Examples of beautiful writing
April 29, 2013 10:02 PM   Subscribe

I aspire to write beautifully -- what is some great writing that uses colorful, creative language and style?

I’m a college kid, and I find that my writing is not very pleasing. I write...functionally, but not beautifully. My writing style is bland, lacking character, overly straightforward and structurally simple, and my vocabulary is terribly boring. While this is fine for school papers, I crave the satisfaction of being able to write well -- being able to write things that I find beautiful and want to read again and share with others.

I recently read a short non-fiction work by E. B. White (linked to on Mefi recently). The writing is fantastic, and the way the ideas are expressed is so imaginative and colorful -- completely new to me! Another work I've come across that had the same feeling (even in translation!) was Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg. I aspire to write like this, and want to read more works written with such refreshing and captivating use of language!

Help me expand my linguistic horizons -- What else can I read to get an idea of colorful, creative, enchanting writing?
posted by switcheroo to Writing & Language (53 answers total) 147 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Anything by Michael Chabon.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:04 PM on April 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm reading Octavia Butler's Patternist series right now. Her writing is beautiful. But simple! It's easy to mistakenly assume that florid, heavily descriptive language and a vocabulary that allows you to dispense just the right word in just the right slot is what will make the writing beautiful. But it is actually the well-crafted-ness of a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that makes the writing beautiful.

So, highly recommend Octavia Butler. And maybe a writing style guide like Nora Bacon's "The Well Crafted Sentence" but really I think you've got the right idea with wanting to read things that are beautiful.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:06 PM on April 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Night Circus. It's been a long time since I've read something that so ignited my imagination. You won't regret it.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:09 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thomas Pynchon
posted by empath at 10:11 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: P.G. Wodehouse!
posted by Sys Rq at 10:12 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Robertson Davies! and 2nding P.G.Wodehouse
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:21 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Douglas Adams.
posted by town of cats at 10:25 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nabokov, even in his nth language, could write a beautiful sentence. Read Lolita.
posted by carsonb at 10:27 PM on April 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think I've ever read anything that can take my breath away for sheer beauty like the work of Willa Cather. This is from My Ántonia, published 1918:
Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda's grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence-- the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.

posted by cairdeas at 10:29 PM on April 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

Oh, prose style. That's a hard one. There's a lot you could take from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories, and from the short story form more generally, because it grants little room for sentences without cadence or music or heft.
posted by holgate at 10:44 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

The first thing I remember reading and noticing the beauty of the prose was Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell. I don't remember how old I was, maybe 12 or 13, certainly not yet out of high school. I read it again some 30 years later and was impressed all over again.

Every now and then when reading John McPhee I think, "This is not just (very high order) journalism, this is prose.

Use of Weapons, by Iain Banks?

I often recommend Lois Bujold here. Not all of her work is beautiful, maybe even not much of it, but some of it is. "... like some strange, spiky gift, too sharp to hold, too precious to drop." "My home is not a place. It is a person."
posted by Bruce H. at 10:47 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: Salman Rushdie, especially Midnight's Children! The pleasure of language in the book is palpable and a sheer joy for the reader. An example:

"But here, refusing to wait its turn, is another taxi, pausing outside another fort, unloading its cargo of three men in business suits, each carrying a bulky grey bag under his coat… one man long as a life and thin as a lie, a second who seems to lack a spine, and a third whose lower lip juts, whose belly tends to squashiness, whose hair is thinning and greasy and worming over the tops of his hears, and between whose eyebrows is the telltale furrow that will, as he ages, deepen into the scar of a bitter, angry man."
posted by strangeloops at 10:50 PM on April 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

And I'm sure that a lot of the suggestions will tend towards long sentences composed fromcarefully balanced clauses, as it's a fine indication of good prose style, but that's not all there is. There's Hemingway's starkness and the grotesquery of Martin Amis at his peak in London Fields and Ballard and Burgess and all sorts of other prose with a deliberately jagged, bleak beauty.
posted by holgate at 11:01 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
Eva Figes, Light
Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star (Pontiero translation)
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:01 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

The article Out in the Great Alone was recently linked on MeFi, and it is just gorgeous.

Cormac McCarthy's prose is very florid and dense, which doesn't suit everyone's taste, but contains some lovely cadences--it's the kind of phrasing that's best read aloud. From Blood Meridian:
In the evening they came out upon a mesa that overlooked all the country to the north. The sun to the west lay in a holocaust where there rose a steady column of small desert bats and to the north along the trembling perimeter of the world dust was blowing down the void like the smoke of distant armies. The crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and herds of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor.
That said, there's beauty in complexity and simplicity. You shouldn't rely solely on fancy words. Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has fairly simple vocabulary and structure, but the writing carries a certain casual punch to the soul and I keep going back to reread it.

The Cabala and The Woman of Andros by Thornton Wilder, the latter of which has one of my favorite quotes:
He had been asking himself in astonishment wherein had lain his joy and his triumph of the few nights before: how could he have once been so sure of the beauty of existence? And some words of Chrysis returned to him. He recalled how she had touched the hand of a young guest who had returned from an absence, having lost his sister, and how she had said to him in a low voice, so as not to embarrass those others present who had never known a loss: "You were happy with her once; do not doubt that the conviction at the heart of your happiness was as real as the conviction at the heart of your sorrow." Pamphilus knew that out of these fragments he must assemble during the succeeding nights sufficient strength... But in confusion and with flagging courage he repeated: "I praise all living, the bright and the dark."
Also, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. I third P.G. Wodehouse and add in Kyril Bonfiglioli, whose character Charlie Mortdecai is like the criminal flipside of Bertie Wooster. Both are utterly hilarious.

Nonfiction writers: Norman Maclean, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, James Baldwin...
posted by ilicet at 11:05 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: And while you're reading EB White, do not fail to read "The Geese", in Essays of EB White. I laughed so hard I thought I was going to hurt myself. Paul Theroux didn't like it, but screw him, nothing of his ever made me laugh like that.
posted by Bruce H. at 11:06 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Tom Robbins

His writing "voice" really stood out to me, for better or worse. I didn't care too much for the stories, but I remember especially liking the sentences.
posted by TangoCharlie at 11:19 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

(Tangent: simple writing is good! No one complains about writing being to concise or understandable. Keep writing simply and eventually your simple writing may take on the poetic properties you're looking for. Or not. It'll always be your writing, and you'll always be hard on it. Just keep doing it!)
posted by TangoCharlie at 11:25 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, I thought instantly of Rushdie as well.
posted by threeants at 11:26 PM on April 29, 2013

Nthing Willa Cather. This is a very personal thing - your answers will be all over the map. In no particular order below

Italo Calvino - If on a Winter's Night
Natsume Soseki - especially The Grass Pillow (or Three Cornered World depending on edition)
Ryunosuke Akutagawa - short stories
Yasunari Kawabata - House of Sleeping Beauties
J.M Coetzee - Disgrace
Thomas Mann - The Magic Mountain, or any of them really,
Mervyn Peake - Gormenghast trilogy
Emile Zola - Germinal (more colour than you can shake a stick at)
Honore de Balzac - Pere Goriot
Niall Duthie - Lobster Moth
Chekhov - short stories
William Falukner - As I lay Dying
Robert Pen Warren - All the King's Men
Karen Blixen - Seven Gothic Tales (could go for Out of Africa, but the former is more interesting imho)
Carlo Levi - Christ stopped at Eboli
John Fowles - The Magus (there is something singular about his style, all his books have it to a greater or lesser degree)
Jean Rhys - Wide Sargasso Sea
posted by smoke at 11:28 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you like E.B. White you'll definitely enjoy John McPhee.

Maybe also C.S. Lewis and George Orwell, especially their nonfiction. Both had a very plain, functional writing style, but all of the pieces fit together exactly right and do exactly what they're supposed to, and there's something incredibly satisfying about that. Think of them as White's slightly-less-showy cousins.

On the fiction side of things, I've always admired Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham. Again, both wrote in a very plain and undecorated style, but with perfect clarity and balance. Same with Shirley Jackson.

And if you're at all interested in modern philosophy, try W.V.O. Quine and Thomas Nagel.

I'm recommending people with a spare, clear style because it sounds like you're looking for people to imitate for academic-type writing. If you're reading for fun, or you want role models for creative writing, then yeah by all means go for Rushdie and Pynchon and Woolf and Tom Robbins and all them too. (Also: Zadie Smith.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:48 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Priscilla Long's The Writer's Portable Mentor is chock-full of examples and exercises and is the single best book I own on how to personal-train your writing style (fiction or nonfiction) for greater muscularity, clarity and beauty.
posted by stuck on an island at 12:25 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't forget Don Delillo and Cynthia Ozick! Jonathan Safran Foer!
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 3:33 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Apropos of this thread, Willa Cather's letters have just been published. Allow me to toss in some wild-cards from my favorite nature writers: Henry Beston and Annie Dillard.
posted by jquinby at 4:58 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Plainsong by Kent Haruf.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 5:25 AM on April 30, 2013

Marija Gimbutas, a well-known archaeologist who specialized in European prehistory, wrote wonderfully in English even though it wasn't her native language. An academic library should have a number of short books by her on various archaeological topics. In particular I remember her books on the early history of Lithuania and the Vinča culture.

(I stumbled across one of her books in college because I was looking up information about something she'd researched and then started reading other ones just because I liked them so much. There are other academic writers like that. She's somebody I remember being particularly impressed by.)
posted by nangar at 5:34 AM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: I suspect you're right to read, read and keep reading (and there are some great recommendations in this thread). I second the suggestion to write, and keep writing though, because that's where you'll find your own voice.

The most lasting and vivid experiences of scent and scenery I've read come from Hemingway, who is not known for flowery language. If you know what you mean to communicate, make every word count for something, and trust your audience, you'll be a much better writer than most.
posted by whoiam at 5:47 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not one who normally gets verklempt over a piece of writing just for the writing itself, but Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is so exquisitely beautiful, without any flowery style or manipulation, that it moved me to tears.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 6:04 AM on April 30, 2013

The best book I've ever read about this idea is "Spunk and Bite." My copy is dog-eared and highlighted all to hell.
posted by jbickers at 6:16 AM on April 30, 2013

George Eliot, Middlemarch
Thoreau, Walden
Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell
Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Montaigne, Essays
posted by seemoreglass at 6:19 AM on April 30, 2013

Response by poster: :D Thanks everyone! Please keep on with the suggestions. I'll mark more as best answer as I have time to read all these books!

Also, the other suggestions for my (not asked) question, how to become better at writing, are welcome too. I strategically didn't ask that because I didn't want to distract from getting good reading recommendations. Thanks again!
posted by switcheroo at 6:21 AM on April 30, 2013

Anything by Pat Conroy, particularly Beach Music and the Prince of Tides. I've never felt so ensconced by sentences -- some of them swallow you whole. He is truly an artist of words. I borrowed both of those books, and ended up buying the hard covers anyway.
posted by eenagy at 6:55 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another vote for Italo Calvino. His words bend space and time, whether it be figuratively via narrative (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler) or literally through space-fables (Cosmicomics).

