What is a Good Writer? (3)

My original plan for a blog post was to discuss practice and how practice can help someone become a better writer. But I got sucked into the question of what is a good writer and now I’ve written two posts already without talking about how to become a better writer because I felt I needed to discuss how to become a better writer without knowing what qualities makes a writer better or worse?  

In the first post in this series, I discussed different dimensions of writing that could be used to judge whether a person is a good writer—particularly use of punctuation and grammar, content, audience approval. In the second post in the series, I discussed internal, personal criteria for judging whether someone is a good writer—mainly, the writer’s own assessment of the process, with respect to both enjoyment and sense of accomplishment: if you can say that you feel a sense of accomplishment when writing, then maybe it makes sense to say you are a good writer. Similarly, if you enjoy writing, we might say you are a good writer.  Acknowledging these criteria does not eliminate other criteria for judging good writing, rather it highlights some dimensions of what it means to be a writer that are important if you want to become a better writer.

In this post I will discuss being a good writer from a slightly different angle: not on the basis of the material you write, and not on the basis of your experience of writing, but on the basis of the impact of your writing process on your life. And in this discussion, I want to segue to the theme of practice and the role practice plays in becoming a better writer, which I had intended as the center of the posts I intended to write on how to become a better writer.  

Healthy and Unhealthy Writing Practices

When I was in graduate school, repetitive strain injuries were just coming into wide recognition, and prevention was not yet understood. I knew several fellow students whose career in academia was interrupted or slowed by such injuries.  That, I would say, is a good example of an unhealthy practice, and someone who has such a practice is not, according to this criterion, a good writer.

Another example of an unhealthy practice might be a practice that creates emotional difficulties.  I’m thinking specifically about the explanation of procrastination offered by Neil Fiore, a psychologist who worked with doctoral candidates, in his book The Now Habit. Fiore’s basic argument is that procrastination arises from resentment—he writes about students who set expectations for their writing practice so high that there is no room in their lives for anything else. Such students, he argues, come to resent their work, which triggers procrastination. By contrast, students who maintain a better work-life balance are more likely to feel good about their work and therefore keep working.

There are other ways to have an unhealthy practice.  If your writing depends on drugs or drinking, it creates a dynamic that is hard to sustain over an extended period. (Perhaps it is worth distinguishing between someone who uses a drug to write—e.g., “I can’t write unless I’m drunk/stoned/etc.”—and someone who is dependent and also writes. The former might lead to the latter, which is not good. The latter, of course, is a problem of a more general impact than just a writing practice.)

Generally speaking, a practice of writing (or, indeed, of anything else) can carry the seeds of its own future. In one path of growth, a damaging practice means that each successive session of practice becomes increasingly damaging and moves the practitioner further away from health. In the opposite path, each successive session, free from injury, allows the opportunity for a positive engagement—whether that positive experience is learning something new that helps improve skill or technique, or a sense that you have done something well, or perhaps even some enjoyment of the experience.

In the long run, a healthy practice will support itself and the practice will become more rewarding. Regardless of your skill level, practice still takes effort, so I wouldn’t say that practices become easier. Indeed, without some fairly significant investment of effort, it’s not much of a practice, and won’t tend to help skills improve very quickly, so practice should involve some difficulties. However, with greater skill comes an increase in the reward for any given effort.

In this sense, I would argue that one way to be a good writer is to have a healthy practice that supports itself, rather than an unhealthy practice that sows the seeds of its own destruction.  Of course, if you have a good practice (and are a good writer in that sense), you’re likely to develop skill over time and become a better writer in the other senses, too.  With practice, you are likely to experience growth in numerous different aspects of your writing.  This is, I think where I start to segue to my original subject of how to become a better writer.  

Having touched on different ways of being a good writer (ability to create good written work; self-perception of the process; sustainable, growth-supporting practice), I want to start talking about how to get better at all of these.  The key is practice: if you practice, you will get better (at least assuming that the practice is not self-destructive). Practicing will even help you develop a more effective and more sustainable practice, if you keep that as one of your goals.

