There’s been quite a discussion lately on a mystery list serv about good and bad writing — sparked by a discussion about Dan Brown, the mega-selling author who no one has ever called a good writer and some have said a lot worse about. Everyone seem to agree that bad writing is easy to define:
- writing that calls attention to itself
- awkward phrasing
- vagueness and confusion
- flat, one-dimensional characters,
- self-indulgent description and/or philosophizing
- hard-to-swallow events
The debate is about what exactly constitutes good writing, and the subset discussion: Can you actually define good writing or is it entirely a subjective judgment? Some say good writing has a list of known qualities, yet when pressed, they failed to offer a list of those qualities. Others say good writing is simply the absence of all the attributes that define bad writing. Others insist it is more than that, yet can’t agree on the set qualities. (This reminds me of the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who said about pornography, paraphrasing here, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”)
Some readers think the ability to write an effective description is a trait of good writing. Other readers dislike and/or skip descriptions. Others say good writing is poetic. Some readers don’t like poetry and would prefer to read Louis L’Amour or Elmore Leonard. While we’re at it, what exactly is a “nice turn of phrase.” Could you get a handful of people to agree that a certain group of words was a nice turn of phrase?
After giving this much thought, I’ve come up with this vague, but functional, description of good writing: Writing that does not draw attention to itself as writing, but you pulls you along smoothly, eager to read more.
I know some of you can do better than that? What is good writing? Does it have a universal set of qualities? Can you name some?