Friday, August 27, 2010

What Makes Good Writing

I'm cheating a little here because this is a cross post from my other blog, Critique This WIP.

First, let me say that the first day of university teaching went fairly well. I was a nervous wreck and only had enough material to stretch the class to 25 minutes, but I really hadn't planned for it to last the whole hour, so I count the whole episode as a success...mostly because I survived without A) fainting, B) sounding too stupid, C) completely losing control.

Today is day two in the classroom and we're going to begin a discussion of what makes good writing. That's why I'm sharing this cross post from Critique This WIP.

It's not so easy to sit down and bang out a good paper, especially if you don't know anything about the nuts and bolts of writing. So as I've gone about writing my syllabus, I've been thinking about the writing process in general and, specifically, what are the qualities that make good writing?

These are questions I'll be discussing with my class. Part of learning how to put the puzzle pieces of a good academic paper together (or putting together any writing project) is understanding the underlying purpose of whatever you're writing and getting at the meat of how to know if it's good.

What qualities make good writing? It's a big, open-ended question which will have as many different answers as people who answer it. With so many different kinds of writing - fiction, nonfiction, academic, technical, business, poetry, and, and, and - it seems like it would be impossible to identify a comprehensive set of qualities that define goodness for any and all varieties of writing...and it is. But there are some basic, foundational qualities that apply to any type of writing:

1. Ideas/theme/story/meaning that is interesting and/or important: This is the heart of the piece - what the writer has chosen to write about.

2. Form/structure/organization that is logical and effective: This is how the items in number 1 are put together and flow. Is there a beginning, middle, and end? Does everything the writer has written make sense to the reader?

3. Language that is smooth and expressive: Good writing uses just the right words to say just the right thing. Do the words paint a picture in the reader's mind? Is there sufficient description and appropriate vocabulary? Are sentences fluent and easy to understand?

4. Voice that is individual and has style: This is the expression of the writer's personality through words. Is the voice consistent throughout? Is it distinctive?

5. Conventions that are correct and appropriate: This is includes punctuation, spelling, grammar, sentence structure. These should adhere to accepted conventions for the English language, unless there is a stylistic reason not to.

As I start discussing the nuts and bolts of building an academic paper, I want the students to be thinking about these ideas of what makes good writing. I want them to think about how writing well will elevate the importance of the content over the form. I was thinking of this analogy earlier: When you build a house, you hide the framing, the electric wiring, and the plumbing inside the walls. And hopefully your plan is laid out so that it flows logically. These are all essential parts of the house and you wouldn't want to live in a house without them. But you don't want to see them or think about them every day, either. You know they're there doing their jobs, but what you really want is to enjoy the aesthetics and comfort of your home.

The same can be said for writing. Whether it's academic or creative, your plan, framing, electrical wiring, and plumbing are your organization, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. If those things are done properly, you won't see them in the writing. All you'll see is the story, theme, ideas or meaning. So thinking about what makes good writing while you write will help you lay the foundation, no matter what your writing project.

What do you think makes good writing? I've only given you five things to think about. I'm sure everyone has their own opinions, too. Do you agree with mine? What would you add to the list?

1 comment:

William Friskey said...

Good writing, with academic writing at least, is recognizable because you don't notice the writing. The ideas, evidence, and argument come across so smoothly that you don't think about the writing at all while you read it. A big key is that everything in the paper somehow proves the main point (thesis). That's the science of it. If you can make digesting a boring topic in any of your classes enjoyable to read, then you've got the art.