What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are all writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.
A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that, if missing, make a piece of writing not good? Three essentials jump out right away. These are: practice, trust, and judgment.
In a recent interview, the Australian writer Helen Garner said: “…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”
More laconically, Cormac McCarthy put it : “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”
These successful authors are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s exercise, not unlike jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym, that keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.
Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.
If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing. This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self and works in several ways:
- Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say about a particular subject.
- Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be paid attention to.
- Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
- Communicating honestly – Find your voice. Be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.
Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.
Everyone’s heard the saying: one part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is all about perspiration. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.
In other words, if practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the metabolic system—the inner work—of writing, then judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing.
It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right? How much reshaping? Careful editing is essential. Hemingway noted: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King advises: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.
It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. There is a story floating around writer’s festivals about a writer that holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: “Because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.”
The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process, and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.