What Constitutes "Good Writing"?
Here's something I've learned from teaching writing to dozens upon dozens of people around the U.S.:
One of the primary reasons writers restrain themselves from writing is that they are worried their writing will not be good.
At best, this fear makes us bashful. We refrain from sharing our work with other people, or we do so only with apologies: It's not very good. It's just a first draft. I'm embarrassed to share this with you. I'm not a real writer.
At worst, the fear of not producing good writing prevents us from ever getting our words, ideas, or stories down on paper.
This fear is so pervasive — and so understandable.
It is scary to write something that matters to us and to share it with other people, and for many people that fear takes the form of perfectionism: the idea that unless we have something perfect ("good") to say and are equipped to tell it in a perfect ("good") way, then we really shouldn't put ourselves out there after all.
It seems like we're prioritizing high-quality writing, but in many cases, I think we're really prioritizing our own supposed safety. If we deem ourselves ill equipped for writing, then we don't have to go through the scary process of putting our writing out there — no matter whether it will be read by yourself or a larger audience.
Again, this is completely understandable. It's reasonable to be inclined to avoid scary things!
But in order for us to write often and openly — and to enjoy everything that doing so can bring to our lives — we must address the tyrannical pressure to produce good writing.
Is It Actually Possible to Define "Good Writing"?
Even though so many of us are inhibited by the need to produce good writing, I wager that most people haven't spent much time actually thinking about what that means.
When I ask groups to share their thoughts on what constitutes "good writing," I get responses that are all over the map and include factors such as:
- Grammatical correctness
- Interesting plot
- Emotionally engaging
- Tells a story
- Concise/not too wordy
- Smart use of language
- And so on
It quickly becomes clear that everyone has a slightly different concept of what "good writing" actually is, and none of these ideas are more or less justifiable (more or less "right" or "wrong") than others.
When it becomes clear that "good writing" is hard to define, we consider whether good writing is something that falls under the category of "You know it when you see it."
Consider the following examples…
At eight o'clock Kutuzov rode to Pratz at the head of Miloradovich's fourth column, the one which was to take the place of the columns of Przebyszewski and Langeron, which had already gone down. He greeted the men of the head regiment and gave the order to move, thus showing that he intended to lead the column himself. Having ridden to the village of Pratz, he halted. Prince Andrei, one of the enormous number of persons constituting the commander in chief's suite, stood behind him. Prince Andrei felt excited, irritated, and at the same time restrainedly calm, as a man usually is when a long-desired moment comes. He was firmly convinced that this was the day of his Toulon or his bridge of Arcole. How it would happen, he did not know, but he was firmly convinced that it would be so. The locality and position of our troops were known to him, as far as they could be known to anyone in our army. His own strategic plan, which there obviously could be no thought of carrying out now, was forgotten. Now, entering into Weyrother's plan, Prince Andrei pondered the possible happenstances and came up with new considerations, such as might call for his swiftness of reflection and decisiveness.
Most people hate this excerpt. They critique the writing for being cumbersome, cold, tedious, and unengaging.
Then I tell them that this is a paragraph from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, which is generally considered to be one of the most canonical texts of all time.
Obviously, a whole lot of people think this constitutes "good writing." And yet most of the people sitting in front of me didn't think it was any good.
Or how about this one?
Buckwheat is one of those elusive ingredients that intimidated me when I first learned about it, but the more I cook with it, the fonder of it I become (it’s especially great in our Buckwheat Crepes!). It’s wholesome, gluten-free, and versatile, and it provides a delicious nutty flavor. Plus, it makes extra-crunchy granola, which happens to be my thing. Let’s bake!
Responses to this excerpt tend to be mixed. Some people enjoy the writing, while others find it to be frivolous, and there's often much debate about whether or not this constitutes "good writing."
No matter what you think of it, the Minimalist Baker's millions of readers all seem to have endorsed the quality of posts like this one.
And one more:
On Wednesday mornings early there is always a racket out there on the road. It wakes me up and I always wonder what it is. It is always the trash collection truck picking up the trash. The truck comes every Wednesday morning early. It always wakes me up. I always wonder what it is.
This piece also elicits debate. Many people think it's too short, silly, and repetitive to qualify as "good."
Personally, I love it. This is a complete piece of work by Lydia Davis, whom many critics agree is one of the greatest flash fiction writers of our time. Other critics have panned her work.
The point, of course, is that "good writing" is largely subjective.
Uncomfortable Assertion Alert: “Good Writing” Is A Meaningless Term
There is no singular definition of what “good writing” is, nor is it possible to get a large swath of people (or even a small swath of people!) to agree about what does and does not constitute good writing.
Furthermore, it’s unreasonable to assign the same metrics to wildly different genres. A fictional tome, a short burst of flash, and a foodie’s blog post simply cannot be assessed by the same criteria, even though they all qualify as pieces of writing.
In fact (cue defensive outbursts from publishing houses around the country!), I’m going to go ahead and make the bold assertion that the concept of “good writing” is essentially meaningless.
So let’s do away with it.
Instead of constantly striving to attain the same nebulous (and therefore unattainable) standard of writing every time we sit down to write, we can accept that “good writing” doesn’t exist and do away with the pressure to attain it.
This small mindset shift can be immensely liberating, and it breathes so much more wiggle room into our writing. It gives us the space to play and allows our writing to shift and change depending on context.
Most importantly, it opens up space for anyone who doesn’t think they’re a “good writer” to write anyway. No longer do you have to hold yourself back because you’re unsure of your ability to produce “good writing,” because “good writing” doesn’t exist!
But stories do, and the impulse to share them does too. Let that impulse stoke your creativity and carry you wherever it may.
What does “good writing” mean to you? What might it feel like to release the pressure to be “good”?