What Makes a Piece of Writing “Good”?

Posted on 15 January 2011

A while ago I was asked to fix the grammar and spelling of the text of a website. Sure, I could have done that, but I chose not to because it wouldn’t have magically fixed the fact that it was just plain bad writing.

What do I mean by “bad”? Well, as well as being full of spelling and grammatical errors, the text was unconvincing; poorly structured; full of vague, abstract nouns; clumsy and clunky; dry and boring; clichéd; too theoretical, with no real-life examples; ineffective from a marketing point of view; not a pleasure to read…

So what makes a piece of writing “good”? And how does an editor fix a piece of bad writing? (I need to be clear that I’m talking here about non-fiction writing, especially non-fiction writing that has a marketing purpose – I’m not talking about fiction, where “good” is much more subjective.)

Tell a good story

On twitter and Facebook I asked: “What makes a piece of non-fiction writing good?” Here are the responses I received:

  • From @copygeniusgirl: “I think good non-fiction isn’t all that different from good fiction. It needs to create a real emotion, and tell a good story.” and “I think what scares people about non-fiction is finding a story within a pattern of facts.”
  • From @AnthonySolimini: “From the heart, and with passion!”
  • From @powmarday: “Good non-fiction for me is about details. I seem to enjoy non-fiction that goes into extreme detail – like most New Yorker articles.”
  • From Kenneth Kwan on Facebook: “Does it serve its purpose, whether it’s informative, emotive, or inspirational…?”
  • From Katharine Schafli on Facebook: “Succinct”
  • From Martin Turner on Facebook: “In this order: 1) clear 2) interesting.”

To add to those ideas, here are my thoughts about what makes a piece of non-fiction writing good:

  • The headline grabs the reader’s attention and makes him/her want to read on.
  • The ideas flow clearly, logically and seamlessly from one paragraph to the next, and from the beginning to the end.
  • The writer uses language skillfully – he/she instinctively or consciously chooses the appropriate vocabulary, structure, tone and style for the purpose, and knows how to play with those elements to make the reader FEEL or DO something.
  • The writer understands grammar, spelling and syntax, yet instinctively or consciously knows how to break the rules in order to create a desired effect. Here are two of my blog posts about grammar: “Grammar Tip: Catch That Dangling Clause!” and “Why I Care About Grammar (and Why You Should Too)”.
  • The writer knows how to use rhyme, rhythm and scansion to create an effect.
  • The words and sentences sound pleasing when spoken aloud.
  • The writer knows how to use suspense and tension to make the reader want to read on.
  • The writing is persuasive.
  • The writer tells compelling stories about interesting, believable people and situations (yes, even in non-fiction writing).
  • The writer includes everything that’s necessary, and omits everything that’s not necessary, to the tasks of eliciting emotion and convincing the reader.
  • The reader can hear the writer’s unique “voice” coming through the written word.
  • The writer avoids clichés and jargon; vague, abstract terminology, and passive verbs (except when they’re precisely the right things to use in order to create a desired effect).
  • The writer expresses himself/herself in innovative, surprising, unexpected ways.
  • Especially for marketing copy, it focuses on the reader’s/customer’s wants and needs, rather than on the features of the product or service.
  • And most importantly for me, it’s a pleasure to read (even if I disagree with it).

So what does an editor do?

Good editing is like invisible mending by an expert tailor – the reader shouldn’t even notice it. So a good editor does much more than just fix the grammar, spelling and punctuation of a piece of writing; she makes it sing and swing and flow. She examines every element of the text, from the micro-level of individual words, commas, apostrophes and sentences right up to the macro-level of the entire structure and effectiveness of the text.

She also:

  • makes the text suitable for the intended purpose and audience
  • diagnoses what’s wrong with the writing and knows how to fix it
  • probes to discover what the writer is actually trying to say (in plain English), and helps the writer to communicate that effectively
  • ensures consistency
  • retains the writer’s voice without imposing her own
  • clarifies ideas and restructures arguments

For a list of many other things an editor does, see my article “Every Document is a Marketing Document”.

But don’t just take my word for it…

Here are some great resources:

“Stein on Writing”, a book by Sol Stein – brilliant advice, whether you write fiction or non-fiction.

“Seven Bad Writing Habits You Learned in School”, an article by Jonathan Morrow

“Sentences, paragraphs and chapters”, an article by Seth Godin (offering a provocative look at the role of an editor)

“5 Signs of Bad Writing – How to Recognize Your Poorly Written Work”, an article by Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

“Adding an ‘E’ to the ABCs of Writing”, an article by Mike Consol

“73 Ways to Become a Better Writer”, an article by Mary Jaksch on the Copyblogger blog

“The Elements of Clunk”, an article by Ben Yagoda

I’d love to hear your opinions – what do YOU think makes a piece of non-fiction writing good?

4 responses to What Makes a Piece of Writing “Good”?

  • I’m going to add more imagery to my book to get that emotion!

  • Well said Kay. All the points above make the best writing, I agree you and I will study these points too. But your point “The writer includes everything that’s necessary, and omits everything that’s not necessary” is the most prominent one for me. The worst thing of much of short non-fiction is the lack of focus. The author starts with something and midways forgets what he or she is writing about.


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