“There is nothing good writers like to argue about more than what constitutes good writing.”
As a writer, editor, and consultant to publishers, I have taken part in my share of arguments about good writing. They were all lively, but few of them were ever resolved.
It’s very difficult to agree on what is good about anything unless you can agree on an objective definition of “good.” But when most people talk about good writing, what they mean by good is subjective. They mean: “It pleases me.”
To one reader, the most pleasing aspect of the reading experience comes from the language, from how skillfully the writer puts his sentences together. To another reader, what counts is usefulness – the utilitarian value of the writing. To yet another, the key is what Ezra Pound called melopoeia – the emotional impact of the musicality of the language. But seldom are these preferences talked about.
So the discussions about good writing, untethered by logic, lurch back and forth and sideways like an unanchored rowboat in a storm.
The ancient Greeks had similarly volatile discussions about what constitutes good drama. They too had lots of strongly held opinions but no objective criteria on which to posit their arguments.
Then, in 335 BC, Aristotle solved this problem with history’s greatest essay on literary theory: The Poetics. In that essay, he talked about what makes good writing and in particular what makes good theater.
Aristotle said the fundamental elements of Greek drama were plot (mythos), character (ethos), thought (dianoia), diction (lexis), melody (melos), and spectacle (opsis). More importantly, he said that plot was the most important element, followed by character and so on.
That didn’t end the argument about what makes great drama. Critics continued to argue, but if they were smart enough to have read Aristotle, they had a very useful object standard that could guide their arguments. (See footnote)
In the world of non-fiction writing, no such landmark work of literary theory exists. In fact, we have very little good writing about good non-fiction writing at all. I’m not sure why that is. But it is a huge problem.
Publishers, editors, and writers alike need a useful definition of what good non-fiction writing is. If not,how will they produce it?
I’ve been thinking about this problem for almost 40 years. And in all that time, I’ve read several clever essays about good non-fiction writing, but I’ve never encountered a single definition that had the simplicity and power of Aristotle’s method.
Gradually (alas, all too gradually), it dawned on me that we could have such a definition by applying Aristotle’s system to the definition of good non-fiction writing. We could look at a sample of the best non-fiction writing and, as objectively as possible, identify the elements and characteristics they had in common.
If you take a look at the ten bestselling non-fiction books of all time, you would have the following list:
- Think and Grow Rich (1937) by Napoleon Hill (70 million copies sold)
- The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) by Dr. Benjamin Spock (50 million copies sold)
- A Message to Garcia (1899) by Elbert Hubbard (40 million copies sold)
- You Can Heal Your Life (1984) by Louise Hay (35 million copies sold)
- In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? (1896) by Charles Sheldon (30 million copies sold)
- The Purpose Driven Life (2002) by Rick Warren (30 million copies sold)
- The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) by Hal Lindsey (28 million copies sold)
- Who Moved My Cheese? (1998) by Spencer Johnson (26 million copies sold)
- The Celestine Prophecy (1993) by James Redfield (23 million copies sold)
- The Happy Hooker (1971) by Xaviera Hollander (20 million copies sold)
These are the bestsellers. They tell us a lot. But they don’t tell us everything since few of these won critical acclaim.
If you made a second list of the five bestsellers that were critically acclaimed, it would include the following:
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams (14 million copies sold)
- The Naked Ape (1967) by Desmond Morris (12 million copies sold)
- Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) by Victor Frankl (12 million copies sold)
- The Prophet (1923) by Kahlil Gibran (11 million copies sold)
- A Brief History of Time (1988) by Stephen Hawkins (10 million copies sold)
And if you take the time to read all of these books (as I have) with this objective in mind (identifying the elements and characteristics that made them critically and popularly successful), you might very well arrive at the following four elements:
- Quality of expression (similar to Aristotle’s diction)
- Quality of ideas (similar to Aristotle’s thought)
- Sufficiency and persuasiveness of evidence
- Impact of the authorial voice
The next step is to evaluate and order these four elements in terms of importance. Had I taken this step 30 years ago, when I started thinking about this problem, I would have come upon a useful definition sooner. But in my misguided youth, I was very unscientific in my methodology. And so I believed that the quality of expression was king. Back then, a book that was written beautifully – and by that I mean in language that seemed poetic – bowled me over. I admired the writer’s literary skillfulness because (I realize now) it was a skillfulness that I lacked.
A close second to skillful expression was the impact of the authorial voice. Writers who wrote with authority – and particularly the authority of experience – impressed me. I found their writing exciting because I believed they had secrets to give me that I needed to know.
