25 January 2008

Thoughts on writing, part 2

What makes a piece of writing good?
A quick google will return roughly 29 million results, each with a different opinion on what good writing is. Because, ultimately, the quality of the writing is in the eye of the reader.

In the book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the ideal reader. The idea is that a writer always writes with an ideal reader in mind. This could be your spouse, your best friend, your imaginary friend, your teacher. Your ideal reader will also depend entirely on what you are writing.

If you are writing a business proposal, your ideal reader would be the person that would accept the proposal and pay the bill. If you are writing a training manual, your ideal reader would typically be every single person who would have an interest in your topic. Fiction writers would have a very specific type of person in mind when they write their masterpiece, while the average blogger would write with their friends – or their regular readers, which is often the same thing – in mind.

Any good piece of writing goes through several phases. There will always be a draft, which is the first version of the piece. The draft exists to get the idea down on paper, but will rarely resemble the final product – unless the piece of writing is just an account of mundane daily events, like someone’s personal journal. After the draft is done, it is vitally important to run it through a spell checker, and fix any grammatical errors. The piece of writing is now ready for editing. This means reading it multiple times, and making sure every sentence has a purpose and is meaningful.

Many writing guides will suggest trimming the original draft by at least 10%. I have often found that, when just getting the ideas down, i might summarise rather than write substantive, which means my second draft is often longer than the first. It would all depend on your writing style, and, again, your target audience.Once you are happy with the piece of writing, it is always a good idea to ask someone else to read it, and see if they understand the subject matter in the same way you did.

When we are taught creative writing at school, we are encouraged to make use of as many adjectives and adverbs as we can think of. Of course, this is done to encourage us to grow our vocabulary, but when writing in the real world, it is best to forget what we learnt at school. The best writers are those who can describe an entire scene with a sentence or two. Let me illustrate with some examples:

My mother died when i was young... she went for a moonlight swim in what turned out to be a crocodile. - Terry Pratchett, Pyramids

He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.- JK Rowling, Harry Potter
and the Philosopher’s Stone

Now, though, that meadow scene is the first thing that comes back to me. The smell of the grass, the faint chill odf the wind, the line of the hills, the barking of a dog: these are the first things, and they come with absolute clarity.- Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

You write. That's the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.- Neil Gaiman, 2007 NaNoWriMo motivational email.

There are many, many examples of good writing, both in books and in blogs, these are but a sample. These are examples of what is good writing to me. You might think these are terrible, and list completely different examples.What makes them good for me is how the writer used simplistic language to paint complex scenes. The picture in each piece is clear and concise, and never does the reader wonder what the writer actually meant. Of course, your English Lit professor will still attempt to interpret the piece of writing, and find all sorts of hidden meaning. But the average reader doesn’t need a BA English to understand what the writer meant, and, to me, that means the writing is good.

My next entry will be about giving it a name.

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