What makes a good writer?

By April 25, 2017 January 25th, 2019 Writing

“Many books require no thought from those who read them. And for a very simple reason: they required no such effort from those who wrote them”

-Charles Caleb Colton

Where I have the wonderful opportunity to work, I hear and see a lot of conversation regarding “good writing”.

I’m also positive that we have all had the experience of clicking and reading an article we see online only to make it a couple paragraphs and either:

1. Have no idea what we just read, or what the article was trying to say.

2. Have such a difficult time wanting to continue to the end that we don’t finish reading at all, or simply skip to last paragraph to see if there is anything important we missed.

As we all know, there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And I can’t remember a time when this has been more true than today. With such polarizing political, ethical, and moral parties vying for attention, all three versions of any story are resembling each other less and less. So reading both sides of what happened during a particular event is even more important, which is what got me thinking about “good writing” in the first place. All “sides” of any argument today are guilty of both “good” and bad writing. I’ve read articles and stories and opinions posted online from both sides of the aisle that really grab me and almost force me to read to the end. Not because I necessary care about the issue, or agree with the author’s point of view, but because the flow and feel of the piece really makes me want to continue.

On the other hand I have also read my fair share of articles that compel me to zone out, or leave, and sometimes persuade me side with their opposition. Is it because their positions, facts, data, or ideas are wrong? No. (Well… sometimes, but that’s a different argument) But rather its the way the writing makes me feel as I read.

I want to be clear. I understand that most of what we read (and see, and hear, and even say) today is blatantly skewed to illicit a specific response from the target audience. **Insert Marketing 101 reference here**  And I think that most of us are intelligent enough to recognize this device when we see it. What I mean is the reaction I have to the actual writing, the words, the flow, the connection with the writer.

Anybody can write “Today an orphanage burned down in upstate New York, the firefighters were too busy putting out the fire that the couldn’t rescue a dog and her five puppies from drowning in a river outside of town.” And make you feel sad. In fact, how often do we do that with news sites? (the search engine Bing does this a lot) We look just at the headline: “Orphanage burned, puppies drown” and feel sad, then move on.

But what will actually get you to read the rest of the article (if there is one, and not just the usual paragraph-and-a-half synopsis of the sad afternoon)? What will make you actually care about what is being said? What will inspire you to action? It’s good writing that will do that.

We have graduated from self-help books to self-help Youtube tutorials, or quick-fix Quora articles written by someone who tries to hawk their get-rich-quick book at us. Yahoo Answers is a minefield of questionable advice. Is this bad? Not at all, but we do have to be careful (especially if we’re getting cooking tips from Youtube comments!), but nowhere have I seen this behavior more prevalent than online writing.

One reason this is true, I believe, is because online writing is so accessible. You can’t just decide one afternoon to bake a three-layer cake, or create a survivalist herbal garden in your living room. But finding a how-to guides on how to write effectively and throwing up a “how to solve world hunger” article takes all of five minutes. I don’t know about you, but it is obvious to me when someone has just left the “how to write good and how to do other things good too” school.

It all comes down to our voice and not our skill. Which is something online writers miss when they think they’ve ‘made it’ as a writer, or a political blogger. It doesn’t have to do with grammar or the size of the author’s vocabulary, necessarily. What most “bad” writers I’ve seen online all have in common is that they’ve all abandoned their own voice and instead are trying to imitate the self-help guide they found. Good writers pour their heart into their work, and as a result we can connect with them. Bad writers fret over the best word choice, sentence composition, the balance of compound and simple sentences, even how the article “looks” online. Do all these things help? Of course, but I’ve noticed they are more often used to compensate for the fact the author has no voice of their own. They’ have become one of the many, a clone of the guru.

I could be an expert in a certain topic, yet I will enjoy reading an article in a journal, magazine, or newspaper about that topic because the author has made the familiar, unfamiliar. By exploring a familiar topic from a new angle, with a new voice, with new colors, they make the article engaging and exciting. ‘Bad’ writers make the unfamiliar familiar by finding interesting topics, hard questions, or hot-button issues, instead of writing that about which they are passionate, and so they lose their voice.

I’m more than sure we have all heard the common complaints from those who fancy themselves “learned” or an “expert on literature” from time to time. For me, the most often complaints came when Harry Potter was introduced.

“JK Rowling is a terrible author. Have you even read her books?”

“She writes at a 4th-grade reading level!”

“So much of her work is copied form other authors, or blatantly plagiarized from myth, she’s so unoriginal!”

(The same complaints can be attributed to so many other authors, directors, poets, etc. But I pick this one because I feel more people can relate)

And yet she’s successful, she’s a millionaire. They made movies of her books, and so on. People buy multiple copies of the same book because they love it so much. Why?

Surely it can’t be because of her extensive vocabulary? Is it because of her experience in simile, exposition, prose, or sentence structure? It must be because of all the subtext, the intricately woven sub-plots?

I don’t think so. (Correct me if I’m wrong)

It’s because she has a voice. She put her dreams on paper and leads us by the hand into a world so lovingly created that we can’t help but care for it, and wish we were a part of it. She made the familiar (witchcraft) unfamiliar in so many different ways.

This ties back to the quote at the top of this post: I think we check out of so many articles online because we can tell, intuitively, that they are almost copy-pasted from somewhere else, it doesn’t engage our mind, and more importantly, our heart. On the other hand, others will draw us in and refuse to let us go because the author toiled and fretted over how to make the piece theirs.

Don’t feel bad when someone criticized the books you like to read, or the articles you find entertaining or engaging. They are good for a reason, and that reason is not something you can quantify or measure. You relate to it, you invest in it. Don’t judge the quality of an article, or a book, based on the skill of the author’s writing, a few quotes I’ve found that help highlight this point:

“A multitude of words is no proof of a prudent mind.”

-Thales

“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words where one will do.”

-Thomas Jefferson

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
If you’re reading an article that takes three paragraphs, and 4-syllable words to describe something simple, you’ve found an egotistical writer who just found a new how-to guide. On the other hand, if you find yourself five pages in when you only wanted to read the title an move on, you’ve found a good writer. One that says what they think, and not what they think others want to hear. They draw you into their world, and don’t try to force themselves into yours.
Aaron J. Webber

Author Aaron J. Webber

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