What Is Good Writing? Find Out & You’ll Become a “Really” Good Writer
There is nothing good writers like to argue about more than what constitutes good writing.
In my 30+ years in the publishing business I have taken part in my share of such quarrels. Most of them were lively. But few, if any, were ever resolved.
So what is good writing?
Of course you can’t agree on what’s good about anything unless you begin with a definition of “good” – one that is both mutually agreeable and objective. Put differently, it’s impossible to have a useful discussion of good if by good you mean, “that which pleases moi.”
Three people read Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric.
One person says it isn’t any good because the meter is awkward and because it does not rhyme. “I like only poetry that is regular and rhymes,” he says.
The second person says the poem is great because it evokes sensual images. He quotes snippets: “The bodies of men and women engirth me” and “framers bare-armed framing a house,” etc.
The third person says it’s “just okay.” What pleases him about poetry is what Ezra Pound called melopoeia – the emotional impact of the musicality of the language. “I got some of that affect from the poem,” he says. “But not enough.”
Such conversations are dead from the start because they don’t have an objective measure of “goodness” they can agree on.
You see, what is good writing to you may – may be awful to me.
But most discussions about good writing are worse than that because the participants don’t even articulate their underlying preferences. Indeed, they may not even be aware of them.
The ancient Greeks had similarly volatile discussions about what constitutes good drama. They too had lots of strongly held opinions but no objective criteria on which to posit their opinions. In 335 BC, Aristotle came close to solving this problem with history’s greatest essay on literary theory: The Poetics. In that essay he attempted to articulate what made “great” Greek theater great.
Aristotle began by listing six elements of Greek drama. There was plot (mythos), character (ethos), thought (dianoia), diction (lexis), melody (melos) and spectacle (opsis).
And then by looking at the Greek plays commonly considered to be great he put those six elements in order. He said plot was the most important, character the next, and so on.
That didn’t end arguments about what makes for great drama. But it did give critics a useful object standard that could guide their arguments. (Footnote)
In the world I work in – the world of non-fiction writing – no such landmark work of literary theory exists. In fact, we have very little good writing about good non-fiction writing at all. I’m not sure why that is. But it is a significant deficiency. If we want to learn (and teach) how to write well, we must begin with an objective definition of what we mean by “good.”
I’ve been thinking about this problem for almost as long as I’ve been in the publishing business. What are the elements of good, non-fiction writing? And of them, which are the most important and why?
Over the years I’ve read dozens of books about non-fiction writing but I never found a single one that arrived at an objective definition that had the simplicity and power of Aristotle’s method.
Finally, it dawned on me: why not just apply Aristotle’s methodology? Why not look at a sample of the “best” non-fiction writing we have today and then identify the elements and characteristics they had in common.
But that begged the same question: What do I mean by good?
So I used Aristotle’s answer: to be good it has to be both popular and well thought of by educated people.
If you take a look at the ten best-selling non-fiction books of the 20th and 21st centuries, here is what you would find:
- Think and Grow Rich (1937) by Napoleon Hill (70 million copies sold)
- The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) by Benjamin Spock (50 million copies sold)
- A Message to Garcia (1899) by Elbert Hubbard (40 million sold)
- You Can Heal Your Life (1984) by Louise Hay (35 million sold)
- In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? (1896) By Charles Sheldon (30 million sold)
- The Purpose Driven Life (2002) by Rick Warren (30 million sold)
- The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) by Hal Lindsey (28 million sold)
- Who Moved the Cheese (1998) by Spencer Johnson (26 million sold)
- The Celestine Prophecy (1993) by James Redfield) (23 million sold)
- The Happy Hooker (1971) by Xavier Hollander (20 million copies sold)
These are the best sellers. They met Aristotle’s criterion of popularity. But few of these (actually none) praised as worthy by educated people.
If you made a second list, of the five best sellers that were critically acclaimed, it would include the following:
- The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams (14 million copies sold)
- The Naked Ape (1968) by James Morison (12 million copies sold)
- Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) by Victor Frankl (12 million copies sold)
- The Prophet (1923) by Khalil Gibran (11 million copies sold)
- A Brief History of Time (1988) by Stephen Hawkins (10 million copies sold)
Following Aristotle’s methodology we must now identify their common elements and characteristics. I’ve read these books and found that they all contained the following five characteristics:
- Quality of expression (similar to Aristotle’s diction): The sentences were well made and that they fit together well. The writing itself was fun to read.
- Quality of ideas (similar to Aristotle’s thought): The ideas were exciting. They seemed smart and true – even when I disagreed with them.
- Sufficiency and persuasiveness of evidence. The ideas were supported with either compelling stories or solid facts. I myself being persuaded by them even if they ran contrary to my prejudices.
- Clarity of expression. The sentences were easy to read and the ideas were easy to grasp.
- Impact of the authorial voice. I trusted the writer. He seemed authentic and committed to his ideas.
Continuing with Aristotle’s methodology, we must evaluate and order these four elements in terms of importance.
Had I taken this step thirty years ago – before I had become a publisher – I might have put the quality of expression and the impact of the authorial voice at the top of the list.
