9 Qualities of Good Writing

There are two kinds of people: Those who think they can write, and those who think they can’t. And, very often, both are wrong.

The truth is, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We are all capable of producing good writing. Or, at least, better writing.

Why does good writing matter? Isn’t the best content marketing very often something short, snappy, and non-text? Like Skype’s Born Friends video, Lowe’s Vines, or Chipotle’s haunting video commentary?

Sometimes, yes. But here I’m not just talking about content in a marketing context. I’m talking about content, period.

Text is the backbone of the Web, and it’s often the backbone of any content you watch or listen to, as well. That Born Friends video started with a story and a script.

Words matter. Your words (what you say) and style (how you say it) are your most cherished (and undervalued) assets.

Yet, so often, they are overlooked. Think of it this way: If a visitor came to your website without its branding in place (logo, tagline, and so on), would he or she recognize it as yours? Are you telling your story there from your unique perspective, with a voice and style that’s clearly all you?

Here, in no particular order, is what I’ve learned about the necessary qualities of good writing (or content, in our digital vernacular), based on my own 25 years’ working as a writer and editor… and even longer career as a reader.

1. Good writing  anticipates reader questions. Good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It isn’t indulgent. “The reader doesn’t turn the page because of a hunger to applaud,” said longtime writing teacher Don Murray. Rather, good writing anticipates what questions readers will have as they read a piece, and (before they ask them) it answers them.

That means most good writers are natural skeptics, especially regarding their own work. They relentlessly think of things from their reader’s point of view: What experience is this creating for the reader? What questions might they have?

(I did this above, when, before listing the qualities of good writing, I thought, “Why does good writing even matter to you? Why should any of us care?”)

George Orwell said the “scrupulous writer” will ask himself at least four questions in every sentence: “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he or she will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” (Hat tip to The Economist style guide for that one.)

Lauren Vargus & Poe

Here’s where marketing can really help add value in a business context, by the way, because “simple” means “making it easy for the customer.” It means being the advocate for them. As Georgy Cohen writes, “The marketer should be identifying (and ruthlessly refining) the core messages and the top goals, then working with the web professionals to create a website supporting them.”

2. Good writing is grounded in data. Data puts your content in context and gives you credibility. Ground your content in facts: Data, research, fact-checking and curating. Your ideas and opinions and spin might be part of that story—or they might not be, depending on what you are trying to convey. But content that’s rooted in something true—not just your own opinions—is more credible.

Said another way: Data before declaration. If you are going to tell me what you think, give me a solid reason why you think it.

3. Good writing is like good teaching. Good writing strives to explain, to make things a little bit clearer, to make sense of our world… even if it’s just a product description.

“A writer always tries… to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on,” says Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird.

DFTBA4. Good writing tells a full story.  Good writing roots out opposing viewpoints. As Joe Chernov says, “There’s a name for something with a single point of view: It’s called a press release.” Incorporate multiple perspectives when the issue lends itself to that. At the very least, don’t ignore the fact that other points of view might exist; to do so makes your reader not trust you.

So make sure he or she knows you’re watching out for them. To quote Hemingway: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

5. Good writing comes on the rewrite. That implies that there is a rewrite, of course. And there should be.

Writing is hard work, and producing a shitty first draft is often depressing. But the important thing is to get something down to start chipping into something that resembles a coherent narrative.

As Don Murray said, “The draft needs fixing, but first it needs writing.” Or Mark Twain: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”

6. Good writing is like math. I mean this in two ways: First, good writing has logic and structure. It feels solid to the reader: The writer is in control and has taken on the heavy burden of shaping a lumpy jumble of thoughts into something clear and accessible.

It might not follow a formula, exactly. But there’s a kind of architecture to it. Good writing has more logic to it than you might think.

Second, good writing is inherently teachable—just as trigonometry or algebra or balancing a balance sheet is a skill any of us can master. Journalism professor Matt Waite writes in his essay, How I Faced My Fears and Learned to Be Good at Math: “The difference between good at math and bad at math is hard work. It’s trying. It’s trying hard. It’s trying harder than you’ve ever tried before. That’s it.”

