Personally, I enjoy beautiful writing. A few years ago, I was reading Faulkner on a bus. Liz read one page and said, “Yuck. So confusing. Do you even understand that?”
“Sometimes. He writes so beautifully, though,” I said.
There's something about beautiful writing that makes us want to read it. Perhaps Faulkner's not your favorite, but have you ever read something where you just said, “Wow,” and immediately knew you were reading a true master?
What is it about beautiful writing that is beautiful? Is beauty just in the eye of the beholder? In other words, are we culturally conditioned to think some writing is beautiful? Or is there something universal in beautiful writing, something that exists beyond cultural relativity and is inherent in all human perceptions?
A Darwinian Theory of Beauty
I watched a fascinating TED talk recently by Denis Dutton called A Darwinian Theory of Beauty (you should watch it).
Denis Dutton was a philosopher of art at University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and in his talk, he reverse-engineers two main reasons why humans interpret beauty as beautiful. In this article, we're applying his theory to writing.
Why is beautiful writing beautiful? Here are two reasons:
1. Beautiful Writing Helps Us Survive
Dutton argues beauty is our instinct's way to help us survive. When surveyed, people from every culture will say the paintings they find most beautiful are landscapes, and in particular, paintings of rolling, savannah grasslands bordered by a small copse of trees, bearing signs of wildlife, and fresh water in the distance. In other words, a perfect eco-system for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to thrive in.
We are attracted to that which is good for our survival.
While reading the opening scene of Oscar Wilde's A Picture of Dorian Gray, set within a fragrant, blooming, English garden in Spring, I remember thinking, “This is beautiful writing.” It wasn't just the writing that was perfectly evocative, it was the subject. The scene Wilde described so well was simply beautiful.
How do you write beautifully then? Describe beautiful subjects, especially beautiful landscapes and beautiful people.
2. Virtuoso Writing Shows Our Feathers
A peacock's tail feathers serve no survival benefit. They do not help him find food or escape predators. Instead, they serve as a fitness sign to female pea hens. Similarly, humans perceive beauty not just in that which is good for our survival but in displays of skill and strength.
When great writers write with skill, showing intelligence, surprise, and command of language, they show a kind of intellectual virility. As Dutton says, “Human beings have a permanent, innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.”
To put it bluntly, good writing is sexy. (Share that on Twitter?)
What do you find beautiful about great writing?
Write beautifully. Describe a landscape or show off your virtuoso style for fifteen minutes.
When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to give feedback on a few practices by other writers.