What is “good” writing, anyway?
This post arises as an elaboration of a response I posted on my esteemed brother’s blog, Muddled Ramblings, http://homepage.mac.com/vikingjs/iblog/, which raised the question of what, exactly, makes writing effective.
To start with, allow me to establish a definition of good writing: Good writing is that which is effective. If the writing has the effect upon the reader that the writer intended, then that writing is good. So, essentially, when we look at what makes writing effective, we are looking at what makes writing good.
Many people have the notion that good grammar is what makes good writing, and that if they can just get all the commas in the right places, and the spelling just right, and the verbs conjugated just so, they will have good writing. Yes, the grammar is important to the clarity of the writing, but even the most impeccably grammatical writing will not be good writing if it fails to be effective – the argument of an essay still must be logical and convincing, and the plot of a story still must engage the reader emotionally.
I have come to realize over the years that the most critical element of good writing is connections. Writing is the act of making connections, and these connections happen on many levels.
First, there’s the very most basic, nuts-and-bolts connections between ideas. You have two sentences. They are related to each other.
Billy never studies. He is passing all of his classes.
Whoa. That doesn’t make sense. The reader is confused. So you connect the ideas in a way that shows the relationship between the ideas in the two sentences.
Billy never studies, but even so, he is passing all of his classes.
Okay, now that makes more sense. Just a couple of little words put in the right place make the connection clear, and we now understand that Billy’s situation isn’t quite the usual.
Making connections also applies to bigger units of information. Say you’re writing a set of instructions. First, you’re going to put the steps of the instructions in the order in which they are to be followed – you’re going to mess up your reader if you don’t tell him to grease the pan until after you have told him to pour the cake batter in. Organizing ideas in order is part of how you make the connections. You will also use transitional words and phrases: first, second, next, then, finally. Sometimes the connections will be more involved; for example, you may have your reader mix up an egg-yolk-based mixture and set that aside while whipping up the egg whites, and then you will ask the reader to go back and get the yolk mixture to fold into the egg-white mixture later. In cases like that, you will want to make sure the reader remembers the earlier part of the recipe. You don’t want the reader to blame you if the soufflé falls.
On a similar level are the connections to be made using pronouns. If your pronouns are all over the place, your reader is going to be confused – as much as possible, don’t switch around between I, you, we, and they. Pick one and stick with it, unless there’s a good reason to switch. Don’t ever use they to refer to a singular noun, such as “a student” or “a woman.” And don’t use either you or they as a shortcut to avoid thinking about who, exactly, you are writing about. You need to make those connections for your reader – are they people in general, some government entity, a particular group of people you haven’t defined, or invading space aliens?
Beyond the mechanical connections between ideas, good writing is also, most importantly, about the connection between the writer and the reader. If the definition of good writing is writing that has an effect upon the reader, then the connection between the writer and the reader is the most important connection of all.
Even that connection has multiple levels. For one thing, you must make logical connections. Whether you are writing a research report or an argumentative essay, you have to connect ideas together logically or your reader will reject them. In a short story or novel, even though it’s fiction, the events have to follow a logical sequence, and they have to fit with the characters involved. If they don’t, you will lose your reader.
But probably the most important connection that you, as a writer, have to make with your readers is emotional. Sure, you can fill your research paper with all sorts of scientific data about Alzheimer’s disease, and tons of facts. But those facts won’t be all that useful unless you also connect with your reader emotionally to get the reader interested in the human side of the topic; narratives about people dealing with a family member with Alzheimer’s will allow the reader to understand the condition better. In fiction, you also need to connect emotionally with your readers – they aren’t going to bother to read for very long if they’re bored. You need to have characters your readers care about and events your readers are interested in.
Yes, connections, that’s what’s important in writing, just as in politics. The difference is that in writing, you can make those connections without having to know the right people.