STEVE MARTIN SAID, “Comedy is making people laugh without making them puke.” That, in essence is what good writing can be, striking a delicate balance that entertains and informs in most of our cases, without breaking milieu, being more interested in our subject than interested in ourselves, and just talking genuinely. As Hemingway said, and I paraphrase, “All first drafts are shit,” so it’s important to also understand good writing is developed, rarely simply spewed. But by flowing through a first draft and an optimum number of passes in editing, you too can bring out your inner writer in the best light and get results with your writing.
“Great writing” and “great writers” are other subjects.
Good writing depends on your genre and purpose.
In my 13-year practice I’ve ghostwritten and co-written and written and edited mainly for a popular audience, usually seeking to bring us common people some form of expertise or someone’s story in the most interesting way possible. And if you want to convey anything at all, especially if you are a teacher or leader of some kind, but it’s true for all authors that we have a responsibility to present things in their most interesting way possible if we want to get our message and information across. But particularly, books for a popular or common audience ideally flows. A reader should not feel they want to keep track of page numbers (and it’s okay to put a book down if you do find yourself counting pages after a fair try, there are a million new books each year), rather a reader should be deep into the milieu you create with your book, like being engrossed in a good movie, and they should always want to know what happens next, and ultimately, get a real feeling of satisfaction or excitement or inspiration when done.
Deeper than that, good writing is concise, clear, and ideally seasoned with color and nuance. Maybe even peppered or filled with humor, excitement, revelation, and so on.
In recent history, we’ve gone from the purple language of D.H. Lawrence to the minimalist in Hemingway, who sought by writing from memory to make a reader’s experience tending to be categorized in their minds more as memory than something they read. Vivid detail and mention of periphery does this so well, as in the scene of the empty table in The Sun Also Rises. It hits me in the gut and I feel like I was there.
In On Writing Stephen King shares a great example of good editing in his high school years, but I’ll share a very brief one of my own I worked on yesterday for a client right here:
BEFORE (too long and passive voice):
“It is by using both growth strategies that you could create an entirely new form of growth. One that will take your business to greater heights.”
AFTER (concise, active voice):
“Using both growth strategies you create an entirely new form of growth, one that quickly takes your business to greater heights.”
A few things to note in this example that should be standards for any professional editor, and you can be a professional editor, it just takes enough interest and work to get to where you not only have confidence, but judgement and conviction in your editing. Note the changes and how they change passive voice to active voice, (always keep tense and time in agreement), and ultimately, say it with as few words necessary, not that less is always more, it’s not, it’s a matter of what’s appropriate, so your writing should always be clear to you as an author as to your purpose for it. Are you informing or entertaining? Selling or warning? Or just for the pure joy you feel doing it. All are correct, whether you write to market or not, and I appreciate both.
Be open and find writers you like and read more of their stuff. The only thing more inspiring might be your own writing, but honestly, it also might not be. And that’s okay. The best writers read a lot, period. You also tend to write like what it is you’re reading, but that’s another story. I recently and accidentally discovered Amanda Petrusich who writes for the New Yorker and while I’ve only read one article, I was floored by her writing and plan to read more, just for the quality of her writing.
In different genres different things matter. Character development almost always matters, and in some genres like science fiction ideas matter a lot, and in some it’s the emotion, passion, action, colorful and meaningful life story, or revelations and information. Yep, books do all that : ) But books and movies all seem to follow a hero’s journey and/or a certain structure (also another story), because that structure and the fact of character development emulate life itself, and whether we know it or not, we know it.
What writers do you like? Which do you love? What do you like to write? What do you love to write? That feeling you have toward your writing and toward your subject is called an author’s “tone,” and it seeps through naturally.
And what’s your WHY? What are you writing for?
There’s a lot to what makes good writing, and I talk about how we might define both “good books” and how we might define “great books” and more in my book, The Book Dude’s Guide to Self-Publishing, but all we need is a little bit of understanding to start creating good writing. And it’s easy to find, that know-how. College might help if it doesn’t destroy your writing first, but you only need books and perhaps instructional videos on YouTube to reach masterful heights of understanding if you so choose. It’s there for the taking.
But you do need to write. I advised a client once, who like many was in love with writing, that I thought once you’ve written about 100,000 words you easily and naturally find your voice. I still think that’s true, by the way, and applies to each genre you write in. But he came back to me after writing a lot, apparently, and said he was very excited because he could see what I was talking about. Does writing 100,000 words sound like a lot of work to you, or does it sound like a lot of fun?
Part of that joy I think is that as we write we come to understand, so it’s therapeutic, and it makes sense because what is understanding, after all, but telling ourselves?
Until you master your craft, you can simply lean on that famous quote, “I know it when I see it.” We can’t always define a thing, even if we can recognize it, and in writing, of course that first step to recognizing the good stuff is finding what you like and love to read. The next step is to ask why you like it. And we are all filthy rich with things to read.