There are many myths about what makes good writing. Here I debunk three of them…
1. Good writing needs to be grammatically correct.
Not always. Controversial? Not particularly – just common sense. Take another look at those three sentences you’ve just read. Every textbook of English grammar states that a sentence needs to contain a main verb, yet those sentences do not have a single verb amongst them (main or otherwise). Did that stop you understanding them? I doubt it. I am not saying that we should throw the rules of our language out of the window and burn them all on the bonfire while we dance around it wearing bear skins. As a general rule, standard English is the way to go.
But (and how dare I start a sentence or a paragraph with a conjunction!) there are times when we can bend or ignore the rules. There is indeed wonderful beauty in the standard English rhythm of Dickens’ “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities) but there is also beauty in the truth of the words, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.” (The Color Purple, Alice Walker). Celie’s voice couldn’t talk to us in standard English – it wouldn’t be true. So that is writing myth #1.
2. I need to write in lots and lots of detail.
There is no need to describe every person, place and thing in exact detail. When you’re tempted to use description, ask yourself these two questions: Does this detail move the story forward? Does this detail give the reader vital information about the characters and the characters’ world?
If it does at least one of those things, keep it. If it does neither, lose it. Try to flick a switch in your brain to read it not as the writer but as a reader. Do you feel at all patronised by anything? Do you find yourself saying, ‘Well, of course the leaves on that tree are green. Of course they are moving and making a noise in the wind.’ You only need to mention details such as colour or noise if they are unusual. If you show that your character is outside and is watching a tree in a stiff breeze, your reader will ‘get’ that the leaves are moving about and making an appropriate noise…and will almost certainly picture green leaves. Give him/her some credit. Writing myth #2.
3. I need to use lots of unusual words and long sentences so that it doesn’t sound simplistic.
There’s a world of difference between simplistic and simple. Simplistic is bad. Simple is good. Avoiding swallowing a combined edition dictionary and thesaurus does not make your writing simplistic. Treating your reader as if s/he is stupid makes it simplistic (see the above note about too much detail). Simple is beautiful. Simple doesn’t tangle your reader in sentences which use three different types of subordinate clauses plus an embedded clause (and no, it’s not desperately important whether you know what they are or not). Simple doesn’t leave your reader baffled because you’ve used three words in a row s/he doesn’t know. Simple writing lets your reader read it without drawing attention to itself. Your reader is free to enjoy the story. Simple! Writing myth #3.
So what am I really telling you?
Good writing serves the reader, not the writer. How can you engage your reader in the story? How can you make your characters come alive and dance for their audience? Anticipate what the reader will want, then give it to them (though tease them now and again by making them wait a while for answers). The reader isn’t thinking ‘How can I admire this writer?’ but ‘Am I enjoying this story?’ That, dear reader, is the crux of it – write so that your reader enjoys the story.
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