September 27, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

What is “good” writing?

What is “good” writing?

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.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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  1. Sylvia Guo

    I think it also depends on the audience. For business writing the key is to be concise and to the point, while for non-fictions, advanced vocabulary might elevated the flavor. For press releases it’s another story again, creativity and newsworthiness rule, and for online content, SEO and one-sentence paragraphs seem to be in the trend.

      Jen Zingsheim

      Yes, of course it depends on the audience–but one of the questions I have is, how much do we have to alter our writing to suit the audience? It’s one thing to make sure that it’s situation-appropriate writing, as you’ve described. But if I want to use the word “camaraderie,” and someone says “well, that’s too sophisticated, use the word friendship,” should I “dumb down” the writing, or am I permitted to use the word I like? I think defining an audience might be trickier than we think.

      Or, I’m over-thinking things. It happens. Often, I’m told… 😉

      Thanks for dropping by!


    Tell  me Jen, what is it – are we media snackers aka Geoff Livingston.  Do we want the shortest writing possible or are we consumers of long content?  You can cop out and say both, but if you had to choose, what would it be? 

      Jen Zingsheim

      If *I* had to choose, for me it would be long content. I’ve noticed that I prefer pieces that go into depth about what they are covering, and I like to learn. I don’t typically learn much in short pieces (generally, although sometimes I have). 

  3. Chris Holden

    Ease of managing unfamiliar vocabulary is the reason I came around on the Kindle. It is really incredible to be able to quickly get meaning from pretty much any word on the page.

      Jen Zingsheim

      Chris, this brings up another confession I have to make: although I own an iPad, which would enable me to quickly look up words just like the Kindle, I just haven’t taken to reading on it. I find that I read slower on the iPad, and I’d quite frankly be broke if I had to buy all the books I like to read. I’ve downloaded the app that allows me to check out books from my library, but honestly so far the selection is horrible. Additionally, I belong to a book club and in addition to reading that month’s book, many of us swap books on the side. We’re all voracious readers and borrowing one another’s books keeps our “habit” in check.

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