Practice is activity sustained over time

One session of effort isn’t really a practice. Practice is something that is sustained and maintained over an extensive period of time. If we talk about a doctor’s practice, it is not any one case we refer to, but the whole career of treating different cases.  For a writer, we can draw a parallel: the practice is not any one written work, but rather the sustained effort of writing many different things over a long period of time. (I suppose I wouldn’t want to exclude someone who consistently and regularly worked on one single work over a long time—that would be a practice, too. If your practice is more about your personal benefit from working on a project—it’s a hobby rather than a career—then the regular activity is what matters, even if nothing is ever completed.  But that kind of practice won’t help with at least one skill that is valuable to writers: the skill of making the necessary compromises to finish and let go of a project.)

It’s only with a regular and repeated practice that you develop in a significant way.  Sure, there are people who pick up new skills quickly, but to really refine a skill—to practice it at a high level—it’s necessary to keep at it.  This makes perfect sense if we think about the physiological basis of our experience and thinking: both the physical and intellectual aspects of any practice are rooted in our bodies.  Practicing something not only develops physical motor skills related to that activity, but also develops the neurophysiology that supports those patterns of thought.  Writing is not clearly linked to any specific physical activity—there are different ways to write—but still the practice of trying to express ideas will consistently activate any neurophysiology related to word choice, for example.

For the neurophysiological benefit of a practice, the activity has to be repeated. The efforts have to be repeated.  A marathon runner wouldn’t hope to become a good marathoner by working out really hard one day a week.  A writer who hopes to write well while only writing one day a week is setting up a good opportunity for frustration and failure—a once-a-week schedule gives enough time between practice sessions that you can lose touch with what you were trying to do in the previous session.

What makes a practice effective?

Realistically, when I started this series of posts, several weeks ago, I had some specific ideas in mind for what I wanted to say about practice.  Then I got sidelined into these three posts about what makes a writer a good writer.  I don’t remember right now what those specific points are, but I do still want to talk about how to become a better writer.  And as I write that, I do remember that one impetus for starting a post on practice was watching a video about how to practice a musical instrument, which led me to start reflecting on the question of what makes a good practice and what kinds of practice would help a writer become a better writer.  Those concerns are going to be the subject (I think) of at least one following post, in which I will discuss ways in which practice can support the different kinds of good writing.

Summary

To summarize my three posts on what it means to be a good writer: there are different criteria that can be applied.  The most obvious criteria for being a good writer are those associated with the creation of good writing.  This is, I think, the main consideration when people talk about being a good writer, but, as I mentioned previously, assessment of written work is context dependent, and there can be substantial disagreement on what counts as good writing.  In addition to this main group of criteria, I also argued that one can be a good writer because one has a good experience of writing—this kind of writer is good at writing not because of the quality of what is written but because he/she/they feel good when they write.  And finally, in this post, I argued that a “good writer” is someone who has a good writing practice: a good writer can be someone whose practice of writing leads to them getting better as a writer.  And that is the question I want o pursue in my next post: how can practice help?

What is a Good Writer? (2)

In my previous post, I was motived by a desire to discuss how to become a better writer but got no farther than exploring the question of what a good writer is. I discussed a few different criteria—the ability to write according to formal conventions, the importance of content, the importance of persuasion, and the ability to produce material in a timely fashion.  But it occurs to me that these are all objective or external in the sense that they can be judged by anyone: if you write something, other people can judge whether it has good punctuation or good content. Different people might not agree on whether the work is good, but they have documents/evidence on which to make such judgements.  But with respect to the question of what a good writer is, there is another criterion of crucial importance that is purely internal and subjective: the writer’s own experience/self-assessment.  What is writing like for you? Is it a good experience or a bad one? From a purely personal perspective, the question of being a good writer could be reframed in terms of whether or not you yourself feel like you are good at it, and whether or not you enjoy it.  These two are intertwined, but I’m going to separate them in this post.  

This internal assessment of being a good writer is very important. The key to becoming a good writer is that you practice, and your experience of your practice  will have a huge impact on how frequently you practice, and thus on whether you can become a better writer.  There are, I think, two aspects of this: enjoyment and accomplishment.

