Good Writing

08:23 Mon 14 Aug 2006
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I had a conversation with a friend last night that reminded me of something I have often felt: I have no idea what constitutes good writing.

I have tastes in writing, of course, so I think that I know good writing when I see it. But that’s not really what I’m interested in here. I mean some ability to state what good writing is, what makes it good, and (perhaps most crucially) to critique mediocre or bad writing with a view to making it good.

I really don’t think I have that except on a micro scale. That is, if presented with individual sentences, or even paragraphs, I can probably muster stylistic suggestions. And perhaps with an essay I would be able to suggest a superior ordering of the paragraphs. With anything more challenging, I feel a block. More accurately, I feel that I have no clue.

These thoughts arose in a specific context, that of my difficulty with critiquing friends’ work. However, the thoughts I outlined above, about not knowing what good writing is, have come up before. I have had conversations about literature with friends where other people have been commenting about how well-written things were, and where I’ve felt acute embarrassment due to a recognition that I have no clue how to define “well-written”. This has also been the case where friends have told me that something of mine is “well-written”—my embarrassment is not false modesty (or real modesty), but an awareness that I don’t really know what they mean, other than that they mean something good.

Of course, I could go through a work, mine or someone else’s, and go over the style of every sentence, and I could discuss that and come up with either suggestions or some kind of judgment… but that’s not what people always mean when they say “well-written”.

It’s not like I lack for training in the field. A BA and an MA in literature fields. Years of various writing groups. Fairly constant exposure to highly literate friends who discuss these things. And I feel entirely comfortable in literary discussions… as long as we’re discussing themes, structures, theories, historical context, character, etc. When it’s a question of “good writing” or something being “well-written”, I feel that twinge of embarrassment.

The following personal issues are involved:
I have convinced myself that my quality-ometer for writing only has three levels—“good”, “okay”, “bad”—whereas other people have finely-grained scales of 0-100, with decimals if necessary;
Unwillingness to do line-by-line alterations/suggestions (which is sometimes correct, since they’re often not appropriate) while simultaneously feeling that those are the only ways in which I can contribute;
Insecurity about my own writing ability, which makes me fearful that the paucity of my critique reflects poorly on my own authorial capabilities. Makes a certain amount of sense since I do worry about my writing ability, while I have no doubts whatsoever (regardless of whether I should) about my ability to discuss/criticize themes, historical context, etc.

However, even allowing for those issues, it’s still the case that I find it extremely difficult to define good writing (assuming that “what I like” is an insufficient definition).

Maybe what’s required is conscious effort—that is, more work on my own writing, and more careful study of what I read, so that I can develop a structured and articulable concept of what good writing is.

2 Responses to “Good Writing”

  1. NiallM Says:

    Poetry is good for line by line, word by word analysis.

    Analysis above that level is a mystery to me, in that I can’t explain it, but I can sometimes do it.

  2. G- sizzle Says:

    Good scribbling.

    “Well and good writing is it! You seek and seek it, you must but find it you can’t”

    -Some small green bloke I met on the 46a bus route who sounded like he borrowed his voice from Jim Henson, he also put his three fingered hand on my leg and asked me to come back to his swamp, He got off at saint john of gods day care centre.

    “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one and they all stink, just remember it aint all roses down there”

    -Walter Matheau a la grey rain mack, who is another regular user of the 46A bus route didnt seem to like the little green fella either said people like him cause wars.

    “Taste is the enemy of creativity”

    Pablo Picasso, he always sits at the back of the bus.
    I suspect though that he is good with other peoples wives.

    “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole, he would drive down the street in his Eldorado the girls would all go the colour of avocado”

    -Jonathan Richman, he doesnt use the 46a bus route because he lives in California.

    Just thought I would start with some quotes to lube up the discorse as martin luther told the diet of worms, this was before Atkins.
    Good writing or what constitutes good writing, actually lets drop the whole word “writing” and use scribbling instead. Deciding on what good scribbling is or is not and sharing these opinions in public spaces is fraught with knob polishing.

    Perhaps it boils down to plain and simple storytelling and engaging the reader emotionally enough to care about what is going on wthin the page/chapter/book! Stephen King is a great example of this but will never win the booker prize or the like. Publishing is straitified, compartmentalised ( that word is long enough to be a town name in Wales) and genrified.

    Who Decides what good writing is?
    Where can we meet him/her/them?
    How much does it cost?
    Are they willing to share it?
    Are they telling the truth?
    How can we be sure?
    Who are you, you weren’t here a minute ago.
    How do I work this, where do I put in coin.?
    So only the vending machine to the left of the handicapped loo in terminal four in heathrow airport knows what good writing is?
    - Exactly!
    Be that as it may I am still not coming back to some place called “Dagoba” to learn about something called the “force” while you try use willpower to maintain an erection.

    We change and our odourous opinions change with us.
    I loved the Mr Men series when I was 5, Didn’t like them when I was 21, Mr strong was overly representitive of the rigid strutures programmed into all alpha male societal clusters ( societal clusters a new breakfast cerial for academics, nobel prize winners and art students)
    however come 94 oh boy what a tome of literture I hold in my frail arthretic hand, more blue pills nurse Wiliams, Now!

    I like you Tadhg don’t have a notion of what good scribbling is. I have a sense of what I like, of what I should force others to like. Of (here comes the knob polish) what sharp story telling is and precise charcterisation expostion ect. Its not dogmatic though, right.. ok got. it dont argue with me I am right….yeh ok.

    And on that Bombshell.

    goodbye……..G- sizzle

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