Tuesday, December 20, 2005
What Is Good Writing?
On my little soapbox again . . .
Someone asked me, "What Is Good Writing?"
So I'll offer my opinion. First, I have to refer to my high school English teacher, who insisted upon giving us TWO grades for every writing assignment: one for technique, one for content. (I did the same thing when I taught English.)
Content translates into the story, which includes the element of emotional contact. Technique, on the other hand, pertains to how well the writer exercises his craft. Too many technique errors draw the reader's attention away from the content and diminish the enjoyment of the story. Too little story . . . well, I won't read the book long enough to notice good technique.
The value of content, or the story's quality, is almost entirely subjective.
Most "academic" or "literary" novels don't excite my enthusiasm. I prefer stories that follow the mythical pattern--an interesting, active protagonist strives to reach a goal, overcomes complications, learns a lesson, sacrifices something in the effort, and comes out either a winner or a loser, but always wiser for the effort and changed by the struggle. If I can identify with the protagonist, so much the better. If his world is fascinating, even better.
If I, the reader, learn something, better yet. If the novel makes me think and question my previously held suppositions, wonderful. And if a writer can do all of the above in his/her story, that's EXCELLENT storytelling.
What's good technique? Crisp, clear, precise writing. Using the exactly right word, and not a word more or less. Oblique dialogue. Clear interior dialogue uncluttered by "she thought" and "he wondered." Strong verbs and nouns that obviate the need for redundant adjectives and adverbs.
Exposition that flows naturally when I need it, not a moment before or after, and definitely not in dialogue between people who would already know the information. I am peeved by the following words IF they catch my attention: that, was, were, it, suddenly. I also like clear point of view, limited to one person per scene, because I'm a child of the video age and accustomed to thinking like a camera.
But when all is said and done, the most beautiful prose in the world won't matter one whit if I don't care A LOT about the characters by the second chapter . . . some would say the second page. And a gripping story will make me forgive--even not notice--all kinds of technique problems. But I'll confess--when I pick up a book and flip through the pages, it's the technique problems that catch my eye.
Rule number one: good writing captivates the reader with story and sympathetic characters.
Rule number two: good writing is technique that functions like a smooth highway. It paves the way so the story can flow without distracting the reader.