GOOD WRITING by Mark Goldblatt
During my author tours, and my classroom lessons, I’m often asked about good writing. What makes writing good? In a certain sense, it’s easier to say what isn’t good writing than what is good writing. For example, writing that calls attention to itself as writing isn’t good writing. If you’re reading a story and catch yourself thinking, “Wow, that’s a great passage!” then you’re no longer focused on the content of the story; you’re focused on the form of the sentences. The writer is showing off—which means the writing isn’t as good as you think it is. That wow experience, if it occurs, should come only after you’ve finished the story and begun to reflect on what you’ve read. (The same principle, by the way, holds true for acting. If you’re watching a movie and thinking, “Wow, that’s some mighty fine acting!” then the actor is overdoing it. He’s calling attention to his performance rather than drawing you into the plot.)
What then is good writing? In answering that question, one point should go without saying, but it’s worth saying nevertheless: Good writing is good writing. That is, good writing transcends any category. It should be recognizable as good writing whether it’s intended as a work of art or as an explanation of how to put together “partial assembly required” furniture. Thus, the question, “What is good writing?” is far more basic, and far less glamorous, than the related question of “What is good literature?” Good literature will consist of good writing, but good writing in itself does not make good literature. If it did, literary survey courses would have to include one or two instruction manuals…and good literature is, thankfully, rarely that useful.
One thing we can say for certain about good writing is that it conveys, in a precise way, the content of a writer’s thoughts. Precision is key. Consider the sentence, “The strange kangaroo rang the doorbell.” The reader might well envision an ordinary-looking kangaroo ringing an ordinary-looking doorbell—since the mere fact of a kangaroo ringing a doorbell would be unusual enough to qualify that kangaroo as “strange.” But what if I (as the author of that sentence) have in mind a pink-furred kangaroo wearing pink-framed, oversized, Elton John sunglasses and pink boxing gloves? If that’s what I have in mind, the word “strange” will not adequately convey that image. Clearly, more details are required to achieve that ideal match between the writer’s thought and the reader’s thought.
From this, you may infer that good writing must be exhaustively-detailed writing. But that cannot be the case. “The pink-furred kangaroo with the pink-framed, oversized, Elton John sunglasses managed to ring the doorbell despite his pink boxing gloves” is not necessarily a well-written sentence—even though it does convey, with great precision, the content of my thought. For a second measure must be relevance. How relevant are the details of the kangaroo’s pink appearance to the overall point I’m attempting to make? Keep in mind that I still haven’t described the doorbell, or the ringing sound it makes, or the type of door to which the bell is connected, or the house to which the door provides entry, or the street on which the house is found…. If I were to describe all of that, the kangaroo might never get through the damned door. Hijinks—or what else is a pink kangaroo good for?—might never ensue.
Good writing, in other words, must both precise and concise. The problem is that precision and concision pull in opposite directions. Writing that is too detailed stagnates; the reader becomes bored. Writing that is too spare dissolves; the reader never engages with it. Good writing, therefore, must adequately, though not exhaustively, convey the writer’s thoughts, and it must move the reader from point to point.
Here’s a passage that I’m fond of from my latest novel, Finding the Worm:
Rabbi Salzberg got a real scrunched-up look on his face when I asked him about heaven. He’s pretty scrunched up to begin with—the kids at Gates of Prayer Temple and Hebrew School call him Rabbi Magoo. (It’s not a respectful thing, to compare a rabbi with a cartoon character, except he really and truly does look like Mr. Magoo.) But when I asked him about heaven, he got an especially scrunched-up look, like he’d just bitten into the sourest pickle ever. I was standing in front of the big wooden desk in his office, which always has a blanket of dust on it, and he was sitting on the other side with his hands folded.
Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound like much. There’s nothing florid, or even fancy, about it; the narrator, after all, is a twelve year old boy. But at the risk of bragging, I’ll say that the passage meets the criteria for good writing. The sentences convey specific images and set the scene for the subsequent dialogue between the two characters—a comical exchange about the reality of heaven and hell. The details of the rabbi’s pinched face, the size of his desk, and the blanket of dust, are intended not as an exhaustive description but rather as the minimum information needed to communicate the boy’s curiosity as well as his uneasiness about the situation.
So good writing must strike a proper balance between precision and concision. Locating that balance, however, is not a science; it’s an art. (If it were a science, computers could do it.) It’s the art of writing. But that’s an unsatisfying way to conclude this discussion, so let me add one more thought: Good writing, ultimately, is determined not by the words the writer uses but by the effect of the words the writer uses. If the reader sees what the writer sees, if he feels what the writer feels—if the writer’s urgency becomes the reader’s urgency—then that’s good writing.
MARK GOLDBLATT is a lot like Julian Twerski, only not as interesting. He is a widely published columnist, a novelist, and a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Twerp was his first book for younger readers. His latest book Finding the Worm is a stand-alone sequel to Twerp. He lives in New York City. Visit him online at markgoldblattkids.com.