Enjoyment

Given the freedom to choose, people are going to spend more time doing things that they find enjoyable than they will doing things that are boring or tedious or painful. If an activity is painful or unpleasant, it’s likely that it will be avoided.  If we learn through reward/punishment, or are motivated by pleasure/pain, we learn/are motivated to avoid the punishment/pain.  

If writing is experienced as painful or a form of punishment, you’ll probably spend less time trying to write.  You may struggle to write at all.  There is a pretty large subset of people who view writing through this negative lens. One book I read argued that the defining emotion felt by writers is fear. A dissertation-writing book I read argued that dissertation writing is “dull, dull, dull,” because, apparently, it’s necessary to emphasize just how bad that process is. I don’t think that’s an unusual perspective because there’s a decent number of dissertation books that focus on “surviving” dissertations. It’s not hard to find people who think of writing (academic or otherwise) as an unpleasant and unwelcome task.  For that matter, I was one such person: I hated writing when I was young.

For a lot people, writing becomes so fraught with anxiety that it is too painful to start.  Such anxiety can lead to a negative feedback loop, where anxiety about impending deadlines makes it difficult to even think about the task, which leads to not writing, which leads to further anxiety as the deadline continues to approach. And then, at the last second, the work has to be done in a panic, which is hardly a recipe for developing warm and comfortable feelings about the process.

Part of being a good writer, from a personal perspective, is whether writing is good for you: if you enjoy it, that it, in itself, a reason to say that you are a good writer.  There are plenty of people who actually have positive feelings about writing, and about the benefits of writing, so it’s not as if finding writing a rewarding, positive experience would be that much of a surprise.  Writing, which combines challenges with the opportunity for growth and success, has the characteristics of activities that lead to the “flow” experience described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the experience that many people (in Csikszentmihalyi’s research) consider the best in their lives.

The more that you feel pleasure in an activity, the more likely you are to do it, and “doing it” is the key for practice: if you “do it,” then you are practicing, and if you’re not “doing it,” then you’re not practicing.  So there is a potential positive feedback loop here: where pleasure leads to practice, which leads to greater ability, which helps make the process enjoyable, which leads to more practice.  But that’s moving aside from the focus on the internal experience of writing, and the idea that one criterion for being a good writer is to enjoy writing.

Speaking personally, I don’t know that I would consider writing one of the best experiences in my life, but I wouldn’t say it’s painful or unpleasant, even though it can be difficult.  There are moments when writing can feel exhilarating, and even when I feel like I’m doing well enough that it feels good.  I would say, however, that the good feeling I get is not so much pleasure in the activity itself, but the sense that I am dong something well, which brings me to my other point.

Accomplishment

The idea of accomplishment or success is one that can easily be focused on outward success and recognition, a criterion that can be used to identify a good writer (though may not necessarily do so: there are writers who have had commercial or popular success who are, by other criteria, poor writers). There is a different kind of success, however, that is more personal and internal.  A personal sense of accomplishment is often rewarding, even if that accomplishment is not recognized by others.  There is no question that such a personal sense of success can be supported by external feedback, but it need not require such feedback.  In many areas of endeavor, the idea of setting a “personal best” is common. It’s not really an idea with a clear correspondence in writing—a personal best is usually measured with respect to some single measurable dimension—but even without such a clear measuring stick, a writer can feel a sense of accomplishment.

You can believe that you have done good work, even if you have not found anyone who will agree with you.  One way to be a good writer is to believe that you have done good work.  There are plenty of stories of writers (and other artists, for that matter) who struggled to find anyone who would recognize their work, but who were, in time, recognized for their brilliance.  This is, possibly, the most important dimension of being a good writer: if you believe that you can accomplish something, you are more likely to try to accomplish it rather than avoiding it. Therefore a sense that you are a good writer—that you accomplish something when you write—is very valuable.  The belief that you are doing work that has quality and value is a crucial support to a writer. I often wonder whether self-confidence is not the most important determinant of public success, especially in academia (which is the kind of writing I think about most).  

This sense of personal accomplishment is only one mode of being a good writer, and it’s certainly possible for a writer to have self-confidence that disagrees with the assessments of others. But this essay is not going to try to reconcile the gap between a writer’s self-assessment and the assessment of others.  Despite the fact that external assessments might not meet personal assessments, believing that you accomplish something when you write is one important dimension of being a good writer.

