Many moons ago I attended a fundraising dinner for NUI Galway in New York city. I was fortunate enough to sit beside a journalist who told me that good writing is as rare as hen’s teeth. And he was right.
Good writers are not born, they are grown. People who are interested in reading, in “seeing” a story, naturally progress into writing. My interest began when I could see a story playing in my head like a movie, very clearly. I remember two specific moments in elementary school when I I could see the imagery the words depicted, and then I wanted to do the same.
The first was when a school inspector, we called him “An cigire,” came to visit and read the poem The Listeners by Walter de la Mare to the class, with the instructions that we should draw a picture of what we saw as he read the poem. I was in fifth class, about eleven years old. The imagery that stuck in my head as he read was, “the forest’s ferny floor.”
The second instance was when another student read a piece she had plagiarized from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I didn’t know, or care, at the time that the student had plagiarized it, but I sure as heck loved the imagery of the spring growth occurring so fast that the protagonist could feel the fresh shoots pushing up from beneath her feet. In fact, I admired the student’s taste in books, and I immediately went and read The Secret Garden.
Back to “As Rare As Hen’s Teeth”— Good writing isn’t just about telling a story, it isn’t just about adhering to the rules. For me, good writing is about the emotion in a piece, how I feel reading it. Be it the densely poetic language of John Banville’s The Sea or the sparse verbiage of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a well written book isn’t something I sit and read, it is something I “put on,” like a coat, and wear for the duration of the story. I live in that world until the story ends. That to me is good writing, the ability to transport, the ability to let you see and feel the story.
I started to look very differently at my own writing, and how it needed to change. A sentence became pieces of a jig-saw puzzle that I could move around to make it look, sound, and flow better. Sentence variation became part of my revision process, after spell checking, grammar checking, and my greatest sin of all, checking for use of the passive voice.
The best book, in my opinion, to help writers develop a sense of how to vary sentences, is a book called The Art of Styling Sentences by Sullivan and Longknfe. The book is intended for language arts teachers, and anyone who has tried to be a good writer knows that writers are students of this craft forever, and good writers are, “as rare as hen’s teeth.”