But when I started working as a publisher’s consultant (rather than an editor), I began to see that these two characteristics, though important, could not be at the top of the list. As a publisher’s consultant, my job was to identify writers who could produce bestselling books and sales letters. The moment I adopted that perspective, it was apparent that the skillful, literary expression and the impact of the authorial voice, though important, were not at the top of the list.
Then, several years ago, I had a conversation with Bill Bonner, a great writer on his own account and also the publisher of the most successful newsletter publishing empire in the world. We were talking about what was wrong with the writing in several publications we have in England. In terms of literary skillfulness and authorial voice, it was good. But the writing, as a whole, was not great. What was missing?
In a memo about a writer in the US that we both admire, Bill said, “What I like best about his writing is how powerful his ideas are. His view of how things work in the world is different from mine, but I can’t help but be excited and persuaded by his ideas.”
The writer we were talking about was both critically praised and very successful, with several bestselling books to his credit. I thought about his writing and another non-fiction writer I admired: Malcolm Gladwell. Then it hit me. What they both were really good at was coming up with exciting, useful, and persuasive ideas.
It was then that I came out with my first crude attempt to define good non-fiction writing. I said that good writing was nothing more than the expression of good ideas. If you could conjure up exciting, useful, and believable ideas, then you were, de facto, a good writer.
That definition served me well for several years. But as I used it to teach good writing to fledgling writers, I came to believe that it was not enough. Some of the writers I was working with were great at developing exciting and useful ideas. But their manner of expression was so convoluted that it was impossible to find those good ideas unless you had the time and commitment to dig through all the verbal junk that was surrounding them. These writers had the most important skill, but they were weak in the element of expression. And so I added clarity of expression as the second most important element on my list.
Note that I had abandoned the concept of literary skillfulness as a value. In thinking about the writers who were both highly praised and also bestselling authors, I realized that the quality of expression great writers had was clarity, not literariness. This made sense in retrospect. Because if the ideas were wonderful, then the best style of expression would be one that presented those ideas as clearly and succinctly as possible.
So now I had the first two elements in order: the quality of the ideas and the clarity of expression.
That left me with the sufficiency and persuasiveness of evidence and the impact of the authorial voice.
I’ve been thinking about these two for about a year now, seeing how they factored into the writing of the most successful writers on my list. And my conclusion is that they each have about the same level of importance. You can’t be a good and successful writer without providing enough evidence to convince your readers that your ideas are correct. And yet you can get a lot of that work done by having authority and confidence in your voice.
The ideal writer would have both: the research habits that would provide a full sufficiency of proof and the personal experience to write in a voice that is true and believable. But I have observed that most very good writers are better at one than the other. Understandably, writers who are doers – such as Warren Buffet – can rely on the authority and sincerity of their voice. Other writers who are reporters – such as Malcolm Gladwell – do better by adopting an honest voice that presents a preponderance of evidence.
So, what is good writing? I am happy with my current definition:
Good writing is the clear expression of exciting and useful ideas supported by persuasive evidence and presented in an authentic voice.
- So how do you apply this definition to your writing?
- Don’t start writing until you have at least one good thought.
- Write that thought down as simply as possible.
- Support it with as much detail as it warrants.
- Write sincerely, which is to say with the best interests of your reader at heart.
Writing is communication. And communication involves two parties. Writing begins with the writer whose job it is to develop an exciting and useful idea. But if that idea cannot be understood or believed by his reader, then it won’t seem“good” to him. In fact, it will seem like a waste of time.
So you have to begin your writing by doing a great deal of reading. You have to read the best ideas you can find about your subject until some exciting, seemingly new idea hits you. And then after it hits, you have to spend days writing and thinking about this idea to make sure it is as good as it seems. (Many seemingly great ideas fade into mediocrity upon reflection.)
Then, after you are sure that your idea is sound, you must gather lots of evidence to support it. That evidence can be factual, but it can also be anecdotal. Persuasion is a complicated business. It is achieved by appealing to both the logical and the analogical parts of the brain. Whenever possible, support your ideas with stories as well as facts. If pictures can tell a thousand words, stories can have the weight of a thousand facts.
You can’t be a good and successful writer without providing enough evidence to convince your readers that your ideas are correct.
And finally, get rid of every paragraph, every sentence, and every word that is not essential to expressing and supporting your ideas. If you do that, you will not only be a good writer, you may also one day be a great writer or at least write one great thing.
Footnote: If you care to read them, I can recommend Horace’s Art of Poetry, Longinus’s On the Sublime, Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, Dryden’s essay on Dramatic Poetry, Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, etc.