Okay then - what *makes* writing "good" or "bad"?

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Naked Eye : One Thread

What is it, succinctly, that makes a writer a writer? What is it that makes something writing and not scribbling?

Inquiring minds want to know.


-- Catherine (catherine@cmjcom.com), November 15, 1999


My answer, not surprisingly, I am sure - is that it just feels right. I don't have much of an in depth sense of it, really. I wondered if others had a more cerebral process.

I like to learn something from writing.

Perhaps that is why so many of us writers feel we cannot claim the mantle, so to speak. I wonder - all the time - what the hell do *I* have to teach anyone?


-- Catherine (catherine@cmjcom.com), November 15, 1999.

If it moves a reader.

That's it.

If one can write something where you have that sudden flash of empathic insight, the "me too! me too!" or "oooohhhh...so THAT's what it feels like"....

It's writing, not scribbling.

Al of Nova Notes.

-- Al Schroeder (al.schroeder@nashville.com), November 15, 1999.

i was talking about just the same thing this weekend. no, not just the same, i was talking about art rather than writing.

what is it that makes something art? painting is the simplest to classify (despite the number sof people who stand in galleries and claim their six year old kid could produce something better). but some other art is less easy... i don't like the terms 'comceptual art' or 'net art' but they are the ones that make people pull faces and ask if it's art of not.

i think it comes down to intention. if you create something and believe it's art, it is. if you arrange a set of objects, and believe it's art, it is. if you manipulate images with photocopiers and foil, and decide you are making art, you are.

of course, this doesn't mean it's any good.

you can know, or believe, or doubt, or deny you are a writer. it doesn't say anything about the quality of your work.

and as for quality, if there was one simple scale on which to measure that, far fewer books would be published every year. the range of acceptability and taste varies, and changes over the years. what's 'good' this week may be so far out of vogue next week as to be consigned to the trash heap of history. even the list of 'greats' changes every 20 years or so.

so the answer's simple: if i like it, it's good.
and arrogance is fun.

-- heyoka (katie@heyoka.com), November 15, 1999.

Since I'm not sure I buy Anthony's proclamation of writer vs scribbler, I don't if I can answer this as it was intended.

I think it's two different questions - what makes writing 'good' or bad' is easier... good writing carries the reader into the world or idea that the writer is expressing. They don't have to LIKE where it is they land, but it does have to be something that touches them, maybe in a way that makes them forget the writing and push them past it into the idea or scene being expressed. Like a good movie, you forget that you're watching a movie and are transported into it. So 'good' in that case is in the eye of the beholder.

But the catch of that is that sometimes the intended beholder is only the one who wrote it - and if that is the chosen audience and it does what the writer intends in transporting the reader where they want them to go... then it may be very very good, just not something with mass appeal.

But what makes something writing and not scribbling? Hell if I know. I don't think that's for the reader to decide, because that's more about the purpose of the writer than it is the reaction of the reader.

I do a lot of scribbling. Sometimes that's all I want to do. Now and then I write - and maybe the reader can see the difference, and maybe they can't, but I know the difference.

Scribbling focuses on my idea, thoughts, emotions... getting them OUT. Writing focuses on selecting the right tools to use on those ideas, thoughts and emotions to bring the reader IN.

And it has nothing to do with how well I succeed at it - some scribbling draws readers in with no intention on my part at all. Some writing fails to do the same, no matter how hard I try to make it happen. That doesn't mean the second is not writing or that the first is not scribbling - those have nothing to do with good or bad.

Or I could be full of it, and maybe the difference is that scribblers like me need the two way involvement of readers that are receptive to what I am saying, and writers are able to force them along with or without their willingness to recieve it.

Interesting question, and after all these words, I conclude along with you that it just 'feels' like it.

-- Lynda B. (lyndacat@bigfoot.com), November 15, 1999.

Hm. I've been thinking about this, myself.

My answer as a writer is that it's writing when i've invested significant amounts of myself in it. when I've spent time choosing exactly the right words to express the meaning I'd like to convey. This happens when I write poetry, most of the time; I spend time and care choosing my words, looking for the lightning.

