What Exactly is Good Writing?

            The author of The Editor’s Companion, Steve Dunham, explains the marks of good writing: good writing is focused, has good content, uses precise language, and uses good grammar.[1] Good writing is concise; the writer should winnow away all needless words and expressions. Good writing is the result of clarity. Good writing is concerned with the reader: the writer uses words the reader understands. Good writing cares about grammar, for at least, the sake of the reader.

            I agree! I believe what constitutes good writing are the following: writing should be clear, economical, and sharp. In addition, to Dunham’s philosophy, I also think good writing embraces clarity as an even higher ideal than grammatical correctness.[2] The writer should strive for economy, clarity, and sharpness above all else.

“I am convinced the most effective way to learn how to write is through reading.” – W. Alexander

            I am convinced the most effective way to learn how to write is through reading; close-reading a specific, accomplished author or genre will teach the writer everything. What you will find is that good, no great writers, use, for example, paragraphs as literary respiration. Consider, Babel- Walter Morrison’s, Crossing into Poland:”

            “Fields flowered around us, crimson with poppies; a noontide breeze played in the yellowing rye; on the horizon virginal buckwheat rose like the wall of a distant monastery… The orange sun rolled down the sky like a lopped-off head, and mild light glowed from the cloud gorges. The standards of the sunset flew above our heads. Into the cool of evening dripped the smell of yesterday’s blood, of slaughtered horses.” [3]

            Reread that paragraph, slowly. Typically, like you, I have been taught to write in a manner that inhales at the beginning of the paragraph, and exhales at the end. This allows for rhythmic change or a perspective shift. Here is the beginning of the very next paragraph.

            Savitsky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of the giant’s body.”

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            Notice that shift? Notice how breathless the previous paragraph left you, but then abruptly the camera shifts? That to me is brilliant writing that can only be observed through close-reading. Of course, there are volumes of books on what makes good writing, and even more published works of great writing, but great fiction, like poetry, respects the power of rhythm.


[1] Dunham, Steve. The Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More. Writer’s Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. chp 2.

[2] Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. HaperCollins e-books. New York, NY.  pp. 44

[3] Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. ‘Crossing into Poland.’ Translated by Walter Morison. HaperCollins e-books. New York, NY.  pp. 65

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