What is good writing?
I love this question because it’s super simple and impossibly complex.
The simple answer is that good writing communicates information in a pleasing manner according to the conventions of a social situation.
- Communication is a key word. Successful communication is a mental union between speaker and audience, i.e., you don’t communicate when you talk at someone, but when they understand and they can see, feel, or think whatever is going on in your head.
- Pleasing — bad writing is grating on the ear or simply incomprehensible. Good writing is clear, enjoyable, and worth the time you spend with it.
- Conventions refer to the agreed upon norms of a group or social setting. For instance, many workplaces strive to avoid sexism, so it is customary to address women with the neutral Ms. rather than Miss. (unmarried) or Mrs. (married). (Can you think of an equivalent salutation for men that hinges on marital status?). In college, you’ll often hear about style guides from the American Psychological Association (APA) and Modern Language Association (MLA). Hundreds of experts routinely meet to discuss how best to present research that is clear and of high quality. When you follow these style guides, you signal that you’re making a clear effort to communicate pleasantly and professionally within a social group and situation.
Now whatever situation you find yourself – at home, at work, at school – chances are your audience wants to connect with you in a way that is clear, concise, and compelling. This is known as the three Cs of effective writing. The principle of the three Cs is just one of hundreds (if not thousands) of strategies you can apply to virtually any situation.
But before we dive into the specific tips and tricks behind good writing, I want you to think about the big picture: what is “good” writing?
Take a minute to free write a response to this open-ended question.
What comes to mind?
Perhaps a book that moved you, a professional at work who handled a situation admirably, lessons from a former writing instructor?
Does your reflection overlap at all with this definition? — good writing communicates information in a pleasing manner according to the conventions of a social situation.
Since good writing depends so much on your audience, let’s think about what good writing looks like in four broad domains: the academic, the professional, the social, and the personal.
In academia (aka academe), the goal is to bring something new to the conversation. This fresh insight can be how the singer Sia uses vocal fiction; a re-contextualization of Zora Neale Hurston; experiments with snails to demonstrate how memory works in all organisms; an economic study of whether raising the minimum wage would hurt businesses and necessitate lower employment; a synthesis of how major English literary writers have represented the “East,” and so much more.
All of these unique findings are shared in various platforms that get people talking. These platforms include academic conferences where scholars can Zoom in or fly in from around the world, and academic journals, where scholars publish their most recent findings, insights, or creative work.
A doctor may want to attend a conference like the “American College of Cardiology (ACC) 2023 Annual Meeting” to learn about the latest in robotic heart pumps or new research on treating an illness; a teacher or professional editor may want to attend the “Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference” to learn about successful teaching techniques, up-and-coming writers, or new trends in marketing books. There are thousands of academic conferences around the world every year.
Notable academic journals include The New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Consumer Research, Applied Psychology, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Demography, Journal of Sex Research, Sociology of Religion, and many more.
You can think of these academic journals (or literary magazines like The Paris Review for creative works) like large parties that happen roughly every three months. To be invited to the party, you have to bring material that will make people say Oh wow, I never thought of that before. You also need to dress a certain way, otherwise people at the party aren’t going to be as enamored with you as they should be. At the undergraduate level, it’s important to start developing familiarity with style guides like APA and MLA so you can, in a sense, dress for success. (Depending on your major, you may also encounter Chicago Style – popular in the humanities – or CSE Style – popular in the sciences).
Getting into the party of an academic journal is especially difficult because there are gatekeepers (or bouncers, if you will). These gatekeepers are fellow writers, experts, or professors who will keenly criticize your work to ensure that it meets the group’s standards of significance and newness. This is called peer review, and it’s a vital process to maintain the high quality of academic journals. Without peer review and without a style guide, academic journals would not be as authoritative and reliable as they currently are.
Summary: good academic writing brings something new and insightful to public discourse while meet a journal’s quality control standards regarding style and peer-review.
Keep in mind that good academic writing for undergraduate students has a further component: testing that you understood new material. Common college writing assignments like research papers, lab reports, and field observations are all meant to assess to what degree you have mastered academic content. These assignments are also meant to test your ability to communicate at a collegiate or professional level: do you demonstrate the need for intellectual integrity by submitting original work? Are you conscientious in communicating with professors or peers by questioning word choice, identifying subject-verb disagreements, or avoiding passive sentences?
