What is good writing? It’s easy to sit there from your computer or phone and say, “Joe, it’s simple to spot good writing. No typos. Great command of the English language. Possess a fundamental understanding of grammar.” Other people might say something like: “You have to know how to use a comma and understand the difference between Let’s eat grandma and Let’s eat, Grandma.”
Don’t forget about the people who say: “Vary your sentence structure” or “understand how to use a semicolon” or “commas splices are the devil, Bobby.”
Then there are the people who think that split infinitives are the worst thing in the world, believe that using a serial comma is wrong, or chastise writers for a typo in a blog and see that as an indication of an inferior intellect. Oh, and don’t use literally the wrong way; you’re going to piss a lot of people off.
I’ve heard so many rules that people have to follow to write well, but I’m here to say that there is no such thing as good writing. It’s a lie. It’s all a lie. Our teachers and our parents and our high school newspaper editor all want us to believe that there is good writing. I’m sorry to say this, but that’s just not fair. It’s not accurate. It’s kind of a shared hallucination.
When most people examine writing to evaluate if it’s good, I actually believe they are more likely asking (unconsciously), does it match my style expectations? Is it following the rules that I have in my head that define good writing? Does it meet my understanding of language? And when you break those rules that I know, that I understand, you should be crushed and seen as a hack!
But this is just a poor way to evaluate quality. For instance, I heard for years — from professors, authors, and copy editors — that a split infinitive is a mistake; yet when I read Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style,” he has an almost diatribe on how many credible sources believe that a split infinitive shouldn’t be remotely considered a mistake. To poorly construct a sentence with a split infinitive shows as little about writing abilities as using the passive voice.
Yes, we have been trained that the passive voice is horrible and should never be used, but emphasizing a different part of a sentence can be a great use of style.
What I’m trying to get at is that good writing is not actually good writing; it’s effective communication. It’s being understood by an audience; it’s making them feel something; it’s helping them understand a complex idea. It’s a conversation that can be expertly done. Steven Pinker doesn’t say this exactly in his book– or he might; I can’t remember — but what I took away from it was that effective writing is about using style and language to convey thoughts to be understood. And that’s what we should focus on.
When you evaluate this post, I hope you don’t look at a typo; I hope you say: “Did I truly understand what he was trying to say?” “Did he convince me that good writing isn’t real?” Well, probably not in this small space.
But overall, I’m so tired of the question about “What is good writing?” Yes, when we work with people professionally, we have to agree on a standard, and if I write right as write when I actually mean right not left (😉), then you probably will think I’m an idiot. And it would behoove any writer to avoid obvious mistakes. Just…. does that mean the writing is bad?
No, good writing is a lie that we are sold by elitists who want to keep literature and writing to themselves.