Every semester I agonize over how to help my students learn to write more meaningful, interesting papers. Not just in my class, but altogether. Writing well is a key skill in today’s information-heavy society, and above all else my job is to help prepare students to become active participants in the society we live in.
Writing well is about far more than proper grammar and spelling. In fact, good writing often violates the rules of good grammar, sometimes violently. It is also about more than simply developing a good style. Hemingway and Proust have very different styles, but both were good writers.
One piece of advice often given to students is to write conversationally, and while that can be helpful – particularly for students (and others) who feel that good writing means using a lot of big words and complex sentences – not all good writing is conversational. Malcolm Gladwell’s writing is very conversational, and is quite effective for it; on the other hand, David Mamet’s writing is famously NON-conversational – and he writes plays and movie scripts that consist almost entirely of conversations!
While trying to figure out something I could do for this year’s best and brightest, I decided to list some of the qualities that make writing good writing. The characteristics that make the best prose stick with us, that keep us reading or listening to a book or speech. This is what I came up with.
1. Powerful writing is readable.
I borrowed the notion of readability from the world of typesetting, where it refers to the effort required to make sense of the letters and words on a page. A paragraph set in Times New Roman is very readable; the same paragraph in Edwardian Script is nearly unreadable. In terms of what makes for good writing, readability is about the basic ability of a reader to make sense of what is written. A work that’s readable is grammatically sound (not necessarily grammatically correct – what’s important is that grammar not get in the way of the meaning) and stylistically clear, requiring only as much work to understand as is necessary.
2. Powerful writing is focused.
Good writing has a point, a goal that it is intended to achieve. That goal might be to sell something, to convince someone of something, or to explain how to do something, but whatever the point, it informs every line. Anything that doesn’t lead the reader towards that goal is stripped away.
3. Powerful writing develops gracefully.
Powerful writing is not just focused on a goal, it leads the reader inescapably towards that goal. That may be through the use of evidence in support of an argument, through the relaying of a narrative describing events occurring over time, or in some other way, but it must be graceful – without gaps of reasoning, unsupported assumptions, missing information, or anything else that would cause a reader to stumble.
4. Powerful writing flows.
Good writing is all of a piece – the various elements that make it up fit together neatly and draw the reader along. Think of how bad joke-tellers tell jokes: “So the priest says – Oh, I forgot to tell you that the horse is gay. Ok, so the priest says…” That’s the opposite of flow. Flow means that everything in a piece of writing is exactly where it belongs, that whatever you need to understand paragraph 4 is present in paragraph 1, 2, or 3, that each part transitions nicely into the next, and that the style and tone remain constant throughout. Think of the way the Gettysburg Address moves effortlessly from the founding of the United States to the Civil War battlefield on which Lincoln stood.
5. Powerful writing is concrete.
Our society tends to value abstract thinking and generalizations over concrete particularities, but this tends to lead to particularly limp and empty writing. The best writing, even when the subject is an abstraction, grounds its topic in the real world through examples, metaphors and analogies, and storytelling. This is an intensification of the old “show, don’t tell” rule – powerful writing doesn’t just show, it shows in real-world ways that are easily apporachable.
6. Powerful writing is well-suited for its audience.
A good writer knows his or her audience intimately: the language they understand, the beliefs they share, the knowledge they hold. He or she knows what assumptions can be made about the reader, and what assumptions can’t be made. Good writing isn’t boring because the writer knows what will hold his or her audience’s interest. It is neither too dense nor too simple for the intended reader – it’s just right.
7. Powerful writing is compelling.
The best writing demands attention, whether through the force of its argument, the strength of its language, or the importance of its topic. The reader doesn’t want to stop reading – even when they’re done.
8. Powerful writing is passionate.
Good writing is about something important. Not necessarily something important in the grand scheme of things, but something either the audience already cares about or something the author makes them care about. And you can’t make an audience care unless you care, deeply, about whatever you’re writing about. It’s always clear when a writer doesn’t care – it’s what distinguishes the hacks from the greatest writers – and it’s easy enough not to care when the writer so clearly doesn’t.
Normally I’d ask what I missed (and feel free to let me know in the comments) but I want to ask something else: What kind of writing speaks to you? What is the most powerful writing you remember? While writing this, I kept thinking of Barack Obama’s speeches, which even people who utterly disagree with him find deeply moving. What about you?