In business, the goal is to accelerate operations and increase profits.
Whether writing an Instagram caption, executive report, email, landing page, or company-wide memo, good professional writing enables precise, efficient, and results-oriented movement. “The better you write, the less time your boss must spend rewriting your stuff.” This quote comes from Writing that Works by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson, an essential book for any professional. Since clear and personable communication is essential for headache-free, long-term success, business owners and managers routinely rate confident communication skills as one of the most desirable traits in an employee.
Roman and Raphaelson also contend that clear writing is a profit opportunity. They offer one example from The U.S. Veterans Benefits Administration. The agency was receiving too many insurance forms that were being filled out incorrectly. It decided to train its employees on becoming more effective writers, primarily through the Plain English Handbook. Once the agency began to send letters that communicated with veterans, i.e., the veterans knew precisely what actions to take, the administration saw a dramatic decrease in postage and printing costs. With clearer writing, there was less of a back-and-forth with paper mail. The Veterans Benefits Administration estimated that this effort to writer clearer saved the agency $500,000 a year.
In other words:
“Bad writing slows things down; good writing speeds them up.”Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson, Writing that Works: How to Communicate Effectively in Business
In society, writing is power.
If you read something, the tendency is to believe it, or at least entertain it, until your own incredulous thinking kicks in or you collect move evidence. When delivered through institutions of power (court rooms, classrooms, corporations) writing gains authority that is hard to argue with. In some cases, arguing with codified law will land you in jail or serious debt. Other times, writing can be used as a tool for liberation. The sheer power of writing is why novelist, essayist, and poet Margaret Atwood observed that “A word after a word after a word is power.”
Think about the last Terms & Condition document you “read” before updating TikTok or another app. It is not at all uncommon for corporations to protect themselves from liability by using profuse, arcane, or esoteric language. Think of the small print that comes with a credit card application — is it in the interests of a financial institution for consumers to truly understand the contract?
Psychologically and politically, writing is power. Does one “serve time” in jail or “survive” incarceration? Is one concerned about “climate change” or a “climate crisis”? Is one “an aggrieved party” or “playing the victim”? The person-centered movement in psychology shifted the language from “alcoholic” or “schizophrenic” to a “person with alcoholism” or “a person showing schizophrenic symptoms.” This shift in language insists that the person remains a person and is deserving of dignity and respect; this framework makes it explicit that an individual is not to be defined exclusively by an illness or to be criminalized for it.
You may have heard the chant “the personal is the political.” This is to say that the words we chose influence how we see others, how we see ourselves, and how others view us. How people see themselves changes with the phrases they have to describe themselves. “Black is Beautiful” was a slogan popular in the 1960s in a reaction to systematic anti-Blackness in U.S. culture. To insist on Puerto Rican pride, the slogan “¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tu lo sepas” (I’m Puerto Rican, just so you know!) became popular in the 1990s. In the 19th century, being “inverted” or “morally deranged” was punishable by death (in Britain, the last state-sanctioned execution of a homosexual was in 1837). In the 21st century, activists have worked to enshrine more positive terms like “gay” or “queer.” These different terms coincide with a general increase in civil rights for LGBTQI+ people.
In the social sphere, then, you could say that “good” writing uses its power morally and ethically.
This is a large and fascinating topic, and future posts will expound upon it.
On a personal level, improving your writing skills raises your consciousness and increases your range of thought. The scholar and novelist A.S. Byatt wrote:
“Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by.”— A.S. Byatt
As we wield more words and understand more theories, our limitations decrease.
Writing is often therapeutic, but chances are you will also want to share your writing to sufficiently express yourself or because your job requires it (or because you’re taking a writing class!). We will cover hundreds of steps you can take to draw out the best in yourself as a writer, from practical items like setting up a writing space or using timers, to more pragmatic fixes like avoiding the word not, scrapping “there are” statements, using pronouns wisely, and preferring active sentences to passive sentences.
“Good” writing at a personal level can said to be writing that enhances one’s powers of critical thought. To really see what I mean here, I highly suggest this video by the brilliant writer, bell hooks: