Is There Such a Thing as Good Writing?

Two people installing storm windowsSuppose I said that good writing does not exist, that everyone just likes different things. One or two readers among the thousands who wait for new entries on this blog will disagree. Why do you disagree, honey? What makes you think there is such a thing as good writing?

Did you read something you liked? A lot? A real lot? I might then say it was good writing only because you liked it. It’s all about you.

Did I say “you” in that last paragraph? I meant to say that it’s all about me. I’ve always had trouble with pronouns, which slowed me down considerably in second grade. I meant to say that what makes writing good is that I like it. That’s it. You can go to a bookstore or library while they still exist, and in either of them you will find multiple novels by Henry James. There are conferences where people who are impressed with their own intellectual capacity drink capaciously while speaking of Henry James with words that cost $5 apiece (like “capaciously”, but I found that one at the dollar store). In fact, I think Barnes and Noble bookstores, while they still exist, have an image of Henry James above the coffee shop. In other words, Henry James is a serious, highly respected writer. That is good writing.

Except in my house. I hate Henry James. I’m being serious here, and I’m old enough that I ain’t apologizing for it. You can mail me words that cost 15 cents apiece, and I still won’t like him. That is not good writing.

Now a novel with opera as a motif, plus young, poverty-stricken revolutionaries, with an international mix of characters, and with close attention to the phrasing of the language—that’s good writing. That’s very good writing. I’m referring to Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, but maybe you wouldn’t like it.

The problem with trying to have this kind of argument, even when it is done by sensible people instead of me, is that we can’t reasonably use a term indicating value judgment like “good” unless we agree on the definition. Here’s part of the problem: there are many many types of writing, with different purposes, and even if we could agree on definitions, what makes “good” writing changes with the purpose of the writing.

Let’s go more basic, and consider why writing even exists at all. It’s a lot of trouble. By God, I used to teach this shit, don’t get me started on trouble. Why do we bother? In fact, there are various reasons, but the most basic is to take ideas from one person’s head and put them in another person’s head. If a piece of writing does that, moves the ideas with sufficient clarity, is it “good writing” because it has achieved its purpose? Is that enough?

I could find a piece of technical writing that clearly conveys information, then show that writing to someone who says, “This isn’t good! My God, it’s about how to install storm windows!” I agree that it’s dull to read, though in January I like the way the story ends. But is the quality “interesting” always a characteristic of good writing no matter what the situation? (Of course if “interesting” is necessary, this raises a question as to how Henry James gets to have his own conferences.)

If the purpose of writing is to entertain, then yes indeed, being interesting certainly seems to be a logical part of the definition of goodness. And it’s certainly more fun when writing—of any sort—is interesting, so we like it better, but is writing “not good” if it isn’t interesting? In addition to entertainment, other purposes of writing might be communication (journalism, medical writing, technical writing), or enlightenment (philosophy, religion). All of these, and subgenres of these, will in practice have their own criteria of what is good.

In fact, there are some general qualities that we might want to apply to all writing:

  • clarity
  • conciseness
  • logical organization
  • sufficiency of detail
  • clear transitions and connections of ideas
  • mechanical correctness (punctuation, grammar, spelling)

These criteria might also be subsumed under the idea of effectiveness, which gets back to what the purpose of the writing is. These are not very interesting criteria, however. They are missing, for instance, “evoking a sense of God’s mercy” that would be necessary for some religious writings.

Literary writing has its own own set of vague criteria: good plot (but not always), strong character development (but not always), clever use of language (but not always), and so on. No matter what criteria we apply, someone will take a piece of writing and say “yes, it’s good” and some argumentative son-of-a-bitch living in central Pennsylvania will come along and say “no, it’s not”.

Should we vote? Or should we turn the decisions about good writing over to qualified professionals? That means Ann Patchett. It means Atul Gawande (a surgeon who is a very fine writer). And it means me.

As I already told you, it’s good because I like it, but you made a mistake and kept reading anyway.


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