The Mark of a Good Writer

You’ll find plenty of opinions about what makes good writing, but there are as many opinions as there are readers, and they range from technical critiques to personal raves, with many being a mix of the two. You probably won’t find a consensus on the issue.

But what makes a good writer? Being good with words is an important piece of the puzzle, but with so many different criteria for good writing (e.g., well-developed characters, a unique narrative voice, imaginative storytelling, clever turns of phrase, etc.), you can hardly consider it definitive. Additionally, even the best writers sometimes churn out junk. Is someone a good writer when they produce good writing and a bad writer when they produce poor writing?

Objectivity and Intersubjectivity

There are many attributes we can assign to good writers, such as creativity, a strong grasp of human behaviour and motivations, a solid understanding of narrative structure, and so on, but I believe there is one criterion that stands above them all. Moreover, this criterion can be applied to all authors, whether they write fiction or nonfiction:

Sound judgement about whether their writing is fit to publish.

This has nothing to do with staying on top of trends in writing styles or genres, or recognizing whether or not a book can make a lot of money. Rather, it concerns the author’s ability to apply their skills and experience as a whole to the art of writing. And naturally, the more you write and seek feedback on your writing, the more you develop your skills and the better your judgement becomes. While no one can be the sole and final arbiter of the quality of their own work, developing the ability to objectively assess one’s own writing is critical.

Of course, now we need to ask what it means to be objective. This is a tricky term to define, especially in the arts. However, I think we can broadly agree that being objective requires one to make a genuine effort to (1) recognize and set aside any merely subjective personal responses and (2) try to understand how others might read and (mis)understand the work.

For any author who happens to be human (which, on this planet, should be all of them), this is a tall order. Everything we learn about the world around us is absorbed through our own senses and then processed by our own minds. We do not have direct access to other peoples’ sensations or minds, and we don’t really even have access to things as they exist entirely independently of us. For example, we don’t actually see objects, we see the light reflected from/emitted by objects, which is then interpreted by our brains to produce the images that we attribute to those objects. Absolutely everything we perceive is processed through our sensory and psychological systems.

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Since no one can be objective by the standards of an omniscient being, the god’s-eye view definition puts objectivity outside of human reach. Instead, we should try to understand other possible viewpoints and experiences so we can incorporate them into our judgements. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with your assessment, however, just that they can see the value in it. This intersubjectivity—the shared understanding about the nature or value of a thingshould be the ultimate goal.

Why Is This Important?

The most obvious answer is that a writer must present the world in a way that is truthful. This is not the same as accuracy, mind you. Writers do not need to represent every detail as it exists now or has ever existed, but the characters, places, events, and ideas contained within the story need to reflect various facets of reality, even if the details are fictional. And reality is a complex and messy thing.

While there may be just one physical world, there are billions of perceived worlds, each somewhat different from the next and all of them dependent on the perceiver. A writer cannot present all of these worlds at once; they must focus on a select few. Those chosen worlds must now become accessible to the reader, whose experiences may be very different. Nonetheless, the reader must find elements of themselves within these worlds so they can relate to the characters in some way.

Failure Is Always an Option

A good writer must attempt to set aside their own biases to critically assess how well they have achieved their objectives, taking into account the opinions of peers, editors, sensitivity readers, etc. Strong writing should receive strong praise, but that doesn’t mean it won’t also receive criticism.

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Given that we are all trapped in our own minds, it’s impossible to be certain that we’ve communicated our ideas in a way that can be clearly understood by others. Nonetheless, a good writer makes the effort to ensure that readers can clearly understand the story and that any characters are portrayed in a way that is sensitive and faithful to real-world people and cultures that share major similarities. In the case of nonfiction, the author has to consider whether or not they have accurately depicted events/arguments and described them clearly and in sufficient detail without belabouring the point and losing the reader.

You can never produce perfect writing, but that’s no excuse for being lazy. Failure is always an option—indeed, it is the most likely option—so a little healthy doubt on the part of the author is a good sign they’ve made a genuine effort to produce the best work they can.

Judgement Call

No writer will reach everyone. Some readers won’t understand or relate to the writing, while others simply won’t like it, but a good writer will try to anticipate potential criticism and head it off by addressing problems in the work. Hence, the decision to publish should not rely on egotistical considerations that spare the author’s feelings at the expense of the quality of the writing, nor should it be dependent on an author’s insecurity, which will often persist regardless of the quality of the work.

Determining whether or not a piece of writing is ready for publication requires the author to employ all of their skills, both technical and artistic. Thus, this judgement depends on all of an author’s skills functioning together even as it stands above any one particular skill. As a result, developing sound judgement about the quality of a piece of writing—especially one’s own writing—is the culmination of all those skills.

About quillsandqueries

My editing experience includes a wide variety of books, articles, and commentary in both fiction and non-fiction. I work with authors of novels and short stories, students preparing for their dissertations, and corporate clients who publish in the financial and education sectors.
This entry was posted in Theory and Discussion, Writing and Editing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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