What is good writing? This book isn’t very good. That one is. But what is this “good”? Some might say good writing is only a matter of preference, but that gives too much power to one with limited taste. If you only like theology books then Pat Conroy’s heartbreaking novels won’t seem so good to you. But you’d be wrong.
How can I call an opinion about a subjective form wrong? Well, because there are standards by which I can argue. Each standard is open for debate, but combine them all and a sieve of sorts is formed to sift the poor works and let through the quality ones.
A work designed to deceive, glorify evil, or lead people astray is never good no matter the craftsmanship. Ornate devilry is still bad, no matter how intricate. However, a work designed to prod, move, encourage, inform, explore, or express truths has the necessary purpose to be truly good. But a good purpose is only the starting point.
If a writer writes a humor piece that isn’t funny it isn’t good because it failed at its purpose. If he is trying to inspire action but instead elicits yawns, if a work is supposed to explore and instead criticizes or is supposed to be fair-minded and instead is partisan they aren’t good. Writers shoot at a target of purpose, and their work is only as good as their aim.
Writing is not a motor skill; it’s a mental one. All the grammar and vocabulary in the world will not make a good writer out of someone with a clumsy, lazy, unfocused, or flabby mind. Thinking must exhibit truthfulness, creativity, brightness, depth, insight, expression, curiosity, emotion, and more. Different works will emphasize different traits, but all must be in the mind of the writer for the work to be good.
Does the reader know what the writer wants to communicate? Has it moved her so that she feels the emotion and bears the weight of the questions? Are the truths clearer now than they ever have been? And was the reading experience a memorable ride, if not altogether fun? For a work to be truly good it must offer a glimpse of the writer’s mind and soul and have expressed his thinking in an appropriate manner. This doesn’t mean spoon feeding the reader ideas bit-by-bit, but it does mean presenting ideas so the reader can encounter them in the right way.
Language is a toolbox. Actually, language is Home Depot. To write well one must know how to make use of it, all of it. This isn’t limited to grammatical perfection. That just makes you a good proofreader. I mean the ability to combine description, metaphor, dialogue, similes, verbs, adverbs, analogies, and more into just the right structure so that when a reader comes across it she must stop and take notice. Proficiency is the ability to maximize this storehouse of wonder we call language.
Admittedly, this is more of a feeling than anything technical, and it is particularly true of fiction. If a piece of writing gives the reader the sense that the author is trying too hard, is holding back, or, on the other hand, is forcing things it isn’t good. Writing must feel natural and like it is flowing to be truly good. The effort of the author must make ease for the reader. Otherwise it’s bad writing.
The best writing shows us something about ourselves we otherwise would not have known. It inspires questions to make us dig and feel and squirm. But even as it does this it makes us willing to expose ourselves to its work instead of being embarrassed or protecting ourselves. When we have read something great we feel both more whole and more bared than ever before.
These seven standards combine into a whole. None can be removed and a piece of writing remain good. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but maybe it will be helpful to you in your own reading and in conversation.