Recently, while reading A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (the second in the Chief Inspector Gamache series), I actually had to pause, put down the book, and absorb the beauty of her writing. Her description of an art studio was both mesmerizing and delightful. She literally paints pictures with words. Amazing! I wish I could write like that. I believe that’s what’s commonly known as good writing.
So what of it? Well, in my opinion, good writing is not as common as one might think. And more to the point, what makes writing good? For that matter, what makes writing bad?
Thus, like Sir Cadogan from the Harry Potter books, I suddenly had a quest. First I went to the internet and typed-in ‘definition of good writing.’ I stopped reading after page nine of two-hundred sixteen full-page definitions. My eyes were blurry and my brain was full. It seems, like our personalized definition of a good movie, good dinner, or good date, we all have our own ideas as to what is good writing.
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The first place I always check on such heady matters is with Ann, my wife. She compares good writing to a pleasant journey: the better the writing, the more enjoyable the trip. Her recent example was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which according to Ann, every page was a treat. After some musing on the topic, she added, “Good writing must have subtle character development which is shown, not told, as the story unfolds. Also, the scenes must appeal to all senses, and thus become real.”
Hmm. So far, so good.
Continuing my quest, I then fired off a dozen or so emails to my pals who read. (Not all of them do). Some of the responses were fascinating.
Marcy Abbott, one of the best writers I have the pleasure to know, replied with the following. “What do you mean by good writing? Good, as in knowing the grammar, the spelling and the story continuity are going to be correct and you, the reader, can just relax and enjoy without wading through mangled sentences and confused plot lines? Some examples are Pearl Buck, Anita Diamant, and Anne Tyler.
Good, as in presenting new or unusual ideas that make you think such as Bill Bryson and Madeline Miller?
Good, as in keeping you nailed to your seat until you have finished like Dan Brown, Stephen King, and Chris Bohjalian?
Good, as in the stunning description and lyrical turns of phrase such as Ray Bradbury, Anthony Doerr, and E. Annie Proulx?
Or how about all of the above like J.R.R. Tolkien, R.L. Stevenson, John Gardner, Mary Stewart, and Ken Follett?”
Wow! So this business of good writing is more complex than I originally thought.
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Next, I turned to my friend and world’s best writing teacher, UMass Professor Dave Daniel. He put it this way, “As for what makes good writing, that opens a big door. Briefly, I think what works for me as a reader is a liveliness--some verve and energy to the writing, no matter the subject matter or plot line. And more and more, brevity. We're all time-crunched these days and though I still tackle big novels, I like something I can read and finish before bed (hence, your latest book is on my bedside table). As for writers I like, especially for their short fiction: F. Scott Fitzgerald (a beautiful prose), Raymond Carver (masterful the way he gets so much power out of simple language), Denis Johnson (wild times), and Joyce Carol Oates (gothic and insightful).”
Again, wow! Notice how different both explanations are.
So then I checked with friends and some weighed in with opinions and favorite authors. Some quotable quotes included:
Novel writer Donna Smith said, “Good writing? In a nutshell, the good writers end up being those who managed to create characters that I cannot forget, characters evermore settled in my heart.”
Another novel writer, Michele Williams, put it this way, “I know the writing was good when I get depressed after reading the final page.”
Scot Campbell, my personal coach on matters of unusual words, says, “For me, good writing is composed in the spoken language, not the formal written language. I prefer short sentences and equal short dialogs.”
As for me, my definition is simple: did I get sucked into the story? Yes or no. If after fifty pages, my eyes are jumping to the bottom of the page to see what’s happening, I close the book and move on. In fact, I liken books to an amusement park. When entering the front gate, some people head straight for the roller coaster where the wind blows your hair back and you hang on for dear life. Others step onto the French carousel and admire the beauty of the decor. I tend to be drawn to the thrill ride, but like good writing, it’s simply a matter of taste.
So there you have it – good writing comes in all shapes and sizes. Now I’d like to hear from you. What is your definition of good writing? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.