How do you take your writing from mundane to transcendent? Incorporating these seven attributes of exquisite writing is a start.

Read this beautiful opening paragraph from Sandra Cisneros’ story, “My Friend Lucy Who Smells Like Corn.”

Lucy Anguiano, Texas girl who smells like corn, like Frito Bandito chips, like tortillas, something like that warm smell of nixtamal or bread the way her head smells when she’s leaning close to you over a paper cut-out doll or on the porch when we are squatting over marbles trading this pretty crystal that leaves a blue star on your head for that giant cat-eye with a grasshopper green spiral in the center like the juice of bugs on the windshield when you drive to the border, like the yellow blood of butterflies.

Every story in the collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories has the seven brilliant attributes that are hallmarks of great writing. Cisneros is such an accomplished writer, they are evident in her first sentence.

Exceptional word choice

Cisneros selects words that arouse the senses: you can smell the Frito Bandito chips, tortillas, and nixtamal. You can feel the smooth coolness of the marbles rolling around in your hand. She uses jewel words to spark the imagination: cat-eye, grasshopper green spiral, juice of bugs, and yellow blood of butterflies. Her language is concrete, creative, and colorful.

Beautiful, clear phrasing

All 93 words of this first paragraph flow out in a single, beautiful sentence. It’s poetic and easy-to-grasp, despite its considerable length. This is because Cisneros sculpts her prose in phrases. Here, they work to imitate the chatter of small kids, breathless, enthusiastic, and innocent. Her sentence is fitted together so it rolls off the tongue in a lovely rhythm: “… the way her head smells when she’s leaning close to you over a paper cut-out doll …”

Less is more

These 93 words tell us loads. Much more than she has to tell us explicitly. As readers, we are filling in details that help bring the scene to life. She makes us understand they are both young, by the way they squat and the games they play. We know they intensely like each other, a key dimension to the flavor of the story. We know they play game after game. One is the leader, perhaps, and one is keenly observant and feels lucky. We are pulled into the scene by the vision of a perfect childhood friendship, the kind that is remembered forever and is the object of envy. We get the inkling they are poor and making the best of a limited situation. We get a picture of Lucy’s ethnicity. We know they are familiar with “a border” and even though she never mentions it, we know it’s Mexico.

Intense verbal imagery

Cisneros picks a common scenario, kids playing, and uses it to paint vivid image, full of motion. In our heads, we see two young girls, heads close together in friendship and concentration, squatting, palming marbles.

The extraordinary ordinary

Her subject matter is commonplace. Millions of little girls play together. But she succeeds in making it exceptional. Who thinks of their friend smelling of corn, something so homey and warm and huggable? Linking Lucy to food gives comfort. You can relate to the idea, it’s totally familiar and yet uniquely observed.

Cisneros excels at making the ordinary extraordinary. Her topics include: turning eleven, a boy at school, going to the movies, playing with Barbies, going to church. Everyone does these things, but Cisneros repeatedly makes these events magical by creating unique characters with strong emotions and using a backdrop of extreme situations, like poverty, and inserting colorful details drawn from religious and ethnic identity.

Universal message

Each small snippet of life told in these short stories has a universal message; the whole book is about love and finding your way in the world.

Authentic voice

All of these aspects contribute to the voice found in this book. It is unique and widely celebrated.

Final thoughts

Look at your own work and stack it up against these seven attributes of exquisite writing. How do you fare? Are there aspects you could strengthen? These are your goals: use exceptional words, develop beautiful and clear phrasing, make more out of less, craft intense verbal images, make the ordinary extraordinary, establish an authentic voice, and convey a universal message.


The End


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Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 39 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process:

38 thoughts on “Seven Attributes Of Exquisite Writing

  1. Jenifer says:

    Nicely written Dawn. Thanks for this. I especially love the excerpt you chose to use to portray the attributes. I’ve not read anything by Cisneros but now I will seek out some of her work, thanks to you and this post.

    1. Dawn Field says:

      Thank you! She is a widely read author and used at many universities as ‘essential reading’. Best, these are all very short stories, so you can dip in and out — the language is just beautiful. It’s important for all writers to find and read language they find beautiful. Hopefully, you already have a long list!

  2. Chris says:

    I didn’t think it was exquisite–just a too long, run on sentence full of images,not all of them enticing..

    1. Frenchie says:

      Thank you for saying it first. And, in fact, it is not even clear that it is little girls (plural) who are playing together. Myself? At that young age? A tomboy! The blue star on the forehead? Huh?

      Now, at the risk of seeming “braggadocious,” I must say I am an avid reader, nay, a voracious reader who savors language/imagery.

      The above? A mess! Not impressed…

      1. Dawn Field says:

        Many would disagree — but to be fair to all reading this post — it works much better if you have the whole story — the whole book — if your hand! Then it makes more sense. But, each to his or her own in terms of preferences! Still, this is a unique ‘voice’.

