“What does it mean to be a good writer? Does good writing even matter, or have Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, etc. turned us into mindless, unsophisticated zombies who no longer care for grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, or creativity?”
(Damn, sounds like someone’s cranky…)
George Randall sent me the above prompt a while back after having found it on a writing website, and I thought it was worth (finally) addressing.
Although I’d encourage everyone to think about it for themselves, I’ll nonetheless offer my take — or, takes — on this trap(!) of a question.
My personal belief
Writing has never been primarily about the language used; it has always been about the experience created.
I’d further say that writing, regardless of the type of writing, exists to tell a story because that’s how we as human beings process the world.
Copywriting for advertisements, playwriting for the stage, journalism, poetry, romance novels, and horror fiction, all tell stories; they just tell different kinds of stories and do so in different ways.
Each of those examples has different intended audiences and they’re each expected to provide very different experiences. If the writer doesn’t effectively tell the intended story and provide a satisfactory experience to the audience expecting it, well, then the writer is failing.
That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it’s bad writing. It may just not be good journalistic writing, for instance.
That’s why I think it’s so important to understand the conventions of the given form, and if we’re going to break those conventions, then we’d better know what we’re doing, have a reason for it, and be prepared for the potential consequences (which could very well include fantastic success).
Let’s go back for a moment to the issue of language
And let’s just admit that (a. language inevitably changes over time, (b. people have different preferences, and (c. no one (to my knowledge) has yet to die over a misplaced comma.
Writing is a form of communication. If the communication is understood and works for the audience, then it’s doing its job.
If you were to run the text of a book written a hundred and fifteen years ago through a grammar checker, said grammar checker would likely tell you that it was full of elements that were used “incorrectly.”
Actually, I just ran the first chapter of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens through Grammarly to confirm my suspicions. (Yeah, yeah, I know Grammarly has issues.) It gave me 56 ‘correctness’ alerts on punctuation and spelling, and 11 ‘clarity’ alerts, nearly all of which pointed out redundancy.
You may or may not like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I do. Grammarly does not.
I’m sure that many of our classics would get a similar dressing down, but does that mean those classics are examples of bad writing? I don’t think so.
That said, if I were to create my own personal list of examples of ‘good writing,’ I’d probably leave a number of ‘classics’ off that list.
Eh, they just don’t do it for me.
Good writing is subjective
What better proof of that than the way bestsellers are fanatically loved by one set of people and loathed by another. These sets of readers are just looking for different experiences, and they either got what they came for or they didn’t.
That’s why we have so many different writers working in different styles.
If good writing was a clear formula then we wouldn’t need more than one writer, or we’d just have a lot of writers who all sounded the same.
Really, we could probably just pass the task on to AI…
I believe we come to the writing for the writer
We like, for whatever our personal reasons, the experience our particular favorite writers provide us.
For me, I want the writers I read to deliver on their promises but do so in a surprising way.
The writing I enjoy gives me the impression that the writer used their own experiences, thoughts, feelings, and opinions to create something that feels both personal and universal.
I may not know a single fact about the writer’s life, but on some level, through their writing, I feel I come to know some part of them.
I believe that good writers are brave
I’ve heard of writers who have been called “fearless,” and maybe they are, but I have my doubts.
It seems far more likely that they are brave. That they write with some level of fear — fear that they will not be understood, that they will be laughed at, that they will be thought weird — and they don’t let that fear control them.
Instead, in an act of bravery, they defy their fears and write in the way they want to write — a way that is (perhaps only subtly) unique to them.
But that’s just my definition of good writing
What I’d consider very generic writing often does extremely well. (Check the Kindle bestseller lists.)
Those writers are giving their readers the experience they’re looking for, and who the hell am I to say that’s bad writing? I just may not like it.
And you know what, that’s fine.
There is more writing available to us now than we could ever in our lifetimes read. I don’t need to hate on writing I don’t like. I can simply search out the writing that speaks to me.
So what do you think?
What makes a good writer or good writing? What is it that speaks to you?