Conclusion

I’m going to wrap up this second “what is a good writer?” post here. In pursuit of understanding what is a good writer, I argued that a “good writer” can be someone who thinks they write well—perhaps they take pleasure in writing, or perhaps they think they accomplish something.  This internal assessment is possibly more important than any external criteria simply because the internal assessment is a crucial source of the motivation to continue practicing, and practicing is the key to becoming a better writer.

When I started this essay, I was thinking that it would wrap up the “what is a good writer” part of my prospective series on practice and becoming a better writer, but I’m considering whether there isn’t another dimension that I have not discussed–the question of how you write and the impacts of writing, for example, if your writing posture leads to repetitive stress injuries, are you a “good writer?” If you can only write when you’re drunk, are you a good writer? If your writing practices lead to the disruption of personal relationship, are you a good writer? I’ll have to think this through.  Maybe my next post will consider whether good practices are criteria for identifying a good writer. Or maybe it will move on to talking about practice and becoming a better writer.  When I do get to talking about how to become a better writer, the idea that one can enjoy and feel a sense of accomplishment in writing will be a subject of further discussion.

What is a “Good Writer”?

As a writing coach and editor, I try to help people become better writers. But what, exactly, does that mean? What makes someone a good writer? For that matter, what is good writing?  Without answers to those two questions, it is pretty hard to know how to help people become good writers.  After all, how can I accomplish a goal without having any clear idea of what it means to reach that goal?

This post started with the idea that I would write about the value of practice and how practice makes you a better writer, but I started to explore some of the individual points I was making, and I started to focus on these more preliminary questions.  And I find that the simple points that I wanted to make were not so simple, and that now I have many different ideas about becoming a good writer that would each be enough for a brief essay.  Whether I manage to turn this into a complete series that hits on all the points I’ve considered writing about in the last few days is uncertain.  In this post, I’m considering just the question of what makes a good writer, and will end up focusing on one specific characteristic of importance (though it’s hardly the only criterion by which a good writer might be judged).

Good writing and formal conventions

One view of good writing is the school-room vision of good writing, that good writing consists in being able to spell, punctuate, and use proper grammar—a perspective that I think too common. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are valuable tools that help make writing comprehensible, but they do not, in themselves, manifest good writing.  Great writing may manifest without following these rules—the great writers of the early 20th century often flouted such conventions.  And following the rules is no guarantee of great writing: it’s easy enough to be banal and grammatically correct at the same time.

Good writing and content

Grammar doesn’t determine good writing.  But maybe content does.  Good writing, in my opinion, at least, has something else….but that “something else” is not something easy to pin down.  Writing is about communication and about sharing ideas, so that part of what is important in good writing is the content—the ideas that it tries to express.  I would say that the great majority of good writing is good because it expresses some idea (and exceptions are rare examples of poetry working with the sounds of the words). Those same early 20th century authors who so egregiously violated conventions of punctuation, for example, were interested in capturing the stream of consciousness, or the ideas that succeeded through a character’s mind. (Digression: I wrote my master’s thesis on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the 18th century book by Laurence Sterne, which is, in some ways, a precursor to stream-of-consciousness writing. One of the Sterne’s main concerns in the book is the “train of ideas” that follow each other in people’s thoughts, an idea he took from the work of John Locke, whose philosophy was extremely influential in 18th century [and, indeed, still is today, though certainly to far lesser extent than in his own time]. Sterne’s punctuation and spelling are highly irregular, and we could consider him as another writer violating conventions of grammar and punctuation, except for the fact that when Sterne wrote, spelling, grammar, and punctuation were not as conventionalized as they are today, as can easily be seen by looking at other 18th century writers. Thus he wasn’t intentionally violating any conventions in the way that, for example, e.e. cummings chose to violate conventions of capitalization with his name.  This digression doesn’t have much to do with how to become a good writer, but, as it happens, I’ll be returning to Sterne in this post.)  For most writers, the message/content is generally pretty clear (at least on a simple level).  We know that novelists  are telling stories and offering entertainment, as well as, perhaps, exploring the complexities of being human. We know that scholars are trying to build arguments of logic and evidence, to share some abstract truth. We know the advertisers are trying to convince us that we want various products.

