Just what on Earth is 'good writing' anyway?

I'm writing this without much in the way of research, off the back of a brief thought I had about what it means to 'write well'. I may come back to it in the future, but it makes sense to publish now in its initial stages. It fits into the current plan of writing as much as I think I can manage, around the current workload, which is working out to around 1000 words per day. I'm sure I could double the target amount of 1000 words a day and make it work still, just to really embrace the challenge. But in all honesty I’m struggling already. I have to make up for missed days with some quite substantial pieces as it stands. And what would happen to quality? There’s no point in overdoing it for its own sake. One of the goals is, after all, to learn to really find out how to write pieces that are enjoyable and engaging. Quality work. But what is writing quality?


The most obvious first criteria are the technical aspects of writing: grammar, spelling, correct use of standard language. There's room to play with each of those within the limits of artistic license, but stray too far from convention and you'd probably struggle to engage your reader. Too simple, too complex - that difficulty level really depends on your audience.


Academic paper writers are used to sentences probably 2-3 times longer than the average (I’m pulling figures out of my aether, but you catch my drift). Literary reviews have similarly complex sentence structures. that would most likely bore and switch off the casual reader looking for a more pacy yarn. The Financial Times uses words beyond the understanding of the average reader, but its readers appreciate the specialist writing. Light-hearted fiction such as that of the late Terry Pratchett delights readers with its surprising turns and wit. Crime fiction matches the mood of the more serious reader. Sci-fi, when done well enough to win acclaim, stretches the minds of its insatiably inquisitive readers. Writing for the internet tends to produce shorter, consumable pieces, often focused on garnering ‘hits’ and ‘eyeballs’ as a priority. Writing for your audience then, would seem to be a logical starting point in an effort to write objectively ‘better’. If your audience appreciates humour, drop some in, if it wants in-depth analysis, then it’s time to get the data out. If they like a well structured argument or narrative arc, your job is to meet that need.


I have only very briefly considered the structure of this article, essay or blog post, whatever the reader, you, would like to call it, and it no doubt shows. I could call it a stream of consciousness writing style, which would be valid as any other, but it’s more likely just a confusion of web and essay styles that will probably miss their mark. To compensate, I’m hoping to make it at least a little enjoyable for the reader to get to grips with the points I’m making by moving relatively quickly through my thoughts. Enjoyment being, I’d suggest, a key criteria for readers (myself included) to perceive the writing as having been ‘good’.


But I still need to watch out. I can't fly off on tangents that stray too far from the point, or I'll lose the few readers that persist. Great writers with great minds and brave new ideas might paint a half dozen tangential points before reuiniting them in the grand conclusion with some kind of invisible thread that was there all along. A kind of waking dream, leaving you feeling whole and right. And that, I suppose, is a great mind at work, relying more on the argument than the style. Without the argument that writer would have very little. Readers who are bored of average, everyday writing will enjoy something of that kind because it stands out to them among the sea of snippets, bullet points and manipulative copy efforts. It's all too easy to be M. Average (meet M., my new contraction of Ms. and Mr., a neutral title...), fitting perfectly into the expectations of your audience. It’s in the addition of those greater touches that I expect to find the way to well-written work.


So what are the touches of greatness? I've forced myself through some thoroughly unenjoyable stories from many of the 'greats' of writing, as they're known. Balzac, Moliere, Shakespeare, Stephen King (chuckle, etc.). Unenjoyable to me, of course, at that time in my life. The amount I enjoyed those stories, when put alongside those of Tolkien or Neal Stephenson, was paltry. I wonder if I'm just not their target reader. It’s simple of course to appreciate cleverness and fun wordplay, innovation and twists on an old theme, but if I sense pretence, hero worship or a repetition of a theme to milk it for profit, my back is up and the book is down. I usually force myself to finish those, actually, because, you know, surely it must get better? There are many I wish I hadn't.


The audiences for many of the greats were, at the time, and on average, people with a vastly different world view to my own. To go to extremes, many of them didn't mind putting their children and slaves to work. They lived in deeply patriarchal societies. They drank, gambled and smoked to an early grave. I'm not saying they weren't nice people, but my reading entertainment needs are many miles away from theirs. The writers themselves were undeniably what you’d call ‘good’, and acutely aware of their readership. They worked their trademark styles very well. They achieved renown through the innovations their creativity could devise. But any one style done to death after its initial wave of interest is as uninteresting as anything else out there, to me.