I feel like I can see a new color for a few days after reading his work.
posted by Turkey Glue at 7:31 AM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding Cynthia Ozick - her writing is so strange and alien and different to me. It doesn't read realistically to me, just beautifully.
posted by taltalim at 8:02 AM on April 30, 2013

Jeanette Winterson
posted by dizziest at 8:10 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

As with all skills, the real improvement will come with "deliberate practice." Once you've collected the great examples from this thread, I'd recommend a course of good old imitation. One source for ideas on this is the book,The Writer's Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better Writing, by Prof. Gregory L. Roper. Your first dozen attempts won't produce the prose you want, but you'll be building the muscles you need for when inspiration comes.
posted by mabelstreet at 8:36 AM on April 30, 2013

Gabriel García Márquez
Rohinton Mistry

For learning how to write, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:42 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I feel like I can see a new color for a few days after reading his work.

Can I nominate this sentence?
posted by DigDoug at 9:01 AM on April 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Nthing the "write and keep writing" advice. But a good book to play with in terms of writing exercises may be Lynda Barry's What It Is - it's really good for reminding you exactly what power image has in writing. Describing a carefully chosen image can pack a huge wallop writing-wise - trying to write about "How I felt when I was leaving my childhood behind" can trick you into a book-report dry kind of thing, but describing yourself standing on the crest of a hill, looking disappointedly down at the plain old ordinary field you'd just crossed a woods to get to when you were twelve because somehow you had incorrectly convinced yourself that maybe Narnia may be there when you got to the top and looked over, that's something else again.

Another really good writing book in general is "On Writing" by Stephen King.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:02 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding: Marilynne Robinson (esp. Housekeeping if you like eeriness), Annie Dillard (esp. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek if you like breathlessness), and Virginia Woolf (esp. To the Lighthouse and The Waves).

Adding: Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (for lush beauty), and W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (for austere beauty).
posted by Beardman at 9:48 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reading Anne Carson's poetry before I sit down to write (prose) tends to inspire me to take more risks/push myself with my use of language.
posted by dearwassily at 9:57 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you are interested in descriptive, take-you-there prose, I cannot recommend Dorothy Dunnett enough. She writes in a very complex style that a lot of people find difficult going, but it is intentional and once you get settled in it absolutely will not let you go. She writes scarily accurate historical fiction and, weirdly, I learned a lot about being able to inject place- and time-feeling (and humor!) into my academic writing through reading her work.

(She also has a reputation as an author's author, and at least some of her proteges are mentioned in this thread: Louis McMaster Bujold, Guy Gavriel Kay, Megan Whalen Turner, Mary Doria Russell, Neal Stephenson, Jacqueline Carey and at least several others all credit her with being a driving influence on their own styles and work.)

“It was a French Christmas; a debonair Christmas full of frolic and folly; a spry, Gallic, unctuous Christmas. Henry of France, at last roused to boldness and the cunning exercise of spite, had sent a small fleet to Scotland, and in it money for the Queen Dowager, and French military experts for her guidance and the better security of her fortresses. The military experts, tricked out in scent and white satin, danced like well-mannered clouds and talked in the Council Chamber of chests of money and major landings of troops waiting to come with better weather. The Government blew a sigh of relief, eyed the cut of the white satin and, flinging its armour out of the window, bawled for its valet.”
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:40 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing Lolita. It's a book a read aloud to my cats so that I can savor the words in my mouth.
posted by janey47 at 12:05 PM on April 30, 2013

Anything by William Hazlitt.
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 3:06 PM on April 30, 2013

H.L. Mencken is an exhilarating prose stylist, with a distinctively American voice and a thunderous, bombastic sense of humor. If you want to learn how to excite and invigorate your language, read Prejudices, his collected essays.
posted by Mendl at 4:22 PM on April 30, 2013

Seconding Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Last time I tried to read 100 Years of Solitude I could only take it in a few pages at a time, the language was so lovely and intense.

Thanks for asking this, by the way! Can't wait to explore the recommendations.
posted by Sublimity at 4:32 PM on April 30, 2013

My vote is for Graham Greene.

The first novel I read of his was The Quiet American (excerpt here). I was interested in reading something by Graham Greene, and while I thought the subject matter of that particular novel might bore me (bah, war stories), there were no copies of The End of the Affair in the used bookstore I was browsing where I purchased a well-worn copy.

