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.