    2. Dawn Field says:

      She is such a lauded author, it’s very interesting you get this impression! Each to his or her own when it comes to loving particular language and this is a lesson to even the best authors — all readers like different things. Thanks for giving your opinion.

  3. Carol E. Sullivan says:

    Carol Sullivan – am interested in having a selection of poetry published. I am a newly published author, having recently had my childhood story published in the Warwick Beacon (Rhode Island) along with beautiful colored photos highlighting my efforts; and those folks nearest and dearest to me during childhood. The Beacon is the “best and only newspaper” that we have here in Rhode Island and is owned and operated by Editor, John Howell. The story was a wonderful and totally unexpected experience. However, poetry is my favorite choice when it comes to writing. I have amassed a small poetry collection, accumulated over many years, and would value your opinion.

  4. Wendy says:

    Ick. One man’s treasure is another man’s trash and all that. “Beautiful”? Try “excessively wordy.” An opening like that, and I get out the red pen and start slashing.

    1. Dawn Field says:

      This is for sure literary fiction — almost poetry — it’s cool if you like other styles. The more diverse literature you read, the more you know your own preferences! It’s good if you know what you like. Usually, I’m all for red pen, but I don’t know a single word I’d drop from this (entire book!).

  5. Gay perkibs says:

    Cisneros’ “ sentence” is not really a sentence—no verb. And I noticed a dangling participle, so while the imagery is nice and the rambling sounds child-like, it is not only not s sentence but not a paragraph either. It’s also hard to follow.

    1. Dawn Field says:

      The best know when to break the rules!

  6. louise berry says:

    the sentence is convulated and confusing
    ‘that warm smell of nixtamal or bread the way her head smells ‘
    I would not be enticed to read further

    1. Frenchie says:

      Uh, what’s nixtamal? Would a child that young (young enough to squat while playing) even know the word? I must confess I assumed it was some form of weed killer. Should the reader drop everything in that first rambling and google “nixtamal?”

      As an act of charity, I have just done so. I won’t bore you with the definition since it adds precisely nothing to sensory “enjoyment” of the wall of words.

      By the way, j’adore literary fiction so am not a martinette when it comes to “hooking” the reader. I am content to let the story/vision/experience unfold. However, arcane words serve no purpose.

      1. Dawn Field says:

        ah…I lived in California a long time…and this is all perfect Mexican to me…a great smell…and food…home…shows you how local vocabulary/culture influences writers and the pictures we can build in our minds!

  7. You’ve got to be kidding. That’s one of the worst sentences I’ve ever read.

    1. Dawn Field says:

      I love your honesty! Why exactly? What’s do off about it? It’s literary fiction….is it because you read it out of context, I wonder? I should have perhaps given an introduction to the book and the author….

  8. James Ward says:

    I’m not sure this is exquisite writing. It would make a very good poem.

    Of course, all this sort of thing is subjective. But there are definitely things to be said against this passage. I’ll say them, not because I disagree with Dr Field, or from any negative assessment of Sandra Cisneros’s writing, but simply for the sake of balance.

    Firstly, over a third of the passage is about how Lucy smells. But we may not need to know this, since the title tells us how she smells. She smells like corn. Piling simile on simile doesn’t usually give a clearer picture, and I don’t think it does here. A lot of the items in the list are roughly interchangeable.

    I don’t find this clause at all clear: “…when we are squatting over marbles trading this pretty crystal that leaves a blue star on your head for that giant cat-eye with a grasshopper green spiral in the center like the juice of bugs on the windshield when you drive to the border, like the yellow blood of butterflies”.

    I would imagine that the “pretty crystal” is another term for the marbles. But I genuinely have no idea what the “blue star on your head for that giant cat-eye with a grasshopper green spiral in the center like the juice of bugs on the windshield” is. Cat’s eyes don’t have spirals in the center. And when bugs fly onto a windscreen, they don’t become spirals either. I would assume I’ve misunderstood here, but it does point to a lack of clarity. I disagree with Dr Field that it is easy-to-grasp. But that may be me! 🙂

    We can’t necessarily assume that we have two children here, either. The narrative voice sounds rather like Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury.

    1. Frenchie says:

      Well said!

    2. Dawn Field says:

      oh wow — to me these are so clearly two children – and the colors are all about the marbles. I had marbles as a kid and I can see them in my mind, shimming, glassy, like she describes them. This is such an evocative set of images to me. But then again I’ve read and enjoyed the whole book. This is a BIG lesson (to me and all) about taking one sentence out of context! Thanks for your opinions…

  9. River Daniel says:

    Once I wrote an exquisite sentence. Once. I’ve been trying to live up to that ever since. Maybe this post will help. Maybe.