Later, I found I couldn't put it down.

I would describe Greene's style as sentimental without being maudlin and clever without being obtuse. There is also an element of suspense to his novels that I like as well.
posted by sevenofspades at 4:38 PM on April 30, 2013

Seconding Graham Greene. I also really love G.K. Chesterton. When he is at his best, his writing is ridiculously beautiful:
There are thrilling moments, doubtless, for the spectator, the amateur, and the aesthete; but there is one thrill that is known only to the soldier who fights for his own flag, to the aesthetic who starves himself for his own illumination, to the lover who makes finally his own choice. And it is this transfiguring self-discipline that makes the vow a truly sane thing. It must have satisfied even the giant hunger of the soul of a lover or a poet to know that in consequence of some one instant of decision that strange chain would hang for centuries in the Alps among the silences of stars and snows. All around us is the city of small sins, abounding in backways and retreats, but surely, sooner or later, the towering flame will rise from the harbour announcing that the reign of the cowards is over and a man is burning his ships.
posted by kingfishers catch fire at 5:12 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mark Helprin! Winter's Tale was the book that changed me into a person who looks for that kind of writing. Oh, it's wonderful.

Also, I used to work as a volunteer copyeditor where a lot of the writers were in college, and I know we improved a lot of people's writing by forcing them to be descriptive. Many times we'd make them describe the same or very similar things over and over, finding different details to bring out every time.

This is not something you learn from academic writing. You have to form those creative-writing pathways in the brain before it's easy to use them.

After that, we'd try to focus on cadence. Mix up long and short words, combining the straightforward with the lyrical. If there are songs you love for their lyrics, try typing out those lyrics while listening to the songs, feeling the rhythm of the words and the way they fit together.
posted by kostia at 7:40 PM on April 30, 2013

Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things did this for me.
posted by ella_minnow at 10:23 AM on May 1, 2013

Best answer: Some really good examples in this thread: http://www.metafilter.com/69756/Things-Vital-to-the-Honor-of-Human-Life

Nthing Willa Cather, Nabokov, Chabon, and Annie Dillard. Also want to recommend Peter Matthiessen:
“Soon the child’s clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions, and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day, we become seekers.”
posted by AceRock at 11:06 AM on May 1, 2013

there's a truth that great writing has as much to do with the reader as the writer, which this thread is doing nothing dispel in me, as I note a few names whose verbiage I truly cannot abide. But there you go. We're not all looking for the same thing when we pick up a book (open a file).

Which gets us to what I think is the best advice thus far in this thread (stated more than once), which is to write, keep at it, keep writing, and while you're at it, keep reading, read every author mentioned thus far and a pile of others. Because one quote that I can't quite seem to shake off goes something like "true wisdom requires losing track of one's sources". That is, you won't really be that beautiful writer you wish to be until the stuff just sort of spills out of you as you need it. It may be a sentence long chapter the like of which a Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have conjured. It might be a single five word sentence care of someone like Hemingway.

Either way, don't expect it to just happen. There will be editing required.

Also, Kem Nunn. Start with Dogs Of Winter.
posted by philip-random at 12:34 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

You learn from the play of the mind on the world. Read Chapter 1 (just 3 paragraphs) of A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway pares away all details except those few that fire the imagination and bring the scene to life.

It's not easy. You take away everything. Then put one thing at a time back and ask whether the reader will use it as a hook to conjure up the rest of the scene. The ability to do this develops slowly, and even the best writers work on a book for years to get everything just right.

Listen to your grandparents. They've polished and sharpened their stories over a lifetime.

I'll never forget the moment in law school when I read Learned Hand's dazzling opinion in The T.J. Hooper, where every word moves in the same direction in an irresistible current. It's not easy reading, but once you get into the rhythm, you want to cheer at the end of each paragraph from the force of Hand's mind and the accuracy of the details he chooses.
posted by KRS at 4:34 PM on November 16, 2013

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