Of course, it's also sometimes writing when it's pouring out of me and onto the keyboard. It depends on how strongly i'm motivated-- when I'm angry, I write the most damn eloquent prose.

But as a reader, art can leave me cold. I judge writing on how well it draws me in. If I spend time in the world that the writer has created for me, living the story instead of reading it, then it is a successful piece of fiction. If a poem makes me angry or makes me cry, it's successful. I don't need writing to be a mirror; i don't need to see myself in the world the writer describes. I read to step out of myself and invest myself into the minds and hearts of characters on the page.

In short, a writer will make me believe. Scribbling doesn't do that, but writing does.

-- Kris (idat@madstop.org), November 15, 1999.

Hrm. This will be a run-on paragraph (will someone please take pity on me and tell me how to make paragraphs in this thing??). OK. A writer (rather than a scribbler) is defined by intent (the intention to tell a story or to move a reader with words), by structure (or the studied lack thereof - intent, again), by facility with language (I can't go there with anyone unable to write a coherent sentence). It may not be very good, but if a work has those things, it is "real writing" (TM) to me. To be GOOD writing, it has to blow the top of my head off, or at least lift my hairline a few centimeters. It has to give me chills. But to qualify as writing that I take seriously - intent, structure and language.

-- Catherine (hinesc@mindspring.com), November 15, 1999.

I agree with Catherine (@mindspring), but I'd put more stress on the language - that it be free of cliches, tired comparisons, borrowed voices. I think some effect of concentration or distillation is needed - no distractions from what ever point the writer has. Flaubert said about writing history (so it must have been after Salammbo) that 'one must drink an ocean to piss a cupful', and I really like that image.

-- Chris (chris@clatimer.freeserve.com), November 15, 1999.

A scribbler has his own face in front of himself when he's writing.

A writer sees the face of someone else and tries to communicate.

Nancy Birnes, http://www.perforatedlines.com

-- Nancy Birnes (turret@mediaone.net), November 15, 1999.

What makes writing good or bad? It varies. I happen to like technical prowess- the simple respect of grammer, spelling, and syntax- not that I'm a saint at any of the three.
I especially like when someone can convey a sense of their own voice in their work. A feeling of truth. There's quite a few out there who manage that...
The ability to make me laugh, or cry, or nod at the screen or page nodding "yes!! Me too! exactly!"- now, that's damn special.
But what makes a writer.. a writer? Ah, now that's tricky. If it's simply churning out the text on a regular basis, then practise is all it takes. But the gift of observation, love of words, the writer's eye to see the tale and the tongue to tell it... isn't that where we all want to be?

-- Cameron Perry (cameron@cimtegration.com), November 16, 1999.

You know, one of the things I'm noticing in these answers is that people seem to be thinking of something as "writing" only when it aspires to be "high art" or something like that. It must not only inform, but provoke or blow heads off or move people deeply, etc., etc.

Why isn't it "writing" if the only intent is to entertain?

I do agree that the above goals may tend to elevate the writing, but plain old entertainment seems to me to be a reasonable goal for writing. I also agree that good grammar and spelling and syntax and all that make for more enjoyable reading. It's nice if the author has a distinctive voice--although, you know, most don't, necessarily. I don't say that it makes it "good" writing, but that wasn't--quite--the original question, if I understood it correctly.

I also hope that the writer learns something as they write, although it may be a slow process.

I guess my answer would be that it's "writing" if some care is taken with it--and that includes some of the most execrable stuff I've read, because I do know that the writers *tried*; they just didn't yet possess the skills to make it work--and I think my personal definition would also include "--and if it's meant, in whatever fashion, for someone besides the author to *read*, eventually."

But that's probably just me.

-- iain (ipj@telebot.net), November 16, 1999.

Scribbling may hold music, but it owns no mind.

-- Anthony V. Toscano (atoscano@mindspring.com), November 16, 1999.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