Thoughts on "Good" Writing

After more than thirty years as a published professional author, I’ve seen more than a few statements, essays, comments, remarks, and unprintable quotations about writers and writing, and, as I noted in an earlier blog, I’ve seen the proliferation of lists of “bests.”

Just recently, Brian Aldiss published an essay in the Times of London that pointed out how neglected and overlooked so many good speculative fiction writers happen to be.

But… is what constitutes “good writing” merely a subjective judgment?

At the risk of alienating almost everyone who writes and who reads, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think so. I firmly believe that there are certain basics to good writing that, if we had the tools, which we do not, as of yet, could be measured objectively. But since those tools have yet to make an appearance, I’ll merely offer some subjective and scattered observations.

Some aspects of writing can already be measured objectively, such as basic grammar. When subjects and verbs do not agree, the writing is bad. When punctuation is lacking, the writing is certainly suspect. When six different readers come up with six totally disparate meanings for a passage, the writer’s skill is most probably lacking.

Beyond such basics, however, writers, English professors, reviews, and editors can argue vociferously. Some believe that style is paramount, and that beautiful sentences, impeccably crafted, with each word sparkling like a gem in its own precisely placed setting, are the mark of good writing. Certainly, well-crafted sentences are indeed the mark of a good writer, but when the sentences take over from the meaning, the emotional connotations and overtones, and the plot, those beautiful sentences become purple prose, no matter how well-crafted.

Still others advocate the stripped-down Hemingwayesque style of short direct and punchy sentences and actions. My personal feeling, which I’ve discovered is shared by very few, is that in the best writing neither the reader nor the reviewer notices the writer’s style and sentences, because story and style become one. Put another way, the style becomes transparent in allowing the reader to fully experience the story. When the way in which a story is told is noticed more than the story itself, the writing is not as good as it could or should be.

Others cite originality in plot and the need for every book by an author to have a different plot. This particular fixity seems far more prevalent in F&SF; certainly mystery and romance readers don’t seem to mind the same basic plot time after time, and more than a few “great” writers have used a limited number of basic plots. In fact, Heinlein noted that there were only three basic plots.

Even today, there are editors who believe that any novel that is written in any other tense or persona than third person past tense cannot possibly reach the highest level of literary and artistic perfection. Unlike them, I believe that the choice of tense and persona should be dictated by the story itself and represents an integral part of the novel or story, and that the default third-person, past tense is only a general guideline and certainly not part of a set of objective criteria for excellence in writing.

Endings clearly vary from genre to genre. Certainly, very few “great” mainstream novels have happy or up-beat endings, while very few fantasy novels have endings leaving the main characters as miserable — or as dead or dysfunctional, if not both — as do those mainstream novels. The implication from the “literary” critics seems to be that a novel cannot be good or considered as great unless it leaves the reader lower than a snake’s belly, while the fantasy critics tend to believe that a book cannot be good unless the supply of nifty magic “stuff” is not endlessly innovative and unless the hero or heroine suffers and triumphs over hardships and difficulties so massive and entrenched that the efforts of entire societies had theretofore proved insufficient to surmount. [And I confess that, once or twice, I have succumbed to this weakness, and I do hope that I will possess the fortitude to resist the temptation to go forth and do the same in the future.]

The human condition, in general, tends toward optimism in a world whose behavior tends to reinforce the reality of pessimism. For that reason alone, my personal feeling is that “good” writing should encourage and represent realistic hope.