All Great Writing Has One Thing in Common. Can You Master It?
This article was updated and reprinted on July 15, 2013.
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Good writing is hard to define. As a consultant to publishers, I know that as well as anyone does. It seems as if I'm always in the middle of one debate or another about whether some particular piece of writing is good, bad, or indifferent.
But although there are some disagreements here and there about whether a certain article or book or sales letter (or writer, for that matter) is good, there is almost never disagreement among experienced people when a piece is top-notch.
So that means something – that the best writing has some sort of unifying quality.
But what is that quality? That's the question.
Figure that out and you have a way of understanding quality, a tool to explain it to others, and just possibly a way to learn the skill of writing faster and more easily.
I've been trying to answer the question for at least 20 years. For a long time, I had nothing. I came up with definitions that would do a good job explaining one sort of good writing but fail miserably to explain another. Then, about a year ago, I had a revelation. Good writing is good thinking with everything else – all the ornamentation – cut off.
I am very happy with that definition. It pretty much explains and clarifies just about every sort of non-fiction writing I can think of. I've used it 100 times since then to analyze the writing of others and to figure out what was sometimes wrong with my own writing.
If good writing is good thinking unembellished, the trick to writing well is twofold:
- Don't start writing until you have one good thought.
- After you've written it down, edit the hell out of it. Get rid of every sentence, phrase, and word that is not necessary.
This is, if I say so myself, excellent advice. But it begs the question: What is good thinking?
I don't have a great answer for that yet, but I can say this. When I say that good writing is good thinking, I am speaking relatively. For an idea to have power … for it to enlighten or disturb or invigorate or persuade … it has to have power in the minds of those reading it.
An idea that cannot be understood or appreciated by readers won't seem "good" to them. In fact, it will seem like a waste of time.
I'm making the relativistic argument – in this case, that "good" is relative. If you believe that writing is a form of communication, you must also believe that communication is only effective when the idea conveyed is received. If you believe that, you must accept this relativistic notion.
Still with me? Good. This gets us to a place where we can understand how there can be many sorts of good writing – some high-brow and sophisticated and some simple, even rudely so.
In other words, it doesn't matter what you want to write about – astronomy or astrology, fine art or cartoons, nuclear physics or sports cars – your writing can be good so long as you give your readers good ideas about the subject matter.
So … how do you come up with good ideas?
First, you have to do what I suggested above – you have to spend time thinking. You can't expect that the great ideas will start flowing the moment you sit down at the computer. They are not so easily captured.
I've been thinking about the process … and also wondering why so much of my writing ends up being such drivel … and I haven't been able to come up with anything brilliant. But the other day, BB (my partner) said something in a memo that was a breakthrough.
We were talking about what was wrong with the writing in several publications we have in England. By most standards, it seems "good" – the expression and style are fine and even the ideas are OK (ordinary but not "bad"), but, overall, the quality is mediocre. We had made suggestions about improving it in the past, and all our suggestions were dutifully observed. Yet, the bottom-line quality of the publications had not improved. There was something deeper than anything we'd yet been able to describe that was still wrong here. And, finally, BB figured out what it was.
In a memo about a writer we both admire, he said, "What I like best about his writing is how unique his ideas are. His view of how things work in the world is very different from mine. But his view is authentic … and that's why I like it."
BB had struck gold, I thought. Authenticity is the key. Good writing must not only involve good ideas but also be authentic.
This is what gives it its relative value – it doesn't matter what the subject is so long as the ideas and the expression of those ideas are authentic … that they honestly and truthfully reflect the thoughts and feelings of the writer … and that they are appropriate to the people who read them.
I was reminded of that while talking to AS about his plans to do standup comedy. We were criticizing something that is very common with fledgling comedians: outrageous vulgarity. We agreed that it isn't the vulgarity itself that makes these young comics fail, but their falseness. In attempting to get a laugh, any laugh, they go for the cheap, scatological stuff. If they're lucky, they get a nervous, embarrassed titter from the audience – but they never get a really big laugh, because their material doesn't ring true. Instead of trying to hit a nerve, they play it "safe" with jokes that are as puerile as they are superficial and predictable.
There have been a few great comics that did use vulgarity. Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce come to mind. They got away with it because they were, essentially, vulgar. The way they looked at the world … their "Weltanschauung" … was vulgar. They proved not only that vulgar perspectives can be bright and clever and sometimes even highly sophisticated, but also that they can be really, really good … when they are authentic.
So this tells you how to write well. Come up with good ideas – ideas that are meaningful to the people you are writing for – and then cut out anything from your writing that is not authentic.
And remember that this applies to other forms of expression … public speaking, of course, but also acting, dancing, singing, and even standup comedy.
It also applies to how you express yourself in your job … in meetings, at reviews, and during individual conversations. Speak when you have a Good Idea to convey … and never, ever pretend to be somebody you aren't.