What makes good writing?

The other day I was half listening to a programme on Radio 4 and somebody mentioned the idea of ‘informed ignorance’ when thinking about the creative process. He meant that as we become more expert at our craft (through practice and learning from others), we can become freer in how we approach a project. The knowledge/skill/talent we have cultivated can then inform, but not get in the way of, our imagination going wild.

I rather like this notion. In response to last week’s post, a fellow writer talked about finding writing difficult if she ‘tries too hard’. Others have said that we come up with our most innovative thoughts when we turn away from a problem or look at it askance rather than head on. I think this probably only really works if we have this store of understanding which can underpin this ‘unthinking’ or ‘unconscious’ approach. 

This week I’ve also been considering what makes good writing. I began reading a novel by a therapist which purported to explore aspects of psychology and depict therapy sessions. It should have been a novel I would have devoured with pleasure. However, I found the writing pedestrian. 

I began to wonder what do I mean by this? What makes prose sing? Alliteration, assonance, metaphor, rhythm, word sounds – these are all techniques more associated with poetry. Yet, I think they are equally applicable to prose. OK, maybe not every phrase. But having sentences which balance around a particular word sound or a contradiction in word meaning, this, in my opinion, is when prose begins to dance (rather than plod) across the page.

I had some fab comments last time I threw in a question, so I’ll do it again: what do you think makes good writing?

 

8 thoughts on “What makes good writing?

  1. Lani

    That’s a tough question! Because good writing is so subjective! I liken it to movies. I’ve gone to plenty of movies with friends and they say, “I loved it” and I’m like, “Ug. It was horrible.” Or when I’ve lent a book to a friend or when we talk about favorites, I feel like they give me the “are you crazy?” look when we disagree – and vice versa.

    Unlike CS Wilde, I notice good writing, although I know what she’s saying. I remember stopping the movie “Juno” when it was maybe a few mintues in because I wanted to rewind to see who wrote this script. It was so sharp and funny. Or when I was a teen, I started to notice who wrote which books in a series that I liked – I started to get some sense of style between the writers.

    But it took me several attempts at the Lord of the Ring series to “get into them”. I think sometimes you just have to be in the mood for certain books/styles and stories. I believe good writers can sometimes write just okay stuff or words that don’t resonate with me, but maybe someone else.

    And sometimes reading a book is about the moment – where were you when you found it? was it the right book at the right time? was it the book you read when you were sick and under the covers? Do you know what I mean? I think that plays a part in the reading experience, too.

    Okay, I’ll try to answer the question! I think good writing takes you there, to where ever the story takes place. It’s funny, exciting, it’s thoughtful; in other words, it evokes an emotion and makes you think about it, you’re locked in. Good writing takes you by the hand, heart and head.

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    1. Kate Evans Post author

      Hi Lani, thanks for this thought-provoking comment. I agree with all of it. I do think that writers tend to notice good/bad writing/technique more than non-writers. I have noticed amongst my compatriots, non-writers tend to be more tolerant of what I would term pedestrian writing if the plot is good and pacy.

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  2. Susanna Bavin

    Interesting question, Kate, and as the previous comments show, there are various ways to think about it. Partly it’s a matter of reading the right book at the right time – I think Lani is spot on in that respect. I think that when writers are reading, they are conscious of the quality of the writing and being aware of ‘good’ writing both increases their enjoyment of the book and makes them think about why it is good. So what is good writing? For me, it is writing that draws me into the book – and it has to do that straight away. I’m not the sort of reader to hang around for a couple of chapters, waiting for the book to get started.

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    1. Kate Evans Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts Susanna. I agree with your points. I think I am less tolerant now and won’t spend so long on a book if it doesn’t capture my attention is some way. Life feels a lot shorter this side of 50!

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