Patchfire blogged about developing goals for writing* today, which inspired a very long comment from me (she did call me out directly on Facebook, so I figured she was asking for anything I could throw at her) on what I consider important traits of good writers. I came up with and decided I needed to share it here, in a slightly wordier capacity. Ignoring the little e-spat about academic vs. “creative” (as someone who does it off/on for a living, I prefer the term “professional,” thank you very much) writing that ensued in the comments of Patchfire’s blog, I think most of these are applicable cross-genre — academic, creative, technical, informal, etc. If you don’t like my list, try Mark Twain’s instead. If you disagree with Mark Twain, perhaps you should consider a job writing copy for clothing catalogs.
These are a few of the traits I think are part and parcel of good writing. A strong writer should:
- Use and understand symbolism. Use and understand connotation (ie. subtext), which is a subtle form of symbolism.
- Create and implement figurative language maturely and avoid trite or cliched figures of speech. Don’t be afraid to play with language.
- Display an understanding of pacing. Avoiding a sense of “and then…” is one mark of a strong writer. Good pacing makes a simple story seem profound. Bad pacing makes a profound story into a movie of the week.
- Write with a strong narrative voice, even in non-fiction. Narrative voice is one reason why some biographies are so easy to read and others are a chore. If you don’t have a sense of your own voice, how is your reader meant to?
- Eschew obfuscation. Writing so nobody can understand what the hell you’re talking about doesn’t make you look smart; it makes you look pretentious. If you have a point, make it. If you have a thesis, show it. Circumlocution and superfluousness have their place, but humping your point/thesis is not it.
- Avoid retelling the same story unless you can write it better than the original. You can swap out whatever other items you like for hair combs and pocket watch chains, but we all know you’re just rewriting “The Gift of the Magi.” And yes, we’ve also all read that essay on feminist themes in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” so you’d better find something awfully revelatory to add to that particular line of thought before you invest several hours of your time in it.
- Ensure that any item or creature that interacts w/ your main characters should be a tool that furthers the plot line, a symbol (see #1) that sheds light in the inner mechanisms of the character, or both. If you aren’t giving us Chekov’s gun or a satisfying red herring, don’t give it to us. Don’t give the readers details they don’t need simply for the sake of including more details.
- Craft quality sentences, because if you can’t write a good sentence, you can’t write a good paragraph or essay. The devil is in the details.
- View learning to write as a ongoing process, not a terminal goal post. You never really “learn to write.” It’s not a finite skill set. You can always improve your voice, your style, your finesse.
- Have the ability to accept and implement edits from an editor (or professor or word-wise friend). All manner of grammatical errors can be overlooked in the arena of professional writing if you have the ability to work well with an editor.
Since I don’t view academic writing as the termination of writing instruction, my goals for teaching writing to my children are much more in line with developing the above traits than in developing fluency in specific formats. MLA, Chicago, and AP style all have their places, but they aren’t the sum of writing. If a writer has good prose, s/he can always apply a format to it. It’s easier to teach a good writer to work within a set of formatting rules than it is to teach someone who knows the formatting rules to write well.
What traits do you think are requisite in a good writer? How do those traits related to your goals in teaching writing?
*Stay on my good side and share your writing goals w/ Patchfire, too, as she started this whole conversation.
ETA: Also consider reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “How to Write with Style”.