What is good writing?
The ability to write with clarity and elegance is a skill that can be taught.
This introductory course cannot cover everything in the realm of grammar and style. Instead, this course is a crash introduction to the main technical aspects of writing. We’ll discuss fundamentals of grammar, rules for punctuation, some common infelicities you may encounter in your writing, as well as the tenants of clarity and conciseness. You will find a list of further reading at the end of this course, if you wish to look deeper into grammar and style.
What is good writing?
As with all things, what makes writing ‘good’ is subjective. What one reader finds ornate, another finds frustrating. What one reader finds charming, another may find sentimental. This is particularly true of creative writing, which allows for greater expressiveness and ornamentation than technical writing.
Perhaps it is easier to define what ‘bad’ writing looks like. Bad writing is writing that fails to communicate the author’s meaning to the audience. It lacks precision, clarity, or nuance; it misunderstands the purpose of its form or the needs of its audience; it is unstructured, unordered, inappropriate, or nonsensical. Bad writing wreaks havoc on meaning and sense.
Good writing should be:
- Well structured
If a piece of writing follows these five basic tenants, it is likely to be ‘good’, or at least unlikely to be ‘bad’.
Deconstructing the myths of good writing
Good writing is inborn talent. I can’t learn to write well.
Lies. Language is an impulse. Writing is a craft. Just as nobody is born knowing how to draw an image, nobody is born knowing how to write a sentence. While it’s true some have a natural ear for the subtleties of language, even the linguistically-talented benefit from formal instruction and practice. You learned to write your alphabet as a child; learning to write well is no different.
Writing is just like speaking. I know how to speak, so I know how to write.
Writing is not the same as speech. Knowing spoken English does not automatically make you a great writer; conversely, writing well does not make you a great speaker.
Good speaking is usually off-the-cuff, requires a speaker to adjust to shifting social dynamics, and allows for a level of ambiguity in language by supplementing with non-verbal communication. Writing, on the other hand, is reflective and does not allow social cues to clarify meaning (an example: the difficulty of conveying sarcasm in writing). Speaking and writing are independent (though related) skillsets, and must be fostered in their own ways.
I don’t need to learn grammar and composition. I automatically know when something is grammatically wrong.
One of the fascinating things about the human language faculty is how easy it is for humans to acquire language. Babies learn language with seemingly little effort. Exposure to language allows us to subconsciously divine the intrinsic, underlying rules of how our language functions. It’s how we can automatically know that a sentence is ungrammatical:
I the dog jump over.
We know implicitly that in English, the object comes after the verb, and therefore this sentence is ‘wrong’. But grammar is more complex than that, and many borderline ungrammatical cases exist, as do sentences that are not exactly ungrammatical but are unpleasant or unclear.
Without some formal grammar training it’s unlikely you’ll be able to identify why something is wrong. Diagnosing the underlying issue allows you to fix it more efficiently.
I don’t need to know good spelling or grammar. That’s what editors are for.
If you’re submitting your work for publication, you are responsible for making it as good as it can be. This is a matter of professionalism. Editors won’t bother with writers who don’t act like professionals. If you demonstrate no pride in your work, why should anybody extend you the same courtesy?
Once you’ve made your work as good as it can be, professional editors will be able to take it to the next level.
Good writing means using lots of fancy words.
It depends on the requirements of the work and the expectations of the audience. For example, a step-by-step guide to building a table will need simple, direct language appropriate for a broad audience. By contrast, an epic, sweeping melodrama set in revolutionary Paris may need more elevated language to support the tone of the piece.
You should never use a word simply because you think it will make you sound clever. Every word you write needs a purpose.
Good writing follows all the rules.
There are certain underlying, immutable rules in English writing. The function of the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives), the order of words, inflection and tense rules – these are unchangeable, as they are part of the core rules that make English what it is.
But almost everything else is flexible. For every grammar ‘rule’ people like to spout, it’s possible to find a dozen exceptions. However, readers are savvy, and can distinguish between a writer who violates the ‘rules’ for specific effect, and a writer who simply has poor command of the language.
When breaking the rules, do it with intent. You must know the rules – and demonstrate command of them – before readers will give you permission to break them.