Good writing and communication/persuasion

This last example brings up a question, however. On the one hand, if good writing communicates an idea effectively, we might want to say that advertising is good writing because ad copy can be extremely effective in communicating the idea that the product or service being advertised is desirable.  But, on the other hand, we might be concerned about the messages being sent: is it really good, for example, to desire an unhealthy product? Cigarette advertising was excellent at convincing people that cigarette smoking was good for them (cigarette ads often had doctors promoting the habit). Was that good writing?  The question of the relationship of “good writing” and content splits into two branches: the first is concerned with whether and how well the message was conveyed, and the second is concerned with the actual message or content itself.  

“Good writing” is multi-dimensional

So far, then, we might say that the question of good writing involves three elements: (1) the formal concerns like spelling; (2) the content/story/message; and (3) the communication of that message.  These three dimensions create problems, however, in understanding what is good writing: how much of each dimension is necessary to qualify as “good”?  Once you have an evaluation question that is multidimensional, finding clear solutions becomes difficult if not impossible.  This is especially so when you have different people who will evaluate the same thing, because these different individuals may well disagree about which dimensions are most important.

Evaluation is personal

That point brings up a crucial, but often unstated, aspect of all evaluation: the personal role. Whether things are “good” or not depends on people to make that judgement, and different people have different ideas of what is good.  And this, in a way, gets me most of the way to where I wanted to go in this little essay: good writing depends on who is evaluating.

More generally, good writing depends on context. If you are writing for yourself in a personal journal, then maybe good writing is whatever you write, so long as you feel better for having written it. If you are writing for a professor, then good writing is what that professor likes. If you are writing to a scholarly journal or publisher, then good writing is what the editor and reviewers like.  Good writing is writing that pleases enough people, at least from one perspective.

And, if good writing is writing that pleases the relevant people, then maybe being a good writer is being able to produce writing that pleases the relevant people.

Admittedly, this is not a standard that provides the clearest of guidance: who must be pleased, and what do they want? Well, some people want good spelling, grammar, and punctuation, so you need to be able to do that, right? And some people want a well-executed and delivered argument, so you have to be able to that. And some people are going to want specific ideas to be represented or discussed.  Trying to please other people can be difficult.  But it’s a useful thing to consider in exploring how to become a good writer, because it places the emphasis less on the formal stuff, and more on the communicative and interpersonal aspect.

Invoking the interpersonal dimension leads to questions of issues that are outside any written work. For example, we know that, for better or worse, people’s evaluations are influenced by emotional considerations, so any judgement of a piece might be swayed by the reviewer’s feelings about the author (hence blind reviews). Or, more pertinently to the question of being a good writer, there is the temporal dimension: it’s not just what you write, but when you write it.  Laurence Sterne, who I mentioned above, in his correspondence once argued that a bad letter on time is better than a good letter late (I’m paraphrasing).  That framing reveals a complexity of evaluation: the “bad letter” is made “better” because of its timeliness. Context matters.

Good writing and timely production

What is a good writer? Well, different people will have different opinions on how to evaluate that. But I would say that if someone asked me how to become a good writer, I would point them towards developing the ability, above all, to produce material in a timely fashion. If you want to become a good writer, how will you evaluate yourself?

This conclusion is a bit ironic because this essay is a manifest violation of that very principle, at least in the sense that I had planned to finish this to post on my blog by Monday, September 2, and it is now Wednesday, September 4, and I have not yet finished, largely because I wasn’t satisfied with the drafts that I had produced on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. (I’m posting on Thursday, after a final quick review.) Of course, it’s not a gross irony because, after all, I did produce this essay, and although it is a little late, in the general context, in which there was no hard deadline, that lateness is less problematic. Viewed from the context of a larger practice–a writing practice that extends across years and aims to produce an essay of approximately this scope on a weekly basis, the delay of a couple of days is nothing, especially if my next post comes in a timely fashion.