There’s No Such Thing as “Good” Writing

I mean this very literally, and it’s something I tell my students all the time: there’s no such thing as “good” writing. Sometimes they’ll nod and say something like, “Yeah, it’s all subjective. Every person likes different stuff and interprets things differently.” But that’s not what I mean. Writing does have quality norms, and those norms matter. A lot. But norms are not the same as “good” and “bad” as essential labels.

Here’s what I mean. We all know what I’m talking about when I say “writing,” but it’s actually not all that practical to think of writing as a single thing. In actuality, writing is contextual, situational — it’s writings, plural. Business writing is quite different from literary writing, which is quite different from a cell-phone text, which is quite different from journalism, which is quite different from scientific writing, which is quite different from ad copy. A piece of writing that’s labeled “good” in one of these areas might be considered “bad” if it gets uprooted and plopped down in another. This specificity explains why it can be so difficult to transition from one kind of writing to another: writers internalize the norms of the kind of writing they usually do and then bring those norms with them to new situations in which they may not work so well.

Sure, you may say, the big things may differ, but the same basic mechanical rules apply across the board.

That’s reasonably (though not entirely) true, but mechanics are not the most important stuff when it comes to writerly success: if the mechanics of a piece of writing are a mess, it’s not going to be readable, but a piece of writing can be mechanically clean and still suck. In short, reasonably solid mechanics are essential for a high-quality piece of writing, but they’re not what make a piece of writing high-quality. The more global features are what do that, and global features are highly contextual.

Why does all this matter? Pragmatically speaking, it matters when you try to write in a new discipline or genre. If you import norms from your old genre, you might get burned, so make sure you analyze your target genre and pick up any important differences. Also, it means new kinds of writing come with learning curves, so you shouldn’t feel bad if it takes a while to get into the swing of things. Philosophically speaking, it’s nice to recognize that talking about writing as “good” and “bad” (which we all do) is merely a shorthand for what you really mean: “good” writing is writing that satisfies or exceeds the needs or expectations of the target audience within its genre or discipline, and “bad” writing is writing that fails to do that.

So, what does it mean to be “a really good writer”? In my book, a really good writer is someone who can identify and adjust to the norms  and expectations of different kinds of writing. That means the essential characteristics of a “really good writer” are perception and flexibility.

9 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as “Good” Writing

  1. Interesting perspective, and I agree with you.

    I’ve done mostly technical/business writing for the past two decades. When I decided I seriously wanted to get back into fiction writing, I never assumed I would be good at it just because I was competent as a non-fiction writer. I spent a tremendous amount of time (and still do) learning about the craft of fiction writing. My first efforts at writing fiction were undertaken with a great deal of hope, but not much confidence. As you say, many of the technical skills transferred over to fiction writing, but writing words that tell a story is a very different thing from writing words that document or instruct.

    • I was in a similar position, Daniel, having spent the last decade and a half doing academic writing almost exclusively. It took a couple years of immersing myself in the genre as a reader before I felt I’d internalized its conventions enough that I could attempt it. Even then, sort of scary!

  2. I think a good writer is simply someone who tells interesting tales in well written way. The well written part is achievable for most, but being interesting IMO is a talent like singing voice, you’re either born with it or not.

    • Yeah, I do think there’s something to the born-with-it idea, though people can definitely improve their performance with practice, too. And who knows how much of it has to do with one’s very early experiences (playing lots of “pretend,” being read to by one’s parents, etc.).

      As for telling interesting tales, that’s a useful criterion for a good writer of novels, but not for a good writer of software manuals … see what I mean? A skill that serves a writer well in one discipline might be actively damaging in another.

  3. Oh, yeah. It’s the difference between painting the Empire State Building, and putting together the architectural drawings and specifications for it. Takes a different mindset and while both require attention to detail IMO, the details being attentioneerd are different.

    • Thank you, proswrite! And great post on language shibboleths. Now that you point it out, I see that genres of writing have much in common with language communities: both are governed by (intentionally or unintentionally) exclusionary rules that may be organic or artificial, and both evolve constantly. I imagine there are also power differences among genres, as with language communities, so that importing the rules of one genre into another might mark a writer as “deficient” in some way.

      • Absolutely. In one of my earliest posts (http://proswrite.com/2012/06/13/amateurs-lack-genre-awareness/), I wrote that novice professionals often write workplace documents as if they were some version of a five-paragraph essay. Unfortunately, most students don’t know they’ve learned to write a single genre that has power only in school. The think “good” writing is what they’ve learned. Their coworkers or bosses or customers don’t ordinarily agree.

        • Yep. And that experience can be very discouraging. That’s what the “no such thing as ‘good'” message needs to get out: it helps writers realize they may not be bad writers, just writers who are thus far inexperienced in a particular genre.

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