Good writing is hard to define. Great writing is harder. But everyone knows what bad writing looks like, and how to avoid it – yet we fall into its traps repeatedly.
The concept of “good” writing is intensely personal, and differs from person to person. For an academic in the sciences, it means dense but concise jargon, filled with the necessary graphs, equations, and conclusions. No embellishing needed. For an expert on the Greek classics, it means long-winded monologues, a constant ebb and flow in the prose-that-is-not-prose since Greek translation to English is difficult no matter what, and to complicate matters, the poetic devices used by Greek writers are nearly impossible to translate to today’s run-and-gun style of communication (even though they are conceptually very similar). For a comedian, it means walking the razor’s edge between having the audience laugh with the joke and laugh AT the joke – which takes timing, sensitivity (or lack thereof), political awareness, and a hell of a sarcastic streak.
To me, writing is all of these things and more. Writing as an art form is the sum total of all the approaches that have been tried in the past, regardless of their success or failure rate. But historically, writing has also been a time capsule which carries the legacy of conquest and expansion – what is considered “good” writing even more so. The majority of accepted classic English literature carries the names of white, upper-middle-class men even though there has been substantial evidence uncovered in the past few decades that it was in fact their wives, daughters, or apprentices who actually wrote the books. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the ways in which the English language has been a tool of assimilation even as those who adopt it are rarely considered great writers. “Good” writing is a construct which is heavily biased towards the winners who write history.
Ironically, however, my favorite author is a white male upper-middle class man. Robert Jordan wrote the Wheel of Time series, which threw all preconceptions of fantasy out the window. He reinvented the genre of epic fantasy much as Tolkien did – but with a realistic world filled with men, women, and children who played prominent parts. By subverting the norms, he created a universe so real and tangled that I spent an entire month trying to create a character web simply because the mythology was that detailed. The only loose ends were the ones that he intended readers to pull on after his death.
His vision both for the books and for the readers was realized in full – through scholarly analysis, reader forums, fan-fiction, spin-offs of varying quality, conventions, and nonstop textual analysis of his characters and their backstories.
Now that isn’t good writing. That is GREAT writing.