What Makes Writing “Good?”

Discussion Post

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

Checks facts.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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13 thoughts on “What Makes Writing “Good?”

  1. majoringinliterature says:

    Great post! I definitely agree that book bloggers need to pay attention to their content and the way that they respond to the books that they’ve read. I also like that you linked this to the idea that we are living in an era when ‘facts’ have become meaningless. I do think it is important for people who are active online (and, indeed, just generally) to develop critical frameworks that help them to respond to the era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’.

    The one thing I think we see slightly differently – reading books that were written in a specific time period. I’m a postmodernist when it comes to this issue. I have no problem when somebody judges a book based on modern standards, because I think that’s always how we read books today: through the filter of contemporary standards, expectations, beliefs, etc. I think it helps us better understand the continuing relevance of a book for our lives today. Having said that, I do think it is important to understand the historical context of a text, even if you choose to approach it from a postmodernist angle. It helps to have a well-rounded view of a text before you begin writing about it, which I think is one of your excellent points above. 🙂

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    • Krysta says:

      I agree that it’s probably not possible to not respond to a work with one’s own contemporary beliefs and values. However, it’s widely accepted in literary studies that you can’t, for instance, condemn a warrior in an Anglo-Saxon poem (such as Judith or Beowulf) for murder and write an essay about their horrific values. You would have to write about how the original authors would have perceived their values. Beowulf killing another man in battle isn’t murder to his society or to the original auditors so it doesn’t make sense to talk about him like he is.

      This is distinct from doing something like reading Little Women and thinking that you can apply some of the values like frugality or a lack of vanity to one’s own current situation. Or reading The Great Gatsby and thinking about what the American dream means today. You’re applying the works to contemporary issues, but you’re not reading your own values into them.

      Of course, it is possible to read a dated work and to see racism or sexism in it, for instance. Postcolonial and feminist studies do a lot of good work dissecting what we see happening today in older texts. But they typically begin by understanding the text as it was written at the time. For instance, you might have a woman who is dismissed as hysterical or mentally unstable in a text. Literary professionals would do more than read it, yell “Sexism!” and move on. They would have to understand how the work arose from its time period, then discuss what the implications are of labeling an unusual woman as “hysterical,” then go on to discuss on this applies to the current day. So that’s what I meant by understanding the text on its own terms. You have to understand why it made sense to the original authors and readers before you can begin analyzing it.

      Or, we can look at When Marnie Was There. (I’ve seen the film, not yet read the book.) Today we might consider the end disappointing as it erases the love story between two little girls. At the time it was written, however, such an ending might have been the only way for the author to get a lesbian love story published. So we have to consider what the original author was trying to do before dismissing her. She might have that that was a great way to sneak a lesbian love story into print, and wasn’t necessarily trying to erase her own characters. So we can’t read her work in light of modern publishing standards.

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      • majoringinliterature says:

        Great points – I definitely agree that there needs to be an awareness of the values of the time period before we begin reading a text in detail. I think it is useful, however, to be aware of the limits of our knowledge (to what extent can we generalise about the values/attitudes of a particular time period, what historical evidence is our understanding of a particular time period based on, and have we allowed for variations in individual beliefs and attitudes?). Of course, here we’re also getting into a lot of historical research, but then traditionally the fields of literature and history have frequently overlapped.

        I agree that if you’re reading something like Gatsby or Little Women and trying to pull some ‘universal’ ideas or values out of it (much as I shudder to use that word, but for want of a better one!) then that’s not reading one’s own values into it, but rather extrapolating from the text. But I’m also skeptical about the extent to which we can step out of our own time and point of view given that our idea of the past is always formed using contemporary frameworks. I’m also wondering about reading something like Gatsby or, say, 1984 in a post-‘alternative facts’ world, and perhaps reading a certain grim inevitability in those books that their authors might not originally have intended.

