Writing is so easy. You just put words on a page, and as long as they sound nice next to each other, you're doing great. If it sounds good and makes sense to the reader, do you really need to do anything more?
Yes. Yes, you do.
Because there is a big difference between intelligible writing and good writing.
I come from a science background. While I apparently used to write a whole lot when I was in middle and high school, most of the writing I did after my frontal lobe developed was in the form of lab reports and... well, more lab reports. I can string words together with the best of them, but I wouldn't call myself creative.
As an adult, I've written things like school handbooks and student spotlights and even website copy, and I've done a fine job. I've even been complimented on my writing, which is funny because I'm basically just talking onto a computer screen.
But it's one thing to detail the materials and methods for a science experiment or detail the varied accomplishments of a ninth grader. Writing words that evoke emotions and get readers invested in your story is an entirely different thing. It's the difference between grabbing a magazine, reading a paragraph, and tossing it back on top of the stack, and rushing home after work so you can cozy up on the couch with a blanket on your lap and your book in your hand.
I don't know if I've ever finished a magazine article. There are books on my shelf I've devoured in a handful of hours.
Best I can estimate, the difference comes down to description. How the writer describes the setting, the events, the character's feelings and reactions, makes a huge difference in the way we connect with the writing.
Am I reading a list of details, or am I experiencing them the way the character would? Am I reading the way the character felt, or am I feeling it for myself? The closer I can get to experiencing exactly what the character does, the more connected I feel to the story and the more likely I am to finish whatever it is I'm reading.
I wrote an essay recently for entry into a competition. I spent a good deal of time on it. It was good. I got really great feedback on it from my beta readers (read: a handful of friends who are gracious enough to read my drafts and encourage me through all my self-doubt). But I knew there was something missing. A writer friend and my favorite editor of all-time gave me the push I needed. "It needs to be more vulnerable."
How do I do that? I bring the reader along with me.
Instead of telling the reader I felt frustrated, I needed to describe the feeling that frustration gave me: "Rage sweeps through my veins and it’s only because of the effort it took to get three children to sleep at a reasonable time that I don’t explode ten years of frustration all over the room..."
Rather than telling the reader how anxious I get leaving my kids with someone while I work, I get specific: "Do the kids have all their school supplies? Is the baby crying too much? Eating too little? When there’s an issue with one of the children, or with the babysitter, I leave and come home."
I didn't talk about the cold leather sofa where I was sitting. I used details of the sofa in my story to bolster the emotional resonance I was describing: "I blink, and tears roll down my cheeks, soaking into the blanket I’ve wrapped around myself. Worn leather stretches between us in a gulf so wide we might as well be on opposite sides of the world."
I watched a video from one of my favorite writers and humans, Rachael Herron, yesterday, that aligns pretty perfectly with this aim: Get Rid of the Word Felt. When you're telling the audience how you (or a character) felt (or what they thought, realized, smelled, tasted, etc.), you're increasing distance and decreasing empathy between reader and character.
"I smelled chocolate" might become, "I inhaled great gulps of the aroma from the nearby chocolate factory every time I surfaced for a breath."
"Lucinda felt a sharp crack at the base of her skull" could instead be, "A sharp crack at the base of Lucinda's skull sent her vision into darkness."
You get the picture.
Readers, don't think about this too hard. I'm famous for ruining reading with all my talk about writing craft, but I don't want that happening to you. However, if you find yourself immersed in someone else's writing, I can bet part of the reason is that they've allowed you to get nice and close with the character.
Writers, think about this quite a bit. If you're writing something other than a scientific paper, I am willing to bet your work could benefit from a quick pass for closeness. A few small tweaks might be all you need to take your reader by the hand on your journey rather than making them sit in the audience.
As always, I would love to know your thoughts as readers and writers in the comments below!
(Oh - did I mention, that essay won an award? Casual.)