So what's the moral of this, brief and barely coherent consideration of writing quality? That great writing seems to arise at the confluence (I know, minus points for attempted fancy word-dropping...) of prolific output, a boredom with the status quo that forces innovation and intrigue and basing all of those circumstantial criteria on a thorough understanding of your readership.


I’ll be back to add to this text because the argument is far from made, but if that serves as a reliable starting point for the improvement of my own writing, time will tell. I could be sitting here in 6 months writing some of the most original, captivating and talked about web arti-posts the world has ever seen. Or I'll more likely be raising the odd wry smile from like-minded web-weary wanderers. If I'm lucky. Still, worth a shot.


Applying it all to the web and my own challenge


If I manage even half of the 5000 words per week I’ve challenged myself to produce, each post another attempt to find the perfect reader and to add a little something of interest to their lives, through entertainment, insight or plain old 'purposeful procrastination', then I'll surely emerge as an improved writer. One with an actual audience of sorts. That's the theory. I can test that theory with data too, this being the digital domain. Visits, comments, tweets, shares, all indicators of enjoyment and hitting the mark.


Although I will be trying to hang most of the writing on my business life, to help ensure that it's not a completely wasteful exercise, it’ll be well worth it to try to bring in enough personal input to breathe actual life into otherwise potentially dry subjects. The audience is more or less decided on, then. As is the subject matter. All that's left for me to do is to get writing and to try not to forget that someone might actully be reading and would like to enjoy that experience. Smiles. That's what I'm basically after. A little approval that I'm doing something that's useful to someone while getting to indulge and impose my thoughts in this, to date, very average corner of the web. And maybe, just maybe, master the art of writing that little bit more. That's the goal. That's the dream. (Cue curtain).

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(Shuffle back onto stage awkwardly for one final message)

In the time between writing this on the Psion and the arrival of the CF reader allowing me to transfer it to the PC, I came across a thread offering advice on writing ‘essays’ [0]. Some said to write prolifically, on paper, when away from the keyboard. Others say the subject matter comes first, writing follows (as per my great minds thought above). Some mention the fear of being judged, suggesting a few hundred words per day to improve and overcome the fear. Telling a good story is mentioned, of course, and technical points are made about brevity and simplicity. Some even offer a structure:  ‘Define, Illustrate, Contrast, Explain’, or DICE. The journalism pyramid is noted. Some professional writers chimed in with ‘just get it out, sort it out later’. What tied the ideas together seemed to be a high degree of freedom to write whatever and however you please, as long as you yourself are interested, the reader stays interested and that it actually gets written in the first place.


I also came across the site of a person who goes by the pseudonym ‘gwern’ [1]. This gwern has written some 2m words over 200+ articles on their website alone, drawing audiences of thousands every day. A prolific writer and also Wikipedia editor, with over 90,000 edits to their name. However, there have been times when gwern has solicited donations, or had them solicited on their behalf, due to a lack of steady income. These were received greatfully, but were not enough to keep the rent paid for too long. Experiments with ads on the site have not come to much either. They may have another income, one hopes, at least, but this isn’t mentioned and the few reminders of ‘barely making ends meet’ on the site seem genuine, despite the highly sought after skills this person clearly has.


It all just brought home to me that even with extremely interesting and in-demand subject matter, all well developed into intriguing prose, attracting audiences in the hundreds of thousands per year, that writing itself is no road to material success. No doubt, and gwern acknowledges this also, there are immaterial side-benefits to being so prolific; intellectual stimulation and education, reputation, influence and so on. These are the fallback rewards, or perhaps plenty reward in themselves; I wouldn't know. Yet. Initially I think I will focus on benefiting from some of the latter, while using the writing to support business efforts at the same time. This, to be frank, is the only way I’ll come close to achieving any of the immaterial benefits - through partially material motivation.


While I haven't managed to give a definitive one-liner for the moment, then, I've got a little more direction after a bit of thought (spurred on by the writing!) and fortuitous input from others. Happy reading and writing to you, and thanks for hanging around.



[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10276466

[1] http://www.gwern.net

Published by using 1860 words.