales. Even though the author takes Ebenezer Scrooge (and the
reader) on fantastic journeys to the past and future, the overall message of the value of
compassion is clearly seen.

Great writing relates to common human themes and characters.

Have you ever met someone and said to yourself, “He reminds me of a character I once
read about in a book” or “This character is a lot like me”? Great writers are good observers
of human responses and have a keen insight into the psychological makeup of man. A good
author creates characters with traits that are common to the human experience. As a
budding author, you should strive to be a good observer of human behavior. What
experiences are important to those around you? How do they react when faced with
triumphs, obstacles, or tragedies? As you meet people with unusual character traits or
interesting reactions, it is a good idea to make note of these in a journal. These notes may
help you create your own memorable characters.

Great writing engages the reader as a partner in the creative process.

Sometimes you will find a book to read that seems almost impossible to put down. Books
become “page-turners” when the reader cares about the fate of the characters or longs to
know the outcome of the adventure. As a writer, the best way to accomplish this is by
creating likeable characters who face an important conflict or obstacle. Interesting plot lines
and unexpected twists add to the sense of suspense and propel the reader to the final
resolution. As the reader uses his own imagination to create images of the characters,
visualize the scenes, and predict the possible outcomes, he feels personally invested in the
book. In this way the book becomes a part of the reader’s own life experience—the mark of
an influential work of literature. Even nonfiction books can accomplish this goal. When a
reader not only reads a work, but internalizes its message, and alters his life in some way
as a result, then he, too, has engaged as a partner in the creative process. That is part of
the power of great writing.

Great writing has an impact on the ear as well as the eye.

In today’s world, the use of audible books is increasing. Audio books are a great way to
absorb great literature on the go. But you will notice that some books sound better than
others, not only because of the performance of talented voice actors, but because of the
audible beauty of the written words of an extraordinary writer. Great writing flows easily,
has a subtle rhythm, and uses pleasing word combinations. As a writer, one test of your
own written work is to read it aloud. Do any of the words strike you as discordant as you
read it aloud? Does your tongue tend to trip over the syllables? If so, you may need to
choose other words or restructure your sentences in order to enhance the audible beauty of
the written word.

Great writing is quotable.

Have you noticed how often pastors and speakers quote from great writers such as
Shakespeare, Dickens, Pope, Tolstoy, and many others? That is because great writing often
includes very quotable statements: statements that incorporate great truths or observations
about mankind in a simple, elegant form. Writers achieve this quotability by crafting their
words carefully to produce a phrase that is easily remembered or has an unexpected twist
that captures the mind and imagination. These quotations tend to have audible beauty as
well. Great writing, like all great art forms, requires attention to subtle details.

Great writing reveals great truths.

The best writing is writing which reveals truth in a new way or inspires us to pursue truth
for ourselves. Most often, these truths concern mankind: the endurance of the human spirit
through great hardship, the effects of one man’s actions on the lives of others, the
depravity of man in his natural state, the triumphs and tragedies that affect us all. However,
the best literature, in my opinion, is that which reveals truths about God as well. As writers,
we should strive to present truths, rather than the errors that afflict so much modern
writing. Our readers should be wiser for having read our words.

As you read, use these standards to judge the writing of others. As you write, use them to
make your own words rise to the level of “greatness.” Strive to inspire others by the words
that you are inspired to write.

“Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for
good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”—
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Amelia Harper is a homeschooling mother of five and a pastor’s wife. She is also the author
of Literary Lessons from the Lord of the Rings, a complete one-year literature
curriculum designed for secondary-level homeschooled students. In addition, she is an
English tutor and a freelance writer who contributes regularly to newspapers and
magazines. For more information, go to www.homescholarbooks.com.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in
the March 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine.

								
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