Monday, October 26, 2009

Can You Define Good Writing?

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There’s been quite a discussion lately on a readers listserv about good and bad writing — sparked by a discussion about Dan Brown, the mega-selling author who no one has ever called a good writer and some have said a lot worse about.

Everyone seems to agree that bad writing is easy to define:
  • awkward phrasing
  • repetitiveness
  • wordiness
  • blandness
  • vagueness and confusion
  • clichés
  • flat, one-dimensional characters
  • self-indulgent description and/or philosophizing
  • hard-to-swallow events
The debate is about what exactly constitutes good writing and the subset discussion: Can you actually define good writing or is it entirely a subjective judgment? Some say good writing has a list of known qualities, yet when pressed, they failed to offer a list of those qualities. Others say good writing is simply the absence of all the attributes that define bad writing. Still others insist it is more than that, yet they can’t agree on the qualities. (This reminds me of the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who said about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”)

Some readers think the ability to write an effective description is a trait of good writing. Yet other readers dislike and/or skip descriptions. Some say good writing is poetic, but many readers don’t like poetry and would prefer to read Louis L’Amour or Elmore Leonard. And what exactly is a “nice turn of phrase”? Could you get a handful of people to agree that a certain group of words was a nice turn of phrase?

After giving this much thought, I’ve come up with this vague, but functional description of good writing: Writing that does not draw attention to itself as writing, but pulls you along smoothly, eager to read more.

I know some of you can do better than that? What is good writing? Does it have a universal set of qualities? Can you name some?
L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, novelist, and occasional standup comic based in Eugene, Oregon. She is the author of the highly praised mystery/suspense novel, The Sex Club, and her new Detective Jackson story, Secrets to Die For, has just been released. Her third Jackson story, Thrilled to Death, will be published next summer. When not plotting murders, Sellers enjoys cycling, hanging out with her family, and editing fiction manuscripts. Contact her at: Write First, Clean Later.


  1. That's probably as good a description as any!

  2. Great description. Good writing draws you into the story unobtrusively, and leaves a lasting effect on the reader.

    How come I see so little fiction that actually does that?

  3. Plenty of people love Dan Brown's writing. Some for his phrasing of words, some for the puzzle he lays out and walks them through. If there was a formula for "good" writing, then we'd only need one writer. So many writers; so little time to read them all.

    Straight From Hel

  4. Good writing is so subjective. In my womens' group, we all disagree on what we like and don't like. For me it's a story that draws me in and keeps me wanting to know what happens next. It's great writing, if I really care about the characters and what happens to them and moves me emotionally.

  5. Well, all writing should be edited to be really good ;)... and I just corrected the question. (blush)

    I'd also argue the point a bit, because I've read some classics that were powerful writing and definitely didn't pull me into the story. I had to push myself every step of the way, and then was glad I did for the thought-provoking insights. Surely others have had that experience, in college if nowhere else.


  6. Oh, and I would add a point that I always tried to instill in my art students: you don't have to like a piece to appreciate its merits. Art can be incredibly excellent and be ugly and reviled. I also agree with that Supreme Court justice because I feel much the same way - I can tell the difference between erotica and pornography, but it's damned tough to explain to someone without an arts foundation, which is the myriad of tools and rules and experience underlying a judgment. Part of the difference in that scenario is the intent of the artist, and that argument really opens up a can of worms. "Who says you must have good intent to create a good piece of art?" It's a valid question in our how-low-can-you-go society, since art is partly a reflection of that society.

    I blather on... ;)


  7. Good writing can be as simple as not getting in the way or drawing attention to itself but just taking you into the story, but that's not the only way you can be a good writer. There are different components to what is a good writing, and all of them also involve intention. What does the writer wish to achieve? And how effectively does he/she achieve those goals. The goal of the artist/writer could be to create language so beautiful it soars on wings in air so thin it makes takes your breath away. If effective story telling is the goal than whatever writing style chosen it should serve the story.

    Dan Brown is criticized for his writing because it is often pedestrian - serviceable but not inspired. Obviously he's a good story teller or people wouldn't be so excited to read his work.

    It's not an achievement to be sneezed at, but it doesn't make him a great writer. Shakespeare is a great writer: language so beautiful that it startles, enlightens, draws out laughter or tears, and all in the service of a great rollocking story.

  8. I think there is a difference between good writing and good story telling. I have had the pleasure of working with two creative people who came up with wonderful stories, but couldn't get them on paper in a way to make the "craft of writing" disappear so the reader was engrossed in the story. I think Dan Brown is a better story teller than writer.

  9. My simple answer was: Good writing is writing that doesn't bore me.

    Since I started trying to write fiction, I'd say: Good writing is writing that doesn't turn on the editor in my head.

  10. I'm with you, LJ. Good writing is writing you don't notice until you get to the end of the book, put it down and go "Wow."

  11. I like that description. Whether you write for an audience of one, or excite millions, your writing will be judged. If writing can seduce you into feeling any emotion I think it was good.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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