Occasionally I run into someone who tells me that he or she is a good writer, and for whatever reason, this has happened to me recently with two former graduate students.
With both of them (bless their hearts), I thought, “huh?” To my mind, neither of these individuals are good writers. Smart, capable, creative, interesting, charming, and having worthy things to say? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. But good at writing? No.
So… having spent my career reading graduate school papers, PhD dissertations and writing, reviewing and editing books, I’d like to offer what I believe makes writing “good.”
Good writing is not about the writing. If I’m reading something and I’m thinking about the writing in any way, it’s not good writing.
Writing is good when it sinks into the background and is absent… while I become totally engaged and enthralled with whatever I’m reading about.
Clunky writing is not good writing. Vague, unclear writing is not good writing. And to me (…I’m sure there are many who will argue with me on this one), slick, witty writing is not good writing.
Writing is only there as a way or a path for the reader to “enter another world” — whether that be a fantasy world, or a real world like a hospital room or a mountaintop meadow. The writing is like the road under our feet, it’s not something we should have to think about. It’s job is to take us somewhere.
When it’s about how amazing the writing is, we’re stuck at the doorway. We haven’t left our house.
The French poet Yves Bonnefoy said it this way: “…it is not the text that counts. However remarkable this text may be, its poetic quality depends on its author having known how to keep alive in it the light of what is beyond language.” (The highlight is mine).
Even hearing someone say she or he is a good writer is a bit suspicious. I want to know that you can take yourself out of it. I want to know that this isn’t about you. Writing is only the vessel for something greater than us to be brought into this world …or as Bonnefoy would say, “what is beyond language.”