Great writing, without exception, has four essential elements — subject, significance, structure, and style.
William Faulkner said this about learning to write: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.” So that’s what we’re going to do in the next few minutes – we are going to read parts of a very successful piece of writing and pick the writing apart just a bit. We’re going to note aspects of these 4 S’s of great writing in it, and hopefully, as Faulkner says, absorb it so that we can use some of these techniques in our own writing.
The first is subject. Subject is, quite simply, what the piece is about. It’s the topic. Some authors tell us their topic in the title; War and Peace is a good example. How to Win Friends and Influence People tells us in the title that the book is about how to win friends and influence people. Moby Dick is about a whale. Seabiscuit is about a horse.
The subject is the first thing a writer must consider when sitting down to write: What is this going to be about? And it is often the first thing a reader considers when deciding what to read. The reason subject is one of the four essential elements of great writing is that the subject is what gives the piece its purpose for existing.
The second S is significance. Significance addresses the question, “What does this book or article or poem mean to me?” In today’s society, where we’re bombarded with information, we are forced to filter out the things that are insignificant to us. Think about your emails. Do you scroll through, quickly deleting without even reading most of them? Why? Because those particular ones aren’t significant to you. And you don’t have time to read things that aren’t important. If you think about it, when you’re standing in front of the new arrivals table at Barnes and Noble, you are drawn to books that have some kernel of significance for you. And writers have to pick topics significant to a large audience if they hope to sell books. During a trip to Books-A-Million last fall, I noticed that the hardcover bestseller list had 4-5 books about politics. Why? Because we were in the heat of a presidential election. The paperback bestseller list was dominated by the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy and several knockoffs, none of them very well-written books, in my opinion, but that just goes to show how important subject and significance are to book sales.
The third S is structure. That’s the way the piece is built, the way it’s put together. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love (which has sold about 8 million copies) is divided into three sections — they’re called Eat and Pray and Love – and each section corresponds to a particular country in her journey – Italy for Eat, India for Pray, and Indonesia for Love. And each of those sections is divided into thirty-six small chapters. It’s a carefully structured book, and structure so important to the author that she even went to the trouble of pointing it out in her introduction. Other examples of ways to structure a work would be reverse chronology, where the plot is revealed in reverse order. The film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett, is done this way. A journey or a quest is another classic structure. Familiar examples of a quest would be The Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Rings. There are a hundred different ways to structure what you write, but make no mistake: great writing IS meticulously structured.
The fourth and final S is style. And style encompasses several aspects of writing. One is the author’s tone – does he or she sound happy, angry, hopeful, frustrated or sad? Is the piece serious or funny? Does the writer use elevated language, or is it more direct and plain-spoken? Are the sentences long, short, do they vary in length? Does the author employ stylistic elements such as simile, metaphor, and hyperbole? The writer’s attitude toward the subject is also a stylistic issue. Now, writers have to use their unique voice, but style is often heavily dependent upon the subject.
Good readers make good writers. And that means they read analytically, picking out the four S’s that comprise good writing – subject, significance, structure, and style – and they pay attention to these elements in their own writing. Next time you pick up something to read, think about those four elements. See if the writer paid attention to them, and see if they contribute to the work’s success. And then experiment in your own writing with how to put the 4 S’s to the best possible use.