Good Writing

The word “writing” is famously ambiguous. It can name a product, as in “I like his writing,” or a process, as in “She likes writing.” When we speak of “good writing” or “writing well” we can likewise mean either a readable product or a bearable process. To say that someone is a “good” writer often means they have a strong prose style, but it could also mean that they have healthy work habits. It’s a difference that is worth keeping in mind when you’re thinking about your own writing.

Good writing should of course be visible on the surface of the text. If what you have written doesn’t finally get your ideas across, it’s hard to consider it a success. And whether your writing succeeds in this sense is something you really only discover when you hear from your readers. (When you do get feedback, remember to distinguish between your reader’s reaction to your ideas and their reaction to your writing. If they don’t like what you think, but it is actually what you think, then there may not be anything wrong with your style.) But even before your readers see your text, I would suggest you learn to evaluate your own product. Develop an eye for grammatical errors and stylistic gaffes. Read yourself out loud. And do please learn to see that your writing is improving. As scholars, we write a lot, and this should be as obvious in our prose as the regular practice of athletes is apparent in their moves.

But what is it that you are actually good at? What is it that you are getting better at through practice? This is where I encourage you to take a moment to observe your process, indeed, I challenge you to take a series of moments. The basic idea is to decide what you want to say at the end of one day and then sit down the next day at a particular time to write a good, clear paragraph that says it. Spend 18 or 27 minutes doing some very deliberate writing — writing that has a well-defined end and makes use of predetermined means. You are trying to support, elaborate or defend a single idea in at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. This is as easy (and as hard) to be “good at” as running 5 kilometers over varied terrain in 25 minutes. There’s no mystery about whether you’re succeeding or how much effort it takes. Most importantly, there’s no mystery about your progress.

In my book, a “good” writer is someone who can make effective use of 20 or 30 minutes (including a short break) to produce a “unit of composition”. A good writer is therefore someone who is able to choose what to write about; there is, after all, no skill that can be applied generally to everything. A good athlete knows what field to step onto and what ring not to get into. A good musician knows what stage to perform on. A good surgeon doesn’t make an incision into just any part of any body. Likewise, a good writer knows what subjects to write about, and who their reader is, and what subjects to leave to other writers for other readers. The standard, I suggest, is whether you’re able to produce a workable prose paragraph in under half an hour. Within your discipline, that is a skill that is very much worth having.

And that means that it is worth investing the effort it takes to develop it. I don’t need to tell you what the effort looks like. At the end of every day, five days a week, over eight weeks, let’s say, pick something you know and write a good clear sentence expressing it. The next morning, sit down to compose a paragraph in 18 or 27 minutes. Take a two or three minute break and get on with your day. Don’t think too much more about it. Just do it and then do all the other things you have to do that day. Experience yourself writing. Experience yourself getting better. In an important sense, “good writing” just is that experience.

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