    1. Dawn Field says:

      If you have – congrats!!! But the point of the article is to use the 7 ‘skills’ to write good sentence after good sentence — the article wasn’t so much about sentences as WRITING in general — with imagery, etc, to create a strong voice. Thanks for commenting!

  10. Coffee, mate. says:

    I thought I was the only one who clearly misjudged what exquisite meant. Damn, I could hardly get through the paragraph; the words kept getting in the way. Corny, right? Keep it simple, darling. It isn’t a pissing match, it’s a story.

  11. TMS says:

    I am so relieved that my earlier post regarding this “over baked writing” excerpt has found the majority far and away agreeing of its failure to entice. Book Baby, may I suggest you run your posts by those of your employment before touting them before your clients (current and possibly future). I am sure Dr. Fields meant well but serving as a writing coach at this time maybe a reach.

    1. BookBaby Andre says:

      I am not in the habit of replying to comments like these, but as I am the editor of the blog, and in BookBaby’s employment, I want to say I gladly approved of the content in this post. I very much enjoy the forum of the blog in that readers – both those who agree and disagree with the content of the posts – are given a chance to weigh in with their thoughts and reactions. That said, whether or not you agree with the aesthetic of the sample included in the post, I think the point of the post is being missed by those of you who didn’t enjoy Sandra Cisneros’ writing. Clearly Dr. Field was moved by it, and as Cisneros has won numerous awards for her writing, including one for the book from which this passage was taken, there are many others who feel the same. Perhaps, instead of going on about your intense dislike of the selected passage, you might try to recognize that your conventions and preferences are not the only standards by which readers can judge a descriptive passage of prose.

      1. Dawn Field says:

        I have loved this exchange and it makes it clear how different audiences like different kinds of books. What I would LOVE to see here is people posting SENTENCES THEY LOVE. What are they? What books and authors are they from? Why are they so good?

        Also, not a single comment has been about the 7 things that make great writers. Comments are only about her sentence… These 7 things stand whether you like this particular sentence/writer/story/book or not…I would love more comments on those. Thanks again to all for engaging in the conversation.

        Few sentence are sufficiently long and rich enough to help illustrate so many great things about writing — this one (and so many of her others) do. This is why she is so lauded…in the literary world. It’s not a page-turner, it’s poetic prose that one pauses over, savours and reads again and again.

    2. Dawn Field says:

      I would love to see some of your writing — and what you think is a great sentence. It would be very helpful to me — and to others. I’d love to see favorite sentences from anyone who doesn’t like the sentence highlighted in this article. What draws you to a sentence? What makes it good? The point is, if you know these things, it’s more likely you will be writing great sentences too. Do you agree or disagree with the 7 things in the article? Thanks again for commenting. Seems the best feedback for this article is coming to me directly by email and it has been GREAT. Thanks to all.

  12. John Caedan says:

    Andre and Dawn,

    I won’t say I didn’t like this excerpt, although I take exception to the claim that this is exquisite writing of fiction (novel/short story.) Instead I think it’s poetry. In poetry, the writer can fly high like this, no qualms about the rules of fine writing. Putting that frame on it, I do like her style, and enjoyed the painting of the picture.

    Additionally, Dawn’s tips are great. I ran some of my own work against them, and they encouraged me to kick it up.

    I’d say accepting poetics in prose is the legacy of James Joyce. His style and structure is considered orthodox in literary fiction now. Legions follow.

    Meanwhile, those of us still joyously honoring narrative prose structure might have envy – “I wish I were allowed to do that!” But no, we don’t, not really.

    Are we welcome to post counter-examples, even from our own prose?

    1. BookBaby Andre says:

      Absolutely. Per Dawn’s earlier comment, let’s hear from our readers and the things you find exceptional. I can say that after being involved in these exchanges, I’ve been reading (currently Rebecca by Daphne du Marier) looking for passages that meet these criteria. The whole point is to get us thinking critically about the craft of writing.

      1. Dawn Field says:

        Great if you look for these seven points while you read!

    2. Dawn Field says:

      Thanks! It is poetic prose! That is her forte. Huge thanks for saying you liked the tips — that was the true point of the article. I could have selected any sentence that illustrated all 7 points but they are HARD TO FIND 🙂 Yes, great if you post more examples. That’s the right spirit!

  13. Trisha says:

    My main aggravation with this so-called “exquisite” writing is that clearly fails the main goal of any writing which is readability. This is not the kind of writing that entices people to read. I was distracted by trying to work out the cadence and where there should have been pauses. This distracts from processing the imagery, which, had it been phrased properly, would have had far more impact. I am thankful, despite the protestations of the original author of this post and the editor defending her, that most people recognize that even award-winning writers have their off days.