But then my criteria for "what is good writing" was based solely on my objectives as a writer. As a writer my objective was the appreciation (and yes, praise) of readers I admired. And the writers I admired were masters of expression and voice.
But when I became a publisher I realized praise from smart people was not my only objective. To keep my job (and keep my businesses growing) I had to identify and groom writers who could produce best-selling books, newsletters and the sales copy to create those best selling products.
The moment I adopted that perspective it was apparent that the skillful, literary expression and the impact of the authorial voice, though important, were not at the top of the list.
Several years ago I had a conversation with Bill Bonner. Bill is a great writer. But he is also the publisher of the most successful newsletter publishing empire in the world. We were talking about what was wrong with the writing we were seeing in our British publications. We were trying to define an objective definition (what is good writing) again because we had to explain our shared view to our editors and writers there.
Bill thought it might be a good idea to give them several examples of good writing from our American publications. We had no problem agreeing on who those models should be. They were writers who were both popular (i.e., their newsletters sold very well and easily) and they produced essays that we constantly admired. “What is it about these writers,” I asked Bill, “that you admire?”
“I like their ideas,” he said. “That is what most excites me. Their ideas are always thoughtful and clever and useful. When I read them I do so with anticipation because I know I will acquire a new thought or perspective that will help me think about the subject in the future.”
“Well, that’s it,” I thought.
Soon after that I began pestering our editors and writers with “my” first, crude definition of good non-fiction writing. I was finally able to answer the question, What is good writing?
“Good writing is nothing more than the expression of good ideas,” I preached. “If you could consistently conjure up exciting, useful and believable ideas then you were, de facto, a good writer.”
That definition served me well for several years. But as I used it to teach good writing to fledgling writers I came to believe that it was not enough. Some of the writers I was working with were skillful in developing exciting and useful ideas. But their manner of expression was dense and convoluted. It was impossible to find those good ideas unless you had the time and commitment to dig through all the verbal junk that was surrounding them. These writers had the most important skill, but they were weak in the element of expression. And so I added clarity of expression as the second most important element on my list.
Note that the quality of expression I was advocating was clarity, not literariness. When I was young I was impressed by subtlety and literariness of expression – probably because I lacked those skills myself. But now I realized that the supreme quality of expression is clarity because it made the ideas – the most important of the four elements of non-fiction writing – more accessible.
It makes sense. If the ideas were wonderful, then the best style of expression would be one that presents those ideas as clearly and succinctly as possible.
So now I had the first two elements in order: the quality of the ideas and the clarity of expression.
That left me with the quality of expression, the sufficiency and persuasiveness of evidence, the impact of the authorial voice.
I’ve been thinking about these three for about a year now, seeing how they factor into the writing of the most successful writers on my list. And my conclusion is the latter two were about equally important and the first – the quality of expression – was, at least in the short run, only marginally important.
That surprised me because, as I mentioned, was when I was young the most critical component of good writing.
You can’t be a good writer without providing enough evidence to convince your readers that your ideas are correct. And yet you can get a lot of that work done by having authority and confidence in your voice.
As to quality of expression, I still think it is important. But now I believe it is actually the result of having good ideas and expressing them clearly. Writing about nonsense in a literary way cannot impress anyone as good except an intellectual fraud.
The ideal writer would have all five characteristics. He would be capable of presenting emotionally and intellectually compelling ideas. He would express them clearly and with a mature voice. And he would support them with whatever research data and anecdotal evidence were needed to persuade the reader.
What is good writing? Here is the new and improved definition:
Good writing is the clear expression of exciting and useful ideas supported by persuasive evidence and presented in an authentic voice.
So how do you apply this definition to your writing?
- Don't start writing until you have at least one good thought.
- Write that thought down as simply as possible.
- Support with as much detail as it warrants.
- Write sincerely, which is to say with the best interests of your reader at heart.
Writing is communication. And communication involves two parties. Writing begins with the writer. It’s his job to develop exciting and useful ideas. But if those ideas that cannot be understood or believed then it won’t seem "good" to his readers. In fact, reading them will seem like a waste of time.
So the first step is to find or create a single, exciting and useful idea. You can do that sometimes simply by thinking about your experience. Oftentimes, however, you must supplement your thinking by doing a great deal of reading. You have to read the best ideas you can find about your subject until some exciting, seemingly new idea hits you. And then after it hits, you have to spend days writing and thinking about this idea to make sure it is as good as it seems. (Many seemingly great ideas fade into mediocrity upon reflection.)
Then, after you are sure that your idea is sound you must gather lots of evidence to support it. That evidence can be factual but it can also be anecdotal. Persuasion is a complicated business. It is achieved by appealing to both the logical and the analogical parts of the brain. Whenever possible support your ideas with stories as well as facts. If pictures can tell a thousand words, stories can have the weight of a thousand facts.
And finally get rid of every paragraph, every sentence and every word that is not essential to expressing and supporting your ideas. If you do that you will not only be a good writer, you may one day be a great writer or at least write one great thing.
Footnote: If you care to read them I can recommend Horace’s Art of Poetry, Longinus’s On the Sublime, Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, Dryden’s essay on Dramatic Poetry, Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, etc.
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