        There’s definitely so many different ways of doing literary criticism these days! A lot of these methods overlap or go hand-in-hand (say, New Historicism and gender-based readings). I think it’s definitely worth developing an understanding of a variety of approaches in order to be able to approach texts in the most useful and engaging way possible. Luckily, universities tend to do a fairly good job of this for the most part, although I know that personally, my undergrad degree left something to be desired on this front. Which kind of brings me back to what you were talking about in this post: my university, for the first few years, had a much more formulaic approach to teaching texts and how we were expected to structure our responses to them. I think it left us in the dark a little bit about the different ways we could approach texts, which is a shame.

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        • Krysta says:

          That’s true. I do see a lot of readers assume that people of the past were a monolithic group who all thought the same way. However, I think you can reasonably separate the values of a society from beliefs of individuals. If you are reading Beowulf, for instance, it’s easy enough to recognize that Grendel is depicted as wrong for killing men because he fails to pay weregild. And easy enough to recognize that we have to read Grendel’s actions in context of a society that expected weregild to be paid, rather than in context of our own feelings about weregild. I agree that things become more complicated, say, when someone reads The Taming of the Shrew and assumes that the attitudes represent everyone in early modern England. But, again, minimal research will reveal that John Fletcher responded with The Woman’s Prize, so clearly other people of the time were uncomfortable with the play. But it all comes down to research. If someone simply does the research, there shouldn’t be major issues with separating societal values or historical trends from individuals’ beliefs.

          I’m not sure that we need to read books the way the authors intended, however. Usually we have no idea what authors intended, but I don’t think it matters if they do offer interpretations that differ from what other people see. Maybe some of Fitzgerald’s original readers also saw grim inevitability in his works. If the text can support that reading, it’s a valid one.

          I think many undergrad institutions don’t teach theory for a variety of reasons including disinterest in the department, a recognition that you probably won’t need theory unless you go on to grad school in English, and a recognition that a lot of these theories are dated or simply don’t work very well by themselves. Most literary critics use a mixture of literary theory rather than limit themselves to thinking like Derrida and only Derrida all the time. However, I think you raise a valid point that many professors do have their favorite theoretical approaches and it can be confusing to students not to understand that one is preferring a New Historicist approach and another likes postcolonial readings.

          However, if I were to teach a literature course, I think I also would be grappling with when to introduce theory. If you introduce theory, you’re taking away from literature, which might be what you’d prefer to teach for whatever reason. So you’d probably need a separate theory course in the department. But the more pressing issue for many departments might simply be to teach their students how to think like literary critics first. If you’re still struggling to help your students understand, say, that literary studies isn’t about only talking about how you like a certain character or how another one made you mad, and that there must be analysis, and that analysis is usually valued more if it’s presented in a certain way (in an “unbiased” manner suggesting emotional detachment, with an understanding that you have to read generously before you begin to criticize, etc.), then tackling Foucault might not be on your list of pedagogical priorities. Formulaic approaches are often ways instructors try to get students to thinking a certain way before they introduce more complicated ways of reading and writing.

          And many students prefer the formulaic approach. For every student who likes to experiment and take risks, or every student who can just intuit what a literary analysis “should” look like, there is another student who just wants to be told “what the teacher wants” and another student who can’t intuit the necessary steps and needs them laid out explicitly, at least at first. Once you’re gotten the formula down, you can figure out how to modify it or discard it altogether. And I think it is useful to tell students directly that there is a certain formula rather than make them guess what it is they’re supposed to be doing.

          Of course, I don’t know how your school implemented any of their approaches. Perhaps they weren’t effectively implemented. :/ But I can think of reasons that the department might not really be interested in teaching theory at the undergrad level.

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          • majoringinliterature says:

            I definitely agree with being wary of trying to guess an author’s ‘intention’! It’s tricky to assume that we know exactly what was going on in their heads.

            I agree that deciding when to introduce literary theory is tricky – in Australia, literature isn’t a prerequisite, so a large number of students are doing it because they’re interested, not because they have to fulfill a requirement for their degree (I’m not sure how it functions elsewhere; I’ve been told that it’s not always the same). I think this means that, theoretically, they could introduce theory a lot sooner than they do. Of course, there are other ways to teach critical thinking apart from simply reading dry theory (thank goodness!) but I think one of the ways that universities aren’t perhaps doing enough is by giving students the tools to recognise different types of criticism (i.e., recognising psychoanalytic criticism, for instance), so that for the first few years of their degree a lot of the secondary material they read is frankly baffling. That was my experience, any way!

