Monday, May 9, 2011

TUESDAY TIPS AND TIDBITS – Good Writing, the Three Criteria

There’s a lot of standard squawk about ‘good writing.’ Reviewers tell readers what books are worthy of their reading time. Talk show hosts recommend books to their viewers that they think merit their attention. Publishers tout the latest entries in a long list of titles from longstanding popular authors. And the accolades go on...

Many people have different opinions about what constitutes ‘good writing’ – and what makes a good book. Often authors trying to get their work published have no clue what constitutes good writing when they get rejection letters with snarky comments like, “Dear Author, We’re looking for good writing. We can’t tell you what good writing is. We just know it when I see it – and unfortunately we haven’t seen it within the pages you sent us.”

So, what is ‘good writing,’ and how does one go about recognizing it, or fixing ho-hum writing to become ‘good writing’? The most important thing to remember is that 'good writing,' like ‘good art,’ is a subjective issue whose beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Distinguishing good writing can be nearly impossible, because doing so requires the one making the judgment to impose his or her own set of personal standards on any work. What may seem like ‘good writing’ to Joe Reviewer may come off as drivel to Jane Reader. However there are some basic considerations to use as a standard to help remove the subjectivity when qualifying ‘good writing’...

1. STRUCTURE. The work should be structurally sound and adhere to commonly accepted rules of writing and grammar and punctuation. If it does not, then the writer should understand the rules well enough to know that breaking said rules will create results the writer wishes to achieve within the reading experience. For instance, a writer may deliberately use a string of short sentence fragments to create tension in a dramatic scene in a novel.

2. PURPOSE. The work should serve the purpose for which it was created. In other words, a piece of writing should do a good job of addressing the intended audience. This is important whether the work is a mystery novel or an article aimed at older readers to inform them of new laws regarding medical coverage.

3. SOPHISTICATION. The work should achieve a level of sophistication appropriate for the intended audience. For example, a children’s book would use simple sentence structure and words easy for the intended reader to understand. Conversely, the author of a literary masterpiece would probably reach deeper into the wordsmith’s toolbox to find appropriate words and sentence structure to maintain the interest of a more discriminating adult reading audience. In fiction, this would cover plot complexities and dramatic twists as well – all appropriately entertaining and surprising for the author’s expected and intended audience.

Structure, purpose, and sophistication may seem like simple enough criteria for judging good writing, but are in fact pervasive and critical for the success of a written work. And, for the inexperienced writer, applying these basics in the hope of producing good writing can get confusing. Let’s take the beginning paragraph from an unpublished novel to examine why it falls short of the three basic criteria. A few details have been changed in this magic-paranormal novel to allow it to serve as a generic example.

It started off like any other normal day for 22-year-old Elizabeth. She awoke with her best hairy friend, Beau, her basset hound still snoring and curled up on her bed next to her. She loved Beau. She shared everything with him and knew he would always keep her secrets. The morning sounds were coming through her window that she had left open the night before. The birds were chirping, the light breeze on the rolling acres and the crisp smell of spring in the air. The flowers were starting to come up and the trees all had buds on them. It was still pretty early for Elizabeth to be awake, especially since she had watched the stars in the sky until the early hours of the morning. Elizabeth thought early dawn was truly a beautiful time of the day and she needed to witness it more often. When the earth still stood still and the creatures all started on their daily routines. But, she also thought about how wonderful the late hours of the evening are too. When the sun has gone and families were in their beds soundly sleeping. This was Elizabeth’s favorite time of day. Her thinking time, her learning time, her figuring out time. Everyone needs a special time.

When we apply ‘good writing’ Criterion #1 (STRUCTURE) to the above excerpt, we find that the paragraph is actually several paragraphs strung together, rambling from one loosely related subject to another. While the sentences for the most part are structured properly, there is very little variety in length or configuration. Every sentence starts with the subject, followed by the verb. The majority of the verbs are passive rather than action verbs, further lending to the sense of vague rambling. A few sentence fragments add personalization, but overall the paragraph lacks focus and doesn’t lead to a point that provides the reader with an incentive to keep reading.

Criterion #2 (PURPOSE) is vague and undefined in this paragraph. This is the opening paragraph of the story, and its purpose should be to ‘hook’ the reader with an interesting situation that compels the reader to keep reading. What we get here is a summary of Elizabeth’s process of waking up and admiring the new day. Again, the passive verbs gang up in this paragraph to create a vague and uninteresting passage that fails to do a good job introducing the story so the reader wants to keep reading.

With the comparison of Criterion #3 (SOPHISTICATION), one would expect the uncomplicated tone of this paragraph to appeal to a reader with very simple reading tastes. It is obvious this is not going to be a literary masterpiece that will stretch the reader’s imagination or require a lot of thought to absorb and process the story. If this were intended as a children's story, the lack of sophistication might be appropriate. However, it is actually intended for adult readers, so it misses the mark.

Based on the attributes detailed in the comparison of the ‘good writing’ criteria, I would have to say this novel’s first paragraph needs a lot of work. Here’s a modified paragraph that may not be ‘good’ but perhaps moves closer to that designation with some modifications...

When 22-year-old Elizabeth awoke that morning, she expected her day to be as normal as any other, with her basset hound and best friend Beau still curled up on the bed next to her and snoring peacefully. But, as Elizabeth was well aware, expecting things to turn out a certain way didn’t automatically guarantee they would.

A light breeze blew in through the window she’d left open last night, bringing in the crisp scent of spring from the rolling acres of her grandfather’s Kitt Falls, Iowa, farm. Birds chirped happily as she gazed at the bright yellow daffodils blooming in a row lining the gravel drive. The sun sparkled cheerily among the new small leaves budding on the trees, announcing another glorious day she couldn’t wait to greet it with open arms.

“Come on, boy,” Elizabeth urged, gently shaking Beau. He opened his droopy eyes and slowly sat up, yawning widely, making her smile. She loved that old dog. She could share any secret with him, confident he’d keep it safe. But keeping secrets wasn’t always the best policy. She knew that from experience too, and today she was determined to crack the secrets that had kept her from knowing the truth of her past ... the truth hidden somewhere in this old farmhouse.

With these modifications, the details are basically the same, but are highlighted with more proactive wording and varied sentence structure. The very first sentence introduces a situation the reader knows is going to change soon – and change is the catalyst for nearly every story beginning. Dialog and action add to the sense of realism needed to draw the reader into believing the story. The detail of the grandfather’s farm as an inheritance has been included up front to ground the story in a real setting. Previously this detail was introduced much later in the story. The end of the last paragraph sets up the premise of this story for the reader, that the old farmhouse Elizabeth inherited from her grandfather holds a secret about her past she is determined to find out. Focusing on secrets allows the introductory passage to lead the reader to the central plot issue in this novel, that Elizabeth has not been told important facts about her heritage. Now the reader wants to find out about it too, and hopefully will keep reading in order to do so.

Overall, instead of rambling, this modified passage performs an important function – to draw in the reader and immediately inform him of the central conflict or problem upon which this novel is based. And that, by the way, is the whole point of an opening passage in a novel – to entice the reader and hint what the book is about. Until this passage performed its purpose in a well-structured and sophisticated manner appropriate for the intended audience, it could not be considered ‘good writing.’ With some judicious changes, it’s now much closer to completing that objective.

Try taking a fresh look at your own writing by applying the same three basic criteria, and see how you can improve your work.

Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing

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