This post has been rolling around in my head for a bit now, and thanks to Beth Harte, I now even have posts to link to–Seth Godin thinks business writing is bad because of fear, and Ron Shevlin cites several factors including not thinking clearly and not having a clear idea of why you are writing. I’ve written about writing before, and how the mantra of “lower your standards” helps me to get beyond my base fear that the pieces I write might not be good enough.
But what, exactly *is* good writing? Is it content that simply engages us, or can it challenge us? Are the standards different for entertainment and learning? If something is grammatically correct but devoid of any substance, can it still be considered “good”? Can writing that challenges be considered good from a learning perspective but bad from an entertainment perspective?
I belong to a creative writing group that meets monthly. We exchange our short stories, poetry, chapters of books–whatever people are working on–ahead of time, and then provide comments and constructive criticism. As we reviewed one writer’s short story, one of the first critiques from another member was about word choice–she felt that some of the vocabulary was too advanced for the audience. This comment raised several questions for me: one, how accurate are we in assessing our audience; and two, how much control or authority over content should we relegate to that audience?
The words that the reviewer felt were too sophisticated were things like “begetting” and “camaraderie.” I didn’t think these words were that advanced or difficult, but it was an interesting observation. I recently read “Tinkers” by Paul Harding. This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2010, is awash in advanced vocabulary words. It’s one of the few books I can recall reading where I had to actively look words up. (I got the gist of them contextually, but I like knowing and using the precise meaning of words.) Erin Brenner, who authors an excellent blog called the Writing Resource, wrote multiple posts on the language used in Tinkers. If you want to get a feel for the book, go read her posts. So, is Tinkers good writing, or bad? The Pulitzer win says “good.” From a readability perspective, stopping to look up words would indicate “bad,” according to some. But what if I enjoyed the challenge of learning new words? Back to “good.” And so on.
To the questions applying to audience: how good are we at assessing who our audience is, and how much control over content should we turn over to them?, I’m not so sure. Assessing who an audience is usually is fairly straightforward, but not always. The second question is a little trickier–for example, should my friend change those words in his story, or should he expect his audience to know those words? Is it okay to have the “right” word in the piece–meaning, the one the author thinks is the right word–even if it might only be understood by a fraction of the intended audience, or should he change the wording to ensure readability?
Good writing is many things. It is clear, and concise and for me, it cannot be banal.