The question “what does good writing look like?” is a really important one, especially if you make your living as a writer, like I do. If you wanted to, you could phrase this question differently, and ask “what makes one piece of writing better than another?” The problem with these questions, though, is that what feels like good writing to me might not feel like good writing to you. Writing is an incredibly subjective thing. This is one of the reasons why I’m uneasy about the idea of using comparative judgement to assess writing (and especially to assess creative writing) as I alluded to in last night’s blog. The idea that there might be ‘no more marking’, as the company selling comparative judgement is called, sounds wonderfully attractive if you are up to your elbows in marking every night. But the suggestion that we can glance at a piece of writing for a few seconds and decide whether it is ‘better’ than another one baffles me. It feels like an affront against the act of writing.
There are a lot of ways to decide whether a piece of writing is “good” or not. If you work at the DfE you will want to see at least one semi-colon in it, plus a colon and a dash as well. You will be hoping for lots of fronted adverbials, and plenty of adjectives (preferably in a series of three). You will want to find lots of ‘big words’ in it as well. There should be an exclamation mark too, although only on sentences that start with What or How. And the handwriting – don’t forget the handwriting – that really must be neat and joined up, or the writer is simply not doing things properly. It would take me a matter of moments to write a piece that satisfied all those criteria, but I would rather cut off my own arm than approach the process of writing in such a way.
For some of the people reading this, a “good” piece of writing might be one that is full of technical detail and that includes references to lots of other people’s ideas, with lots of bits of ‘proof’ in it. Probably one that is lacking in emotion (damn you, emotion), full of clear headed content with absolutely no sign of bias. Anyone who likes this kind of writing will probably hate the fact that I put “cut off my own arm” in that last paragraph. (Will you please stop showing emotion.) For other people reading this, the sign of “good” writing might be the amount of vocabulary that the writer has included in it. The number of words that are complicated, or tricky, or hard to understand. But you see, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these kinds of writing, they just don’t cut it for me as a reader. These kinds of writing leave me cold. For me the sign of “good” writing is that it moves me, it makes me see the world differently, it makes me shiver (or even shudder) inside. I’m not a fan of big words, used for their own sake. I’m not a massive fan of semi-colons either. And exclamation marks? Don’t even get me started on those.
About twenty years ago I was teaching a top set Year 11 English class. They were doing some short pieces of creative writing, as part of their coursework. I was going through a pile of their scripts and I came across one by a kid called William. I glanced down at it and sighed. It was scruffy, bent at the edges, the handwriting was awful and it was only a single page. If I had been doing a seven second comparative judgement task, it would have gone straight into the “not good” pile. But when I actually read it, it made me shiver. There was something about the clarity of the prose, and the tight, straight-up style of the writing that made me wish I had written it myself. One of my favourite writers of all time is the now sadly departed Elmore Leonard. If you want to write for a living, and especially if you want to write fiction, then you could do an awful lot worse than to start with his 10 rules. The rules start with the advice: “Using adverbs is a mortal sin” and finish with the suggestion that “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” And that is what good writing looks like to me.