Once again, I need to clear up some confusion over what my definition of "good writing" is. Preferably, you'll want to actually hear it from the horse's mouth than somebody else: especially since those who muddle my definition of "good writing" tend to think I somehow hold new writers back, want to scare them away, or want to force them to write only "one way." But since I do support new writers and wish for their growth and self-confidence, and since National Novel Writing Month is only a month and a half away, use this post to help further your writing skills!
My definition of good writing is thus:
Anything that entertains and/or informs the audience as the writer intended is good writing.
Whatever works, works. All writing techniques are fair game. We'll get to this in a sec.
... that entertains and/or informs the audience...
Some writing is meant to be non-fiction and only to meant to share information. Other forms of writing are purely junk food entertainment. Some are a marriage of both, entertaining the audience while provoking thoughts and ideas. You don't necessarily need either or: writing can still be good even if it's 100% informative or 100% entertaining.
... as the the writer intended...
As Yahtzee once put it, not all entertainment is purely "enjoyable," as some forms of entertainment use horror, disgust, dread, and anger for the emotional high. Stories that are entertaining for reasons the writer didn't intend fall under the category of "so bad, it's good." Of course, sometimes writers intentionally aim for campy, so in a sense, even corny, cheesy stories can be considered "good writing." Sure, there are high artistic forms of writing, such as your Citizen Kane and Moby Dick, but there's also mainstream popcorn fun like Starship Troopers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even for non-fiction, there's a far line between All The President's Men and The Zombie Survival Guide, but we consider both to be "good writing."
The most important takeaway from this is there is no single way to write. Whatever choice you make as a writer is what defines you. Now, not every choice you make will work out, as the audience gets the final say, but as you hone your craft, you will develop an artistic originality that defines you. Everyone's style will be different, but whatever gives you your best voice will be your own path to "good writing."
But what about “bad writing”? Bad writing can be defined as the accumulation of things that get in the way of the writer’s ability to entertain and/or inform the audience. A few errors are forgivable, but that’s why I said “accumulation”: enough breaks in tone, style, continuity, structure, and character choices slowly destroy the entertainment value and/or credibility of the writing. However, much like the choices that go into good writing, the errors of bad writing are also on a case-by-case basis, so let’s save that for another time. (Or better yet, discover them yourself.)
(And since I know some smartass is gonna say, "But what goes into 'great' or 'outstanding' writing?," my response will be this: the same that goes into "good writing," but more of it.)
Now that we've defined "good writing," let's look at the taxonomy of "good writing." This isn't a definitive list, but it should give you an idea of the many, many, MANY choices that you, as a writer, have.
Media and Presentation
- Is it visual, prose, or recorded audio? Is it mixed media?
- Does it take place in real time or at the reader's pace?
- Is it interactive?
- If it is written, what are the word choices? Is it simple or verbose? Is it formal or informal? For more information of style, read Prose! A Guide To Actually Writing.
Subject, Inspiration, and Tone
- Was the subject imagined or real?
- Is it about people, places, or events?
- Was it inspired by something positive or negative? An infuriating idea can be just as valid as a positive idea.
- Is the purpose of the writing meant to entertain, inform, or a mix of both? And if so, at what ratio?
- Is the tone light or dark? Optimistic or cynical?
- Is it structured or freeform?
- If it's a story, does it follow act structure? Scene structure? Does it follow its own beat system?
- If it's a story, does it follow a structural paradigm? If so, which? For more information of structures, read The Shapes of Stories for a comparative look on common structures.
- If there is no structure, what is holding the unity of the writing? Is it a unity of ideas? Of events? Or is it a dreamlike stream-of-consciousness?
- Is there a genre? If so, what is it? Are there multiple genres?
- Is there a structure to how the information is being unfolded? Are we told everything up front, or does the writer hold secrets from us until the end?
- Is there a definitive ending/closure? And why?
- How are plot holes and continuity errors handled? Are they on-purpose, or merely just mistakes?
- Is the story trope-heavy or low-key? Does it indulge in cliches, play with tropes, or try to avoid them altogether?
Character Design (if applicable)
- Are there defined characters roles (good guys and bad guys)? Is there a strong sense of morality, or are the characters morally grey?
- Are there defined character archetypes (stock characters/personalities)? Is the cast organized or freeform?
- Are the characters static or dynamic? Do they stay the same or do they arc?
- How smart are the characters? Are the characters functionally genre savvy, or do they adhere to common tropes?
- How are the characters designed and what holds them together?
This should give you an inkling of why we, as a society, equally love classics like Casablanca and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also shelve them alongside mainstream hits like Star Wars, The Matrix, and Mad Max, and why we also indulge in stuff we deem "trashy" yet still watch like Eromanga Sensei and Sharknado. Sure, we knock the cheesy and campy stories, but we must not neglect the fact that mainstream audiences like a little literary junk food once in a while. At the same time, we cannot use this as an excuse to be lazy: they also like smart writing just as equally. Audiences want a well-balanced diet of BOTH meaty artistic stories and empty calorie junk food stories.
Some things to consider when you think about this idea of "good writing":
- A structured story can work just as well as an unstructured story, and vice versa.
- A story full of cliches and tropes can work just as well as one that plays everything straight, and vice versa.
- A campy story can be just as good as a serious story, and vice versa.
- Elaborate word choices like James Joyce are equally as valuable as the creative use of common words by Chuck Palahniuk, which are both equally valued as Earnest Hemingway's minimalist approach.
- Society loves both serious stories, funny stories, and a mix of both. All genres are equally valued. Most characters are equally loved, and even tropes most people despise can be done right under the right circumstances.
This cannot be emphasized enough, and I'm going to keep emphasizing this from now on: there is no single path to "good writing," because every writer's choices will define their unique style. You must make your own style your own.
My choices will be vastly different from yours and others. I don't like fleshing out my characters' backstories, but my friends love to. I love sharpening the premise and structure, my friends prefer letting the characters do the structuring for them. I really like writing stories about finding hope in bleak worlds, but others write their own favorite subjects. Anyone who claims I'm going to force my own writing style on others is either wrong or just downright lying, because there is an infinite number of ways to write. The combinations and stylistic choices are endless, and it is what defines each and every one of us as a writer.
Lastly, there's the matter of drawing inspiration from others. Sure, you can borrow stylistic choices from other writers, but please understand why they made those choices before blindly following them. Copying somebody doesn't always lead to success, especially when you don't understand why it made the original successful in the first place. This is why finding your own writer's voice is a path you must undertake yourself: you have to discover what works for you and you alone, as well as question why it works so you can replicate it in the future, not to mention improve other areas in your writing.
So, if you ever worry about not being artsy enough to be a good writer, or worried that audiences only care about memes and cliche-heavy crap, have heart knowing that there is no single path to being a writer: your writing choices will define your unique style, and once you master what's right for you, you will find your niche/audience. Art is subjective, and one person's "good writing" is another's bad, but hopefully this will get you closer to the right audience saying, "Hey, I like how you wrote this."