    1. Dawn Field says:

      To be fair…I did not originally write the article with the word exquisite in the title…But Andre is such a FANTASTIC editor…:-) I wanted to focus on the fact that article was about 7 ‘things’ you need to write great writing. But that said, I do think her writing is exquisite. The kind of writing hardly anyone can do, that you linger over for ages. It’s not meant to be page-turning action! But that said, I’m most interested in reader comments on what they think exquisite writing is! Please submit your selections in comments! Let’s see what we get and compare!

  14. Quite out of breath after reading 93 words with no full stop. At least, with the aid of Google, I now know what nixtamal is, although I don’t suppose I’ll ever use the word.

    1. Dawn Field says:

      🙂 But nixtamal is a PERFECT word for HER story — once you know what it is! ‘Flavor’ and ‘crux’ words (and ‘jewel’ words) are topics for the future…but she excels at them ALL.

  15. John Caedan says:

    An excerpt from my story “Sentiments of Return”

    She stopped, shook her head in the keen breeze, deliberately letting her hair run wild, then gathered it into one handful and secured it with a band. There was a moment when the walk should have resumed down the deserted shore. She held him, instead, with her eyes.
    “Where are we going in this empty place?”
    He paused. The words hung between them, gathering portent.
    “Let me show you,” he said, then.
    He took her hand and led the way up a dune directly ahead. The scene at the top was so ideal she could scarcely credit it. Gazing right, the Atlantic shoreline marched on, a hem on the sparkling restless sea. It appeared to not vary for tens of miles. To their left lay a shapely lake divided from the ocean by only a narrow barrier beach. The lake extended inland, surrounded by dunes or brush-covered banks, giving way to marshy inlets on the far side, water birds rising to the sky above its rippling surface and long bending reeds. A few structures stood at the lakefront, and the corner of a village could be glimpsed between two hilltops far beyond the thither shore. A separate small pool, Lily Pond, lay at their feet.

  16. Lewis W. Rogers says:

    I can’t help but think this example is the sort of sentence that’s advised *against* in the majority of these blog posts. It’s the sort of sentence that comes across as being self-edited, and very lightly so at that. Maybe that’s a genre thing. I don’t dislike it, mind you, I’m just indifferent to it because it looks like something that’s not within my preferred kind of reading. That makes it harder to judge fairly, lacking experience with its ilk.

    That said, different strokes for different folks, and if this is what a lauded author comes up with, if this is what’s held up as an example… okay. If nothing else, it shows that there’s a market for everything, and we won’t know if we can be successful until we try. Heck, King Solomon’s Mines had this sort of thing in droves (right down to a laundry list of guns and ammo before an expedition, or the intricacies and history of cattle-tails being stumps) and it worked fine in that. So did The Adventures of John the Fearless, to an extent.

    Maybe some of the negative response is due to the blog post’s timing. We’re closing in on NaNoWriMo, and we’re presented with a sentence that has the smell of an author trying to hit that daily count. No matter how good it is, some people will pick up on that subconsciously.

    I’m tempted to dig for a similar sentence of my own, but none come to mind as a good example right away. Besides which, I still need to edit my, umm, well, everything that doesn’t require rewriting from scratch, basically.

    There is one from Allan Quatermain, though. I haven’t finished the book itself yet, I quite liked the intro. If it has to be a single sentence, without context, this one:

    “Human nature is God’s kaleidoscope, and the little bits of coloured glass which represent our passions, hopes, fears, joys, aspirations towards good and evil and what not, are turned in His mighty hand as surely and as certainly as it turns the stars, and continually fall into new patterns and combinations. But the composing elements remain the same, nor will there be one more bit of coloured glass nor one less for ever and ever.”

    …okay, two sentences, then.

  17. Sharron says:

    I agree that the descriptions are evoking and I like that she uses the words to take the reader to different senses, but I also don’t like the rambling length of the sentence. It easily loses readers – I was too annoyed to re-read it. But again I love the descriptions.

  18. Dawn Field says:

    Okay — here is a very different sentence. I’d love to know what people think of it by comparison. Perhaps many of you more like riveting, or action-packed, or compelling? Here is the opening sentence of the popular book ‘Robopocalypse’ as ‘something very different’:

    “Twenty minutes after the war ends, I’m watching stumpers pour up out of a frozen hole in the ground like ants from hell and praying that I keep my natural legs for another day.”

    This has so many great features that draw in the reader. The words ‘war’ and ‘hell’ are ‘power words’ — few are more evocative. There’s much to strike fear into one’s heart — risk of bodily harm is a pretty palpable threat. This opening is certainly ‘in media res’, as great openings should be — throwing readers into the middle of things. Plus, the author’s choice of details and words suggests many questions: what are stumpers? what’s going on? If you get readers curious they will read on…

    Too again, the point of the above was to talk about writing styles — not just ‘ a sentence’. Both these books carry on admirably in their chosen styles — that is fantastic voice.

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