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            • Krysta says:

              That’s interesting. In the U.S., I haven’t heard of a lot of students reading secondary materials in literature courses. A lot of times the instructors seem wary of introducing them because students tend to rely too heavily on them and end up parroting the criticism they read instead of coming to their own conclusions. So a lot of classes begin by emphasizing close readings over doing research in hopes that students will have a solid grounding in doing their own analysis before reading what others have seen in the primary works.

              I did have one professor who suggested that giving students journal articles would…make their work more widely read and relevant, I think. Which I thought was funny because 1) I wouldn’t say forcing undergrads to read your work is comparable to publishing for “the public” and 2) I am fully aware that many undergrads hate literary criticism because they find the language dry and difficult. I admit I have trouble seeing this working unless it were in upper-level courses where you mostly have students dedicated to the major.

              I took theory courses in undergrad, but I would say that I had difficulty figuring out what good it was for since we weren’t talking about theory in my other classes. Mainly I used it to figure out what schools of thoughts my professors seemed to be interested in, which probably did lead to my being able to write more successful papers for their courses. But I also sensed that the department didn’t find theory that relevant and mainly offered what they did because they figured if one or two students went on to professionalize in the discipline, they’d probably need it.

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            • majoringinliterature says:

              That’s interesting! We were definitely encouraged to read secondary sources from the beginning, but without a structure that would have explained the context of those secondary sources. It’s interesting to see the differences between various systems!

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  2. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Wow I have to say that really, really shocks me that instructors would not know enough about their topic to offer corrections!! haha yes I agree with you there- content matters and if I see someone making a huge mistake, I’ll stop engaging. I’m not in the same boat about grammar- though I will cut slack for people on a personal level learning a new language or people making the odd mistake (we’re all human!)- I’m not going to pretend I’m not a total grammar Nazi 😉 So if I see someone with consistently bad spelling/grammar, I’m not going to engage with their blog :/ haha yes, if someone says Shakespeare’s writing “old English” I just might grind my teeth a little 😉 Accuracy is so important!!

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    • Krysta says:

      I think the difficulty with content comes in more when you have assignments that allow students to choose their own topics. So the instructor is going to have a hard time knowing about 30 different things. Someone might be interested in space exploration and someone in cheetahs and someone else in John Green and meanwhile the teacher’s focus is in Victorian literature or something. Even if someone just chooses a book the teacher hasn’t read, they’re probably not going to be able to give as much in-depth advice as they are to someone who writes on a book they have read. They can’t really say something like “But when X happens, doesn’t that contradict what you say here” if the student never mentions X. Or they can’t say “I think that looking at this part of the text can help strengthen your claim here.”

      I love grammar. I love its nuances and its weird rules and its sometimes totally random nature. But I have to admit that we all make mistakes! But it is true that if the grammar is obscuring meaning, then I’m not as likely to want to read something.

      “Shakespeare writes Old English,” is one of my pet peeves. Noooo!! 😉

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      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Ah I can understand that! hahaha what about cheetahs in John Green (or is that too out there 😉 ) Hmm yes that can be a problem- I think the other way round is also a problem (if it’s not their expertise, but they think they know something and you’re constantly having to point it out…. that may have just been me though 😉 )
        Yes- absolutely agree that everyone makes mistakes!! I’m much more likely to be critical of someone that has a bad case of hyper-correction (basically I view that as using grammar incorrectly to sound smarter *shudders*)
        hahahaha I hear you!! Also, when people say that about Chaucer, but that’s rarer. 😉

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  3. Sonia G Medeiros says:

    Excellent points.

    I enjoy casual book reviews, where the reviewer is tossing off a tidbit or two about what makes the book a worthy read (or unworthy, as the case may be). At the same time, I love a review that resonates with understanding about the book. A well researched, insightful review can change my whole perspective on a book.

    Liked by 1 person

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