What Makes Good Writing?…It’s Not What You Think

As an educator, I come across student work that is exceptional. Red ink may cover most of the page, but that has little to do with exceptional writing.

Identifying talent in writing is difficult to pinpoint. Why? Well, the same reason why many writers can’t see the good writer in themselves. They can’t see past the rules of proper grammar, spelling, diverse vocabulary, traditional paragraph structure…you know, all the things we were taught are “good writing.” 
Good writing is not the same as following the rules. Some people mistakingly think they are good, because they know and follow all the rules. These are the writers who will hire a proofreader but not an editor. They rely on the structure of the building, disregarding the art of architecture. 

A beautiful building must have a solid structure. Without the artistic talent that accompanies the drafting process, however, the final product will be yet another dull box, maybe with a few flashy characteristics. 
Likewise, good writing needs the structure society has decided supports good writing, but we must never mistake the structure for the art. Otherwise we are left with the same old piece of writing we have seen a million times, but maybe with a few flashy details. 
We think good writing must follow the rules when, in fact, talent is altogether separate from the rules. Rules don’t make the writing better art, and breaking the rules doesn’t make it worse. 

So what is good writing? Below I identify a few of the traits in good writing that stand out most to me when I discover talent. 

Good writing clearly communicates. When I use the term “good writing,” I am breaking some important writing rules: good and writing are terrible words for conveying an idea. Something like adept rhetoric, however, is not more accurate nor is it more interesting. Sometimes the most simple words and phrases can most clearly communicate the idea. Why is “good writing” better at communicating the idea?

First, we all know what “good writing” means. At least, in general. We may not know exactly how to define it, but we know about this thing called “good writing.”

Second, the simplicity of the term brings us back to the English classroom where fear and dread accompany our writing assignments. Paired with “It’s not what you think,” the terrifying and elusive phrase becomes attainable…maybe.  
Finally, it’s findable. This is a search engine plus. Even before electronic communications, though, when people wanted to find advice on “good writing,” they would have difficulty finding a better term to lead them to what they were looking for.

Good writing is considerate. And good writing is considerate. Good writing is considerate in two ways: the time and effort spent to consider an idea or topic and the ability to consider the subject and audience with empathy.  

An idea takes time to mature. This post, for instance, is initially being typed up “off the top of my head” in the middle of a sleepless night, but I’ve been composing these ideas for years. Years of reading and writing classes, editing and writing professionally, day-to-day observations and focused conversations contribute to this post. I have degrees that have answered the question “What is good writing?” but I didn’t stop thinking about it when I graduated. 

Just because you have experience, however, doesn’t mean you have been sufficiently considering the idea, though. Intentional consideration is key. Notice details, question opinions, talk about how ideas relate, evaluate and reevaluate what is important. Do this all…the…time. 

Once you begin writing, consider the ideas with focus. By the time you read this, I will have thought and thought and thought, written and rewritten, talked to others about it, read what others have to say about it. My ideas have remained mostly the same, but this is definitely a very different post than when I composed my first draft. 

Good writing is also empathetic. Empathy is one of those words that is commonly misunderstood. Sympathy means you feel the same thing, empathy means you can put yourself in their shoes to better understand how someone feels. 

In order to best communicate your ideas, you must understand how your audience feels and will feel. You also must be able to relate to ideas, people and even inanimate objects and intangible ideas in order to communicate. 

For example, I was able to make a connection between architecture and the art of writing, 1) conveying an idea through a similar concept 2) to an audience who would understand the analogy. Empathy. Empathy. BOOM!

Good writing is adventurous. In other words, break the rules. Accept the consequences, but break the rules. 

Instead of typing up a traditional manuscript, Jack Kerouac wrote his second novel, On the Road, on a continuous scroll of paper. 

While it was pretentious (Does he really think he can just break the rules like that? Does he think it’s like a holy scripture or something?), it also becomes a part of the writing itself. In the story, Kerouac describes a series of presumably true events involving fellow artists and a lot of traveling on the road. The scroll is literally the road down which the story travels. 

Pretentious, maybe. But all the great counterculture leaders are. And now On the Road is considered a defining work for the Beat culture from the 1950’s.

Good writing defies rules and expectations. 

Good writing is sacrilegious. 

Good writing defines good writing.  

Good writing is concise. Concise doesn’t mean short. Concise means efficient: every word is necessary, every word is the best word. 

Ernest Hemingway is legendary for his concise writing style. He was an ass, but he was a damn good sentence-smith. 

Good writing uses words beyond the basic meaning. Choosing the right words isn’t just a matter of finding the word that means a specific definition. Certainly, accurate words can more accurately express an idea, but simple, mundane words can be used just as ingeniously. 

For instance, the famous sentence that begins Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could easily be identified as bad writing: 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Here are some of the traditional rules for good writing this sentence breaks:

  • Don’t start sentences with “it is” or “there is” or any conjugation thereof. 
  • Use descriptive language. Good, better, best are terrible words. 
  • Show, don’t tell. 
  • Don’t repeat words and phrases. Condense sentences into the shortest version possible while still communicating the idea.

Dickens spat all over these rules, yet the sentence goes down in history as one of the greatest opening lines in a novel. 

What makes it so? 

The tension that best and worst can be true at the same time provokes a crisis in logic. The comma doesn’t just set apart two independent clauses, it acts as a mirror or an equal sign or the fulcrum of a scale. Best and worst are the same, even though all reason shows them to be opposite and paradoxical. 

With just the title and this introduction, we have an elaborate story: two cities, identical and opposite, one and separate, related but divided. Seventeen words create a complex setting for one of the most highly acclaimed novels in history. 

