The Key to Beautiful Writing: Your Reader's Imagination

Every writer I know would like to write beautifully. I can’t think of single writer who would like to write an ugly sentence or an ugly story. All of these writers are also readers, and they will occasionally talk about having read a beautiful book, or a book that was beautifully written. Writers and readers agree universally that we like beautiful writing, though there is not universal agreement as to which writing is beautiful and which is not – a disagreement that is the true source of writing’s beauty. When we talk about beautiful writing, we sometimes describe it as poetic. This makes sense, though not because poetic language is fancier or more elaborate, but because it requires such economy. After all, the poet simply doesn’t have as much time as the novelist to get the job done. The poet must say what he wants to say in as few words as possible. And so, instead of explaining everything in great detail, the poet uses suggestive detail to point toward what he would like to say, allowing the readers to fill in that distance with their own imagination and thereby experience the joy of discovery when they perceive it.

This why readers will sometimes say of a poem, “I don’t get it.” The poet pointed toward something, but the reader could not see it. So it goes. Every reader comes equipped with their own imagination, their own memories and desires. Every imagination is as useful and capable as every other imagination, but not every imagination has been looking, so to speak, in the same direction. Just as some people will not get certain jokes, some readers simply will not be able to perceive what the writer is trying to show them.

All of which is meant to remind you, dear writer, that there is only so much you can do. No matter how thoroughly you rewrite a passage, no matter how many writing books you read, no matter which MFA program you attended, at some point the reader will get to decide whether they find what you’ve written beautiful or not. Of course I would like to believe that I am capable of writing something so beautiful, something so exquisitely evocative, that every reader of the English language would stand up and agree that I have hit the descriptive bull’s eye. I am not immune to the dream of creative perfection.

But I am also fiercely protective of my own choices. No one else gets to tell me what is beautiful and what is not. No one gets to tell me what I should or shouldn’t read, what I should or shouldn’t write, whom I should or shouldn’t love. My choices are my life and my sovereign right, and if that means Shakespeare doesn’t float my boat, so be it. And so I must grant my readers their sovereignty as well. I must grant them the right to be bored or confused by what I’ve written, or to be entertained and inspired by what I’ve written. I must be willing to give to others whatever I want for myself.

Because in the end, more than to be called a beautiful writer, or to sell a lot of books, or to win a lot of awards – in the end what I want most is to be free. Other people can call my writing beautiful or ugly, can buy my books or give me awards, but only I can grant myself freedom. The blank page is perfect for this reason. The blank page is a perfect space in which to answer the question, “What do I find most beautiful?” To listen honestly for that answer is to be instantly free, to instantly reacquaint myself with what I have always been.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion.

"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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