It’s a commonplace in rhet/comp studies that students typically associate “good writing” with avoiding error and that they frequently identify types of writing by their stylistic features. That is, many students assume that the point of writing a paper is to “prove” to the instructor that they have done the work and they will achieve this by writing with flawless grammar and spelling. Additionally, they understand different genres as being distinguished by what they look like on the surface. The literary studies paper, for instance, can be identified by the use of MLA, active rather than passive voice, the lack of contractions, etc.
Of course, good writing is far more than the correction of typos or what the actual paper looks like. Good writing demonstrates that the writer understands the conventions of the genre and the needs of the audience. Good writing demonstrates that the writer understands what constitutes knowledge and knowledge production for the area in which they are writing for.
This difference between content and style seems particularly perplexing to American students, who are accustomed to writing for standardized tests. In high schools, they regularly learn the formulaic five-paragraph essay (introduction, three paragraphs of evidence, and conclusion), a tool which is meant to impart to them the basic structure of an essay and the idea that they need at least three pieces of evidence to begin to be convincing. But many students never break free from this formula and many students continue to believe that, as long as their writings look like they are following a format, the content of the writings does not matter.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. Students can literally make up facts for the SAT and still receive a high score. Students who write research papers for their instructors are often writing about topics the instructors know little about. This makes it difficult for instructors to comment on the content and write comments like, “Actually, this assumption is not true of women in medieval Florence,” or “Italy was not a unified country at this point, so there is no Italian king, as you claim.” Students, again, can literally make up facts and receive a high grade from instructors who do not know any better.
But content matters. When a writer makes a claim that is false, that claim undermines the credibility of the writer and of the entire piece. Imagine beginning to read an article with the first sentence: “J. K. Rowling began publishing Harry Potter in the 1970s.” Would you want to continue on? Would you have faith that writer knows what they are talking about and is in a position to impart knowledge to you? Or would you think that because the writer clearly did not research the topic, you are better off reading about Harry Potter elsewhere?
Good Writing and Knowledge Production in the Book Blogosphere
These same considerations apply in the book blogosphere. I have written before about how what we learn in school is not meant to be left at the door, but taken with us into our everyday lives. That is, we should take with us the understanding that content matters and that good writing even on a blog means that we understand how knowledge is produced and what constitutes knowledge.
To be clear, good writing on a blog does mean writing academic essays. That would, in fact, often be poor writing because an effective author understands the genre they write in and the needs of their audiences. Blog posts are generally short and more informal. Audiences expect this. Some blogs are more academic or formal in tone if they are attempting to attract and interact with a different audience. That’s okay. The specific blog and its mission will change the way blog posts are written.
If this seems confusing, consider for a moment that almost everything you write has an expected structure and conventions. A thank-you note, for instance, typically opens with thanks, continues with an explanation of how you will use the gift, and ends with another expression of thanks. A cover letter is typically one page long, opens with an explanation of the position you are applying for and where you heard of it and why you think you would be a good fit, then continues with examples of your relevant experience and success at work, then ends with your thanks and contact information. The idea that a piece of writing should be clear and should follow an expected format and structure is not applicable solely to the writing performed in schools.
Furthermore, good writing on a blog does not mean using good grammar or writing to avoid error. The content of one’s ideas and one’s ability to support them with evidence is far more important than one’s ability to catch typos. Spell check, proofreaders, and other tools are all readily available and writings can easily be cleaned up. It is not so easy to generate interesting ideas and to do the thorough research necessary to support them. Those are skills writers can cultivate to become writers that others recognize as beyond the ordinary.
We should also keep in mind here that perpetuating the idea that good grammar means good writing is a disservice to those who are learning a new language or writing in a language that is their second, third, etc. (This is why I don’t care about your grammar.) We should not be discouraging others from communicating because they are worried about how their grammar or spelling will cause them to be received. If the meaning of a piece of writing is clear, I see no need to embarrass the writer over their use of prepositions.
So then, what is good writing? How do we produce knowledge in the book blogosphere? Quite simply, do the research. Even if we are not writing discussion posts, we need to do the research.
Markers of a Strong blog writer
Did you read that someone did or said something? Determine whether this event ever actually occurred, then determine whether or not you think the implications of the event are. The headline may have informed readers that a pop star did something egregious, but a quick search might reveal that So-and-so’s “insult to Celebrity X” was a joke made in an interview with Celebrity X laughing along.
Double checks facts.
You’re pretty sure Shakespeare was writing Old English. Actually everyone knows that–you see people say it all the time–so you write that, too. Even if you think you know something, it does not hurt to check it, especially if you know you have never done much reading or research on this topic before and are going with your general ideas of what “everyone knows.” You may realize that Shakespeare was writing in early modern English, not Old English.
Reads the text.
I have read many interpretations of texts that are, quite simply, incorrect when you read the text. And these types of mistakes are not made only by students new to a text. I had a teacher in high school give a lesson about a moment in a book that literally is not in the book. I have seen a Freudian essay on The Hobbit compiled in anthologies as if it’s real criticism, then gone on to read the original essay in its original context and discovered the author was making fun of Freudian analyses with his example “essay.” Other mistakes I have seen students make include: assuming that what any given character says reflects the opinions of the author, interpreting older texts as if the characters shared contemporary values, and relying on secondary works to tell them what a book says. Imagine relying on one of these individuals to tell you what happened in a book–some of them have not read the book themselves!
Rereads the text.
It’s possible to misinterpret a text. If you make any claims about a book, you’ll want to go back to ensure that you have remembered the moment and its context correctly. I suspect my teacher who lectured on a moment that never occurred in the book had not read the book in a decade or so.
Quotes the text or Refers to Specific Textual Moments.
Quoting the text strengthens your claims because it allows your readers to see the specific evidence that lead you to your interpretations. They may disagree with your interpretation or they may want to find this quote in the book itself so they read it in its entire context. Either way, a strong writer provides their readers with these tools.
Good writing is far more than a combination of good grammar and spelling, or the ability to format a piece correctly or to use the stylistic features of a genre. Good writing contains more than good surface features–it contains deep content, complex ideas, acknowledgments of nuances and complexities, and supporting evidence. Indeed, it may be said that good writing begins with good research. And that applies even to book reviews. Reading the book and attempting to understand what it is saying and why counts as research, even if we don’t call it that. As we find ourselves in a world where “alternative facts” are disseminated unironically and books are called upon to be banned or censored based on the expertise of 140 characters or under, we have to be vigilant about what we write and how. We have to make sure that what we write is factually correct and defensible.