Not counting duplicates, the sentence and title combined consist of ten small, common words-a, best, cities, it, of, tale, the, times, two, and was. The art isn’t in choosing big, fancy words. The art lies in constructing a massive structure using small, common building materials strategically to create tension and balance.  

Good writing reveals truth. Let me be clear, truth and fact are not synonymous. Facts are often used to hide the truth. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t like facts. I am skeptical of anything considered a fact. Statistics, history, science–it’s all skewed and inconclusive. Technically, there are only theories, some of which are called laws, but they are still theories. 

Truth is intangible. Truth underlies words. Truth is not contained in gimmicks and flash (except ironically).  

Truth is both simple and complex, common and inexplicable. If writing is like construction, truth is the space within the structure where life takes place. 

Good writing partially reveals a being beneath the surface of life. Only when seeking a better glimpse of truth through reading and writing and experiencing and sharing can we begin to imagine what truth is. 

So why should I follow the rules of traditional ideas of good writing? While talent is independent of society’s standards, not following the rules can distract from the art. Readers have an automatic process for reading. When automation is disrupted, the reader becomes disoriented. 

Disorientation can be an amazing effect of good writing. but defiance must be intentional and carefully considered. Accidental rule breaking can sabotage your purpose and discredit your talent. 

Don’t rely on the rules for writing, but don’t allow ignorance to defeat your message. If you aren’t sure what the rules are, look into it. If you are sure what the rules are, check again just in case.  

If you have relied on the rules for your success, try throwing them out the window and see what you’re left with. You might find your talent.

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8 thoughts on “What Makes Good Writing?…It’s Not What You Think

  1. This grabbed my eyes immediately. Right in line with advise from my english comp professor during a discussion about the rules. When you learn all the rules, then you get to break them. Through this entire article I saw her advise interwoven with your words. Glad I found it! Definitely sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, DL.

      I’ve often said my English degree qualifies me to do little, so I’m taking the right to break writing rules and choose my own spelling. It’s just an excuse for laziness most of the time, though.

      Like

    • As a writer myself I often ask myself the question what is the best way to keep my audience engaged in what I write and how can I keep them wanting more of my content. This post answered it for me thank you so much for reminding us to be intentional in our creative abilities to write and not to feel bad about it.

      Like

  2. I always wondered if people like Dickens intentionally created these phenomenons that we have arrived at in our over analyzations of their work. Was he REALLY conveying all of that about the Two Cities with his opening sentence? Maybe he was, I guess we’ll never know for sure. I feel that all of the “classics” are subjected to this crazy level of hyper scrutinization. But again, I guess that’s everything in life. Also, I’m still bitter about the huge composition paper I had to write on Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have often wondered if we are making stuff up, too.

      But I believe the authors whose works we have canonized, in large part, were very intentional with their words. Part of why I believe this is because of the effort I put into, for example, this post. I have lots of little Easter eggs that I really wish I could just point to, but then I’d be stealing the fun.

      Regardless, whatever the authors intended, the work itself possesses those things that amaze the intentional reader.
      The work takes on a life of its own and becomes its own being. It lives and even changes depending on society.

      There are different ways of looking at literature, one lens is author intent, other perspectives disregard author intent. Many others will consider the literature as a result of society at the time, which considers author’s intentional and reactive choices.

      When talking about what goes on in writing, we have to be careful to not claim the author intended it. Because, you’re right, we can’t know unless they told us. But I can still say the author did whatever it was he did. So Dickens does convey those ideas to some readers who take the time to consider it, whether he intended to or not.

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      • Whoa. Uh, hm. Wow. That’s a big one. I’d love to hear your justifications. Everyone is going to have their own opinion for their own reason.

        It’s cliché, but Shakespeare has such a significant impact on how we write today. Things were different before him. His story telling, humor, appropriation, entertainment, crossing social classes, characterization. Hamlet annoys me, but it’s masterful in depicting the inner turmoil of the character. And, of course, his use of language. He basically made crap up. And it’s amazing!

        Dickens is great. I think he’s genius. One of my favorites. But I don’t think he changed enough to be a stage setter. A major player, absolutely. He may have improved it, but not changed it.

        Mary Shelley, with Frankenstein, I feel, had a greater impact on literature than Dickens. It paved the way for complex and varied settings, gruesome realities of human nature, depicting the separation of the privileged from the disadvantaged. It was much more sacrilegious than Dickens. This wasn’t the first novel of its kind, but I think it was still yet monumental and a predecessor of Dickens work. But I’m a huge fan of Frankenstein and would get my doctorate in Shelley if I could.

        Chaucer was basically the first widely read authors of the English language, breaking the literary silence of the Dark Ages. So he has to get some credit for Western literature.

        That’s about it for me. I’ve considered Samuel Johnson, because he started a lot of the “rules” that get in the way of seeing talent. He standardized a lot of definitions and expectations.

        I admit I am absolutely unfamiliar with Baldwin.

        Poe? I wobble on whether he’s a great writer. He’s really good, but modern society’s commercialization of his works makes me look at him with disdain. I absolutely admit I am swayed by popular opinion, but against it not for it. It’s unfair. Again, I feel like Frankenstein was a significant stage setter for his works. Again, I’m crazy about Frankenstein.

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      • James Baldwin, Alex Haley, Steven king are authors in my opinion who went against the grain in what is considered “good writing” their levels of creativity is phenomenal. I agree Shakespeare was a bit loco but his message in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet reign true still in this day and age. I love Frankenstein as well it’s amazing how science and human creation go hand and hand. Edgar Allen Poe is one of those poets who never made sense but shared so much emotion I’m such a Poe fan!

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