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.

Publication date: February 13, 2013