What is good writing?
A question without a simple answer.
I am no expert at writing — or anything, for that matter. You need many years to gain expertise, and I haven’t had many years yet. But I do love writing, and I get better at it every day. Here are some things I have learned from online, other people, and my own experience.
Yes, I know it’s obvious, but it wasn’t for me four years ago. I thought my writing was good enough as is, and editing was so boring. Now, I’ve found both of these to be wrong.
Not even the best author does their best work on their first try. Any published book you’ve read has been written and rewritten, edited, changed, scrapped, retried, rethought, remodeled, revised. Again, it may seem like a novice piece of advice. But it took me a while to realize it.
Even near the start of Words on Key, I wouldn’t edit my posts before sending them out, wanting to be done with them and get on. Now that I don’t post things as often, I am more careful with how I use words — after all, it would be quite ironic for me to be careless with them on a blog about how precious they are.
Forget what I said for a moment and just write.
Worry about everything else later. No one else has to see your terrible first draft if you want.
This is a rule I kind of hate sometimes because I have so much trouble following it.
Write first, then edit.
It seems simple, but it’s easier said than done. But just try to let the words flow out of your pencil or fingertips. Or perhaps you should use a pen to force yourself to not erase on your first draft.
Although editing is important, so is getting your thoughts out, as I explain in the Editing Checklist.
Another one I struggle with sometimes even though it makes perfect sense: reading is just as important as writing.
More important, maybe. If you want to have any clue what you’re doing while you write, the best thing to do is to pick up any book — one in the same genre is best, but literally any book — and read it.
Since I like writing better than reading, I tend to forget this or not want to read. But it is important, and when I do read, I find myself learning from many of the authors I like.
I never gave much thought to the adverb rule for a while. Now, I do notice when a piece of writing has too many adverbs — it gets kind of annoying and weird.
However, I disagree with the concept of omitting adverbs entirely. (See? I just used one right there.) If it matters, then yes, it should be kept. As with all other writing “tips.” Rules are meant to be broken, after all.
I’ve looked and can’t find it again, but I saw a Pin once that said something like:
Put the important stuff at the end of the sentence.
I confessed my love for him at the end of the semester.
That sounds okay, or a little boring. But:
At the end of the summer, I confessed my love for him.
Whoa! Way more drama!
That always stuck with me (even though I can’t find it anymore!). It makes the sentence way more dramatic and intriguing.
As for sentence length, I’ve heard a lot of different things. But what I like most from a reader’s perspective is variety in sentence length.
I had no idea the passive voice rule existed until a few months ago, and it makes sense. When you say is or was, you are saying that something happened affecting the character, and the character just let it happen.
However, like adverbs, this rule needn’t be always followed, because there may be some instances where passive voice is what makes sense.
Here is a blog post I read a while ago that I think is helpful. It explains this in further detail.
Show and Tell
I’ve heard this since kindergarten: show, don’t tell. And for six-year-olds just learning to write, it is a good rule of thumb for cool descriptions that make the story interesting.
But I’ve gotten better at writing since kindergarten, and now I think this: show and tell.
Of course showing is important because otherwise you’d have a story that just forks the plot over to the readers. “She felt sad as she threw away the papers.” Imagine reading a book of statements like that — quite boring.
However, too much showing can also get boring. We don’t need a paragraph explaining how tired she is, like:
“Her eyelids felt like bricks weighing them down, her fingers drooped, unable to move, and she hunched in her chair, every part of her hurting. She picked up the papers, barely able to make sure they were the right ones, and folded them. Her fingers couldn’t stay awake long enough to crease it, so she took an aimless swing at the trash can. It ricocheted off the side and landed on the floor, but she wasn’t awake to see it.”
My guess is that took you a while to read, and by the end you wished the story would just get on. All you need is this:
“Exhausted, she folded the pages, dropped them into the trash can, and collapsed on the table.”
Of course, those examples are just my style. All writing is different.
Read Drafts Aloud
I mention this a lot in the Editing Checklist. Though it doesn’t seem like a big change, most people notice a lot more mistakes or things they want to change when they read it aloud. You don’t have to read it to anyone in particular (that is helpful too, though), just stand up in your bedroom or writing room and read it as if you are reciting it to a crowd. Read it with the same tone and passion you want your readers to read it with.
After doing this, another thing you could do is have someone else read it to you. Not only can you ask for feedback, but you can hear the tone they read it with. Maybe there’s a part that they read kind of off and you want to italicize a word so it makes more sense. Don’t overuse this, though. Stories are meant to be read and visualized a little differently for each person.
Don’t Overdo It
I’ve heard before that there’s a time to finish a drawing or painting. Sometimes it’s best in its simplicity. Sometimes you can get lost in adding more and more, overworking it, making it better… until it no longer becomes “better.”
It’s the same with writing. Many great authors have rewritten their books tens of times, and that is fine, but there will come a time at some point where you need to decide and accept the fact that you are done.
The Sentence Rule
The final, BEST PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE I HAVE EVER HEARD...
Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
When I first heard this, I thought it was hogwash. That there was no way it was true. But then I read some books while keeping that in mind and I realized I was wrong.
I tend to go on long, unnecessary tangents in my writing. It’s what leads me always ending up finishing a short story with “To Be Continued.” But this rule is true. And contrary to what I used to think, you can still be creative and expressive in writing while following this strategy.
Take, for example, Part 2 of The Magic Balloon, a story I never finished almost a year ago. It’s very short and mostly consists of dialogue. It could have been shortened to just a few sentences and combined with Part 1 or Part 3.
Then, there is another short story that I submitted to a local contest. I haven’t published it on this blog (maybe I will at some point), but in that one I think I did a pretty good job with making my sentences worth being there.
If you have to follow one piece of advice, follow this one. It pays off.
(Also: This advice is from author Kurt Vonnegut. For more of his advice, which I think is great, click here.)
What is good writing?
Know that I still haven’t answered the question. No one can explain what exact words make “good writing.” These are just ideas, tips, suggestions. You can choose to ignore them if you like. But I suggest you take them into consideration if you haven’t already, because although there’s no direct path to “good writing,” there is talent and skill.
If you, like me, are a “fantastical hobbyist” — you write fantasy for fun — and you read this post, then you will like my first infographic, which will come out soon.