Tuesday 22 September 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (3rd Part)

And we continue with our fifteen-part series written by the British author Zadie Smith on what makes writing so special. Click here for the first part and here for the second one.

What writers know

First things first: writers do not have perfect or even superior knowledge about the quality or otherwise of their own work - God knows, most writers are quite deluded about the nature of their own talent. But writers do have a different kind of knowledge than either professors or critics. Occasionally it's worth listening to. The insight of the practitioner is, for better or worse, unique.

It's what you find in the criticism of Virginia Woolf, of Iris Murdoch, of Roland Barthes. What unites those very different critics is the confidence with which they made the connection between personality and prose. To be clear: theirs was neither strictly biographical criticism nor prescriptively moral criticism, and nothing they
wrote was reducible to the childish formulations "only good men write good books" or "one must know a man's life to understand his work". But neither did they think of a writer's personality as an irrelevance. They understood style precisely as an expression of personality, in its widest sense. A writer's personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner.

When you understand style in these terms, you don't think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here

Copyright 2009


  1. The illustration with the brain squeezing out an 'a', well that is just brilliant.

    Sending love to you dear friend.

    Love Renee xoxo

  2. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth.

    So well put.

    Love the full heart dripping out just one letter!

  3. I've always heard it said you should write what you know about and write true. To me that makes it most easy so it all makes sense.

  4. I like that phrase style as a personal necessity and think I will use it with my students when I am trying to get them to capture their own unique voice in writing...thanks... and as always greetings from Mexico...

  5. The image mirrors beautifully what is being conveyed here. Kudos to your friend, Zadie would approve.

  6. YES!!! Style! "Voice!" -- love this post....

  7. Hi dear!
    oh i'll have to go back to previous parts then but i also wanted to thank you for your lovely words of support during convalescence..
    Hasta pronto!

  8. I have been waiting for part 3 with happy anticipation. I absolutely love that last paragraph, although I would not call what that “style” but rather “voice.” Style is a way of writing that may be shared by authors in a genre, but voice should be unique among authors. Voice is quite literally the way that writer sounds; it goes deeper than stylistic choices.

    Zadie Smith has a very distinctive voice, particular to our time and her personality I’m sure. I’m looking forward to part 4.

  9. Wow! I am learning as a writer that sometimes it takes a while to clear my throat so that my voice can be heard. I like Sarah L.'s interpretation of the last paragraph.

  10. I vote for different knowledge and mystery... Every writer, every artist is unique... I'm not sure we can understand the "magic" part of each ;) Thanks for sharing this !

  11. "A" is for Alpha..you gotta have heart!!
    I think style is how you tilt your hat, in writing, in everything..

  12. La clave está en la confianza.
    Oye muy bueno el escrito, fantástica la selección. Son de las cosas que uno guarda por ahí en la mente y luego las arma y desarma, como para darles taller.
    Nos vemos, tony.

    p.d. metiste pa' Shaolin en la foto de allá arriba.

  13. These articles make a person think, CiL, which is more dangerous than driving along an American interstate highway.

    Several years ago, I stopped trying to figure out what separated good fiction from bad fiction or trying to define the intricacies of writing, and decided to concentrate on reading novels that had been around at least several years and still were being read "after their time." The only true test of a novel or of a fiction writer, I think, is the test of time, and all else is hyperbole.

    Very nice to visit you once again ....

  14. Sarah, I agree with you 100%. I, too, would call it 'voice' and we all have one. Many thanks to you all for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.

  15. I completelly agree with what you told. And I would add a couple of things that I think make a good writer:
    -Know your writting skills in the best way you can, accept it and work with that fact.
    -Practice writing as much as you can.
    -I think one of the most important skill a writter must have is the hability to critiscize his own work, he needs to distinguish between the good and the bad things he wrote, in order to choose what to show.
    -Do not be afraid of exploring new things, use your creativity.
    -Develop yor own style, a personal one, that is authentic for you
    -This is the harsh part, there are people who have magic and people who don t in this art. I doubt you can change that.

    I liked a lot this posts, they are very good, thanks for writting them.
    Take care C I L

  16. Oh I really like this! And timeous too. I've been debating style with a fellow writing, talking about how we write and how it often feels that publishers want us to write with some other voice, in order to get maximum market mileage...

  17. Style is definitely writer's way of telling the truth about themselves. And success definitely lies in refinment of consciouseness, so well put!

    It's what we call "the voice" in the blogosphere. We talked about this during one of our blog camps. Most of the blogs have "the voice" that is true and unique to the person writing the blog. It's that voice that attracts us to the blog in the first place, isn't it.

  18. The reason why I liked Sarah's interpretation of style as voice is that a style is certainly easier to copy whereas a voice is unique. I agree with you, Polly, many bloggers have very distinctive voices and that's I seek them out.

    Mariana, you cannot change the magic, but you can certainly adapt it to your own goals. That's your number one.

    Fram, I am revisiting so-called 'classics' and I hope I'm not giving anything away by saying that that is the theme next Tuesday. My desire to go back to these monumental works is to read them, rather than study them; to absorb them without the Damocles's sword of a dissertation hanging upon my head.

    Many thanks to you all for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  19. Ciao Cuban in London, it's a pleasure to meet you!
    I wish to thank you for stopping by my blog to savour Tessa's magic, and furthermore for leaving your lovely comment. Yes, anything associated to pesto gains my admiration. I even dress salad with pesto!

    As for your blog and this delightful post, I can assure you of one thing, I'll return here often. Style vs voice in writing, what a wonderful debate!

    Ciao and again thanks
    Lola xx
    Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino

  20. Many thanks, Lola.

    Greetings from London.

  21. Cubano, I totally agree with every point. Love the illustration, it's exactly how I feel sometimes!

  22. Now that I have been writing steadily for a period of time, my voice and style have changed for the better. This is an excellent post to emphasize this aspect for budding writers.

  23. I'm still "trying on" various styles and voices. Perhaps I should have chosen acting instead. :)



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