What is Good Writing?


BECAUSE I KNOW that some of my readers are also writers, I post an occasional essay on writing. If the topic of writing bores you, here’s my essay on Anna Hazare and Gandhi for your consideration. Or perhaps you might enjoy this essay about Disney. For the rest of you, here are my thoughts on good writing.

I begin with a story. Years ago I hired an electrician to modernize the wiring in my house. The first step was to canvass my co-workers, in search of recommendations for good electricians – as well as of admonitions against bad ones. Having done some further research, and with my shortlist of candidates in hand, I took to the phone. Every electrician I called was booked over the next few days, but one of them had an opening early in the following week. He arrived as scheduled, and he re-wired my house. Some time later I was on the other side of this electrician search, and so recommended the fellow I’d hired, saying that he was a “good electrician.”

The story isn’t very exciting, I know. I tell it, not to amuse, but to make a point. You see, I know almost nothing about electrical wiring, and so I’ve no idea what makes a good electrician, if the criterion you’re asking me to qualify is “skilled in electrical work.” The fellow put stuff inside the walls and left. I didn’t take his work apart to appraise it, and even if I had, my verdict would likely have been Hm, looks okay to me. Now, if it happened that he’d wired the fuse box to my ottoman, I’d have some critical insight into the technical character of his limitations. I’m pretty sure that an ottoman is not a component of an electrical circuit.

The electrician was good, in my estimation, because he spoke pleasantly and arrived as scheduled. He was polite throughout our business engagement, and he took what seemed to me a reasonable amount of time to finish the job. The bill was as he’d quoted it, no more and no less. There were no unpleasant surprises or mishaps. It was a painless undertaking.

None of us is qualified to judge the work of a professional, when the profession under consideration is beyond our field of expertise. Rather than the skill of a professional, we tend to judge the character and disposition and overall feeling we have of a person. That’s what I did: my good electrician was polite, efficient, and reliable – all qualities that pertain to the behaviour of human beings. And it’s what most readers do also. Think of how many times you’ve decided a writer is bad because you don’t like his politics or personality or public behavior. Indeed, it’s difficult for human beings to simultaneously disagree with a writer’s worldview and hold her in high esteem as a good writer.

Up to a point the question of good writing is a matter of simplicity. Most of us can spot spelling errors and gross mechanical weaknesses, such as sentences that are improperly punctuated. Even a casual reader, untrained in the mechanics of written language, will notice that a writer overuses a word and mixes his metaphors. We may take as granted that good writing will have correct spelling and grammar, clear sentences, logical metaphors, and an engaging style. Clichés will be avoided, as will repetition and roundabout expression. The language will be concise, vivid, original and memorable. It will be, in a word, good.

Not all good writing is however commendable. Most of the folks writing for the newspapers and magazines have mastered the fundamentals. They have a vocabulary and can spell words correctly, or can check the dictionary as required. (Every good writer knows to mistrust the spelling and grammar aids built into software.) The Internet has no shortage of blogs, and many thousands of these bloggers can write passable, or more than passable, English. Yet only a relative few writers will be widely praised as good. In this case, something beyond a consideration of mechanics will be at work.

Last night I had a conversation about writing that began with a question. Is it possible that there is a great writer among us, perhaps even the greatest writer of our time, and that no one has taken notice? To round out my point I talked about the website Neglected Books and remarked on how consistently in the past writers praised for genius by their contemporaries had fallen into obscurity only years later.

Not only the general public, but also literary critics, have a poor record of identifying the writers among them who will withstand the test of time, which as George Orwell has said is the only test that matters. Orwell was my example of the rare critic who correctly discerns the strengths and weaknesses of his contemporaries, separating the chaff of temporary fame from the wheat of enduring artistic merit. He knew for instance that there was something suspect about the poet W.B. Yeats, and he knew what it was (fascist tendencies). His essays on Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and on Jonathan Swift are rich with insight into the inner worlds of these writers. Orwell, better than any critic I’ve read, understood how literary reputations were made, and therefore why the judgements of contemporaries took the shape that they did.

Already I’ve anticipated Orwell’s assesment in my electrician story. Good writing has less to do with writing than with the attitudes, themes and concerns of writers and their audiences. In an earlier age of aristocratic leisure, good writing was florid and fulsome, absorbing the time-rich reader in romantic themes and winding plots. The dominance of the middle class and the twentieth century’s blood soaked conflicts yielded a more realistic and terse style, good writing now being a matter of political realism, irony and authenticity. Escapist writing, as it always does, flourished – but with changes in economic, political and social arrangements come changes in literary taste.

The popularity for instance of P.J. Wodehouse is inseparable both from an earlier era’s nostalgia for Edwardian England as well as from a modern, republican contempt for aristocracy. Wodehouse was able in one stroke to appeal both to the conservative and liberal imaginations, by lovingly re-creating an atmosphere which is at the same time satirized. Wodehouse of course was also a good writer in the more limited sense of having a lively, engaging and original style:

In addition to looking like one of those things that come out of hollow trees, he is universally admitted to be a dumb brick of the first water.

To be considered a first-rate writer by her contemporaries, an author must scratch an itch or otherwise put into words a thought, concern, obsession, fear or submerged inkling that is at work in the broader society. Otherwise good technical writing is mere background noise, hardly worth the reader’s attention. Any ostensible subject will do: what matters are the underlying themes and attitudes which are explored. A runaway bestseller can be about a man on a boat, or a battle on planet Xyrxon, or Genghis Khan, or a Jewish baker in Oregon, so long as it pushes the correct buttons and stimulates that part of the brain where our biggest thoughts and emotions and preoccupations currently reside.

Of course bestseller and good are not necessarily the same, but as I’ve been arguing, a book that engages an audience in ways that the audience itself does not fully comprehend tends to be a book that is both commended and recommended as well written. As I have suggested, above a certain level of competence the technical character of the writing itself is something few readers will be adequately trained to assess. Their opinion of a work will derive from other considerations. Much that is praised will fall quickly out of favor, whereas the masterpieces of an era will be misjudged or even missed entirely by the bulk of readers. In any case, the momentary fad will express the concerns of an era, whereas a masterpiece will express the enduring preoccupations of our species.

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