I think the same is true about writing. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, spent a year teaching writing to MIT students. He later wrote, “I felt that the rigor of math had better prepared these kids for the rigor of writing. One of my students insisted that whereas in math you could practice and get better, in writing you either ‘had it’ or you didn’t. I told her that writing was more like math then she suspected.”

7. Good writing is simple, but not simplistic. Business—like life—can be complicated. Products can be involved or concepts may seem impenetrable. But good content deconstructs the complex to make it easily understood: It sheds the corporate Frankenspeak and conveys things in human, accessible terms. A bit of wisdom from my journalism days: No one will ever complain that you’ve made things too simple to understand.

“Simple” does not equal “dumbed-down.” Another gem from my journalism professors: Assume the reader knows nothing. But don’t assume the reader is stupid.

If you think your business-to-business concept is too complex to be conveyed simply, take a look at the very first line of The Economist’s style guide: “The first requirement of The Economist is that it should be readily understandable. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.”

8. Good writing doesn’t get hung up on what’s been said before. Rather, it elects to simply say it better. Here’s where style be a differentiator—in literature and on your website.

Mark Twain described how a good writer treats sentences: “At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won’t be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water; it will be a torch-light procession.” He also might’ve said: “Write with clarity and don’t be indulgent.” But he didn’t.

That doesn’t mean you need to be a literary genius, of course. It only means you have to hone your own unique perspective and voice.

9. A word about writers: Good writers aren’t smug. Most of the really good writers I know still feel a little sheepish calling themselves a “writer,” because that’s a term freighted with thick tomes of excellence.  But like many achievements in life—being called a success, or a good parent—the label seems more meaningful when it’s bestowed upon you by others.

“Most of the time I feel stupid, insensitive, mediocre, talentless and vulnerable—like I’m about to cry any second—and wrong. I’ve found that when that happens, it usually means I’m writing pretty well, pretty deeply, pretty rawly.” —Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog)

BONUS: Good writing has a good editor. Writers get the byline and any glory. But behind the scenes, a good editor adds a lot to process.

Remember what I said above about there being two kinds of people? Those who think they can write, and those who think they can’t? And very often, both being wrong? A good editor teases the best out of so-called writers and non-writers alike.

The best writing—like the best parts of life, perhaps—is collaborative.

And by the way, is it odd that I’m seeding what’s essentially business advice with insight from artists? And if so, why is that odd?

Because in a world where we have an opportunity and responsibility to tell our stories online, we need to find not just the right words… but the very best ones.

– See more at: http://www.annhandley.com/2013/11/18/9-qualities-of-good-writing/#sthash.x9WNUbtV.dpuf

Advertisements

How to Use Reading to Become a Better Writer

“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” – Victor Hugo

There are two ways to become a better writer, in general: write a lot, and read a lot.

There are no other steps.

Of course, within those two general directives, there are lots of more specific advice I can give you, and that other professional writers would offer. Let’s take a look at the second general directive: read a lot.

Why Reading Makes You a Better Writer
I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, and I would submit that most good (and especially great) writers could say the same. What we probably didn’t realize was that our trips into the fantasy worlds of these books were actually training us for our future careers. I’m glad I didn’t know — it might have taken a bit of the joy out of it.

Read can be pure joy, if you’re reading a good book. By that, I don’t mean good literature — I mean anything that captures your imagination, that compels you to read more, that tells you a good story, that creates wonderful characters, that builds new worlds.

But beyond reading for pleasure, a good writer also reads with an eye for the writing. Maybe not all the time, but at least some of the time. And many times that writer doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.

