By request: What makes good writing?

By request of John Gill

One of my favorite jokes about writing is that the advice to “write what you know” accounts for the preponderance of half-finished novels about middle-aged literature professors contemplating adultery. It’s good to start with “what you know” as a base point, but let’s be totally honest: If you’re like most people, what you know is deeply mundane, possibly even insipid. “What you know” is better as a sort of guide post to keep your writing from going way off the deep end and becoming unrelatable… and even then, far too many people treat their own perspective uncritically as some kind of objective truth.

It can be great and effective when people write what they know, sometimes. But sometimes it turns out to be unfortunate and awful. The deciding factor is… how good the writer and her/his writing is. But “what makes good writing is good writers” seems circular and lazy.

Unfortunately, this circular statement holds true for every bit of advice, every metric I can think of. Techniques and philosophies for writing are inherently neither good nor bad on their own merits; rather, it’s all about how well those tools are put to use by the writer. Writing doesn’t kill words, bad writers do.

For example: Working toward a point makes for good writing… unless, of course, your point is terrible. Or you’re so fixated on that particular thesis as dogma that you run roughshod over nuance or facts. And actually, some of my own personal favorite pieces of writing have started out with a conclusion in mind, but I began to stray over the course of the writing process and ended up somewhere I never meant to go. My intended concluding statement is stranded over somewhere to the side of the path my words travelled, and I just have to shrug and roll with it, because what I came up with seems a lot more interesting than what I had tried to write.

There is no single voice or tone that makes writing good. Some authors work best in economical language. Others can let a single sentence spin wildly out of control in a way that would make most complete paragraphs blush in shame for their inadequacy, stringing together independent phrases and even incomplete clauses with abandon, treating internal punctuation the way an amateur repairman does duct tape: Binding together a ramshackle array of words and concepts together in a proper but conspicuously sloppy manner, in a spirit frowned upon by experts but effective nevertheless for conveying a concept and maintaining a brisk pace; such writers find it better to present their statement in a single breathless burst rather than break it apart more properly and run the risk of stodgy formalism unmaking the passion or conviction behind those words.

Yes, it’s good to write what you know, and Stephen King will probably never stop penning novels centered around New England (and specifically middle-aged New England men who write for a living). But it’s good to stretch beyond your finite world view, too, provided you do the legwork to make your essay convincing. Hidebound writing can be limited and toxic; but careless writing about other people, other countries, other culture, other disciplines — such work ultimately turns out to be hollow and unconvincing. Or even worse, it’s too convincing, filling readers with misinformation and confirming unrealistic attitudes or stereotypes. Again, it all comes down to the discipline and effort invested into the work.

In other words, “what makes good writers is good writers”: Useless advice at best and socially destructive Randian elitism at worst. Let’s not do that.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect the only thing connecting all the different kinds of good writing I’ve experienced in my life is a sense of confidence — a command of the English language. I say English because that’s what I read, but I’m sure the same holds true in any other language. A grasp of vocabulary, of structure, of idiom, of the way sounds flow and complement one another when arranged in different ways. Knowing grammar, commanding a wide array of ways in which to convey a given point, and intuitively understanding when to play by the rules and when to bend them. That’s the trick.

The best writing comes from people who write a lot and practice their craft. People who read a lot and draw inspiration from the work of others. People who listen to others and internalize the cadences and quirks of spoken language, who can combine the informal patterns of the spoken word with the propriety of tightly edited academic or journalistic phrasing. Someone who knows the right words for the right places, but who also has an instinct for predicting where the wrong words or grammar can create an interesting surprise. Good writing comes from knowing a dozen different ways to express a simple concept and understanding which particular style of phrase — whether curt, florid, pompous, idiomatic, academic, or otherwise — fits the situation best.

In other words, what makes good writing is: Study and practice, just like any other discipline.

I know, right? How boring. Well, I never promised that this would be good writing.

6 thoughts on “By request: What makes good writing?

  1. Mundanity can be great, though; I’ve found my best writing tends to be rambling stories about what’s going on in my life. I suppose that’s a lot easier than making stuff up.

  2. “Write what you know” doesn’t always have to mean subject matter or content – it can also mean to write what you know about human experience (that is, your own experience). Your own emotions, thoughts, and observations. And on the subject of analyzing video games (or serialized television, or Gi Joes, or Kit-Kats), make it personal. It’s an interactive medium, after all, and your experience with it is your own. And hey, that’s why Parish has consistently been one of the best games writers for the past, uh, long time. And also why that brief stint at IGN resulted in some (please forgive me) rather dull work.

    Anyways, an excellent read that really proves Parish knows his stuff, regardless of topic. Not that anyone needed proof. (No, please, enough with the self-deprecation – at this point, everyone knows what an awesome writer you are. Really.)

    • Eh? I wrote like four articles at IGN, all of which were actually pretty darned good. That Etrian Odyssey IV review was one of my best.

  3. If you are writting for the web, I have found that if you don’t have a picture with your post, a lot of people will be less likely to read it. Maybe this article needed a picture of a person holding a pen with question marks coming out of their head. I am half joking, making fun of readers, not the writer. Keep up the good work.

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