Ask a hundred different people for their definition of “good writing,” and you’ll get a thousand different answers.
On a very basic level, the creation of a story can be divided into two parts: concept and composition. Without a command of both sides, a writer—more specifically, his or her story—is bound to fall short of greatness.
Like a coin, there are two sides to every story. Just don’t leave its success to chance. Photo by Kadayawan (own work) via Wikimedia Commons
How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book about…”? Or “I have this great idea for a story…”?
When it comes to fiction, most of us dive into the ideas behind a story before we ever ply the pen or keyboard and transpose thoughts from mind to page. The aptitude for artfully stringing sentences together typically comes later.
Now inspiration comes in many forms, and creativity often strikes without warning. But a handful of traits do not make a character. A theme cannot serve as substitute for plot. And a thin storyline can be stretched only so far.
In short, not every inkling is worthy of a novel.
Understanding how to combine concepts—knowing what to keep, what to lose, what to tweak—forms the roots of good writing. Of course, all of the wonderful ideas in the world won’t amount to much on their own. They must grow into something that can be experienced by the outside world.
At some point in our education, we all learn to write. Common curricula tackle the basics (e.g., parts of speech, sentence construction, and proper punctuation) as well as the assembly of these verbal apparatuses into a purpose-driven piece.
Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, and they typically contain a climax and a resolution. Essays and research papers pose a hypothesis from the outset and are filled with arguments built upon evidence. Etc., etc.
Writing is an art, yes, but those who neglect the science of it tend to turn readers off by breaking both documented and unspoken rules. If you litter your prose with homophones, run-on sentences, repetitious words or phrases, and incomplete thoughts, your readers won’t take you seriously.
If you have any readers at all.
Then there are those who go beyond merely competent writing—those who work such wonders with words that there’s no doubt they were put on the planet to pursue this art form. These writers conjure up mind-blowing metaphors and paint the most evocative imagery in the reader’s imagination.
Both the sides of the craft—concept and composition—require creativity. Neither half is inherently more important than the other. They depend on each other.
Granted, there are some writers who could crank out a vignette about an everyman or everywoman simply plodding through life. No extraordinary back story, no mind-blowing plot twist; just a series of otherwise unremarkable events. If that author’s exquisite use of language pulls readers in and keeps them engaged, the style alone might transcend the mundane ideas behind the writing.
Likewise, a writer could come up with a brilliant concept—an unexplored aspect of the human condition or an intriguing new situation—and be found wanting when it comes to execution. Maybe said writer could be forgiven for his or her shortcomings in the composition department if the ideas are compelling enough. Maybe.
Most of the time, a writer must strive for mastery of both sides of the story before he or she is successful.
Depending too much on concept or composition will only reveal the weakness of the other. Many readers won’t waste their time with a well-written but boring (or otherwise conceptually flawed) book. And a writer who has an amazing concept but lacks the chops when it comes to composition can’t hope to do his or her idea justice.
The solution, unsurprisingly, is practice. Challenge yourself to take your ideas to the next level. Keep at those finger exercises, read and learn from better wordsmiths than yourself, and then watch your prose improve.
You’ll never get a straight answer when it comes to what makes “good writing” good. But if you fail to deliver in either the concept or composition department (or both!), you’re bound to get an earful about what makes writing bad.