What we learn as readers, we use as writers. Maybe we don’t always do the best job at putting that knowledge to use, but that just takes practice. Over time, our writing becomes in some ways a compilation of all the things we’ve learned as readers, blended together in our own unique recipe.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx

How to Use Reading to Improve Your Writing
There’s no one way, of course. Every writer reads his own stuff, and puts that stuff to use in his own way. Below are just some tips of what’s worked for me — take what you like from it, and use what you find useful.

  1. Create the reading habit. It can’t be a matter of just reading a book and then forgetting about reading after the initial burst of enthusiasm for reading. It has to be a habit, that you create and keep for life. As someone who has learned a lot about creating habits, I know that the best way to form the habit of reading is to focus on it exclusively — don’t try to form any other habits during this time. Write down your goal (i.e. “Read for 30 minutes every day” or something like that) and post it up somewhere you can see it. Tell a lot of people about it and report to them regularly to create accountability. Log your progress daily and give yourself rewards. Do this for a month and you’ll have a decent habit in place.
  2. Have regular reading triggers. A habit has a trigger — a regularly occurring event that immediately precedes the habit. The stronger the association with the trigger, the stronger the habit. What triggers will you have for reading? For me, it’s eating, going to bed, using the bathroom, and waiting somewhere (like in a doctor’s waiting room). Every time those triggers come up, I read, without fail. Choose your triggers, and do it without fail. If you take my triggers as an example, if I read just 10-15 minutes for each trigger, that’s 6 times a day (three times eating and once for each of the others) for a total of 60-90 minutes a day. Sometimes it’s more, but that’s the minimum (I often read for much longer before bed).
  3. Carry your book with you. When you go on the road, always carry your book in the car or wherever you go. You might not need it for 9 trips, but the 10th time, you’ll be glad you brought the book. When you have a lull, whip out the book.
  4. Read great writers. By “great writers” I mean not only the greats (Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, Joyce, and Fitzgerald are some of my favorites here) but also the great storytellers. People who can write with wit, create great characters, reach into your soul, create new worlds for you to inhabit. Writers who can teach you something.
  5. Get inspired. When I read great writing, I am filled with inspiration to write. Sometimes I throw down my book and go to my computer to start hacking away at the keyboard. Other times I’ll jot down stuff in my notebook for later. Use these writers to inspire you to greatness.
  6. Analyze character, plot, theme. Break down the books you read. You can either do this as you read, or afterward, when you reflect on them while doing something else (for me it’s running and doing housework and when I’m in the shower). Why did the writer make the choices she made? How did she create the characters and convey their qualities? How did she start the book and lay out the plot? How is the theme of the book conveyed throughout the book.
  7. Pay attention to what they do with words. Beyond the big things mentioned above, the writer does little things with words, in every paragraph and sentence and phrase. A good writer pays close attention to words, the effects they create, how they mix together with other words, twists and turns of meaning. See how he does this, as it is the best instruction you can get.
  8. Rip them off. A writing teacher once told me not to mimmic other writers — but instead to rip them off. Steal blatantly. Take things that you discover in other writers, things that work, things that you love … and use them in your own writing. Don’t worry — you can always revise later or throw it out completely. For now, rip them off. It’ll help you make these techniques your own.
  9. Riff off them, experiment. Once you’ve ripped off a few dozen writers, start to riff. Do variations and experiments on stuff you’ve found. Give their techniques and styles your own twists and flair.
  10. Expand beyond your normal genres. If you normally read one or two genres, break out beyond it. If you only read sci-fi and fantasy, read more mainstream literature, read romance or thrillers, read “chick lit” (a term I hate, but oh well). There’s a lot you can learn from writers beyond your normal scope.
  11. Above all, enjoy your reading. Reading, of course, is about much more than just learning and analyzing and experimenting. It’s about joy. So don’t let your “reading to become a better writer” interfere with that. If a book bores you to tears, go ahead and put it down for something you enjoy more. If you start to lose track of the story because you’re overanalyzing, just forget about analysis and lose yourself in the book. You’ll still be learning, so fear not. If you read for pleasure, you won’t be able to help it.

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” – Woody Allen