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.