8 Hallmarks of Good Writing
When I was working at a Hollywood talent agency, I read so many film scripts it got to the point where I could tell if something was going to be good or bad just by holding it in my hand. The bad ones just felt off. This sixth sense about screenplays was useful when it came to managing my and my boss’ time reading, but it’s not particularly useful when trying to help writers gain traction for their work in the marketplace.
So, I’ve developed eight principles that I think all good writing should contain in order to earn the moniker, “Well written.”
Ultimately, writing is thinking on a page. We take our vague, fast-moving thoughts, information, experiences, memories, and impressions and mold them into something that connects with other people. Most of the real work is done in the editing process, and that’s when it helps to have some sort of measuring stick.
Writing is a skill we spend our lifetimes learning, but there are areas we can focus on to keep growing.
1. Gets to the point and keeps on point.
We all have that friend who takes twenty minutes to tell you about how he got that stain on his shirt, meandering off into side stories that don’t relate to the stain at all. Maybe we’ve even been that friend. If this kind of meandering is helpful to us when we’re in the draft phase of writing, then, by all means, meander at will. But when we put forth a finished product, all of the unrelated side stories should be cut.
2. Respects the craft.
Craft, or artfulness, isn’t about adorning your prose with fancy words or impressing readers with your fine intellect – though you may wind up doing both as a side effect. Craft is about knowing your genre, or form, and it’s conventions, knowing what the audience expects, and delivering on those expectations in a unique way. There are so many books and guides out there that will help you hone your craft. Click here for a list of books on the craft of writing that I love.
Good writers never stop learning their craft.
3. Demonstrates critical thinking.
Critical thinking is about going beyond our knee-jerk reactions and examining our own thoughts and beliefs. It is a process of discovery in the face of what we think we know. Good writing is the same. It allows us to move beyond our initial instincts to discover something we hadn’t seen before.
The ability to exercise critical thinking is deeply important in life, but even more so in writing. The good news is that this is a developable skill that we can all keep getting better at over our lifetimes. www.criticalthinking.org is a great resource to learn more.
4. Demonstrates Truthfulness.
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, it must be true. Fiction will, of course, use a made-up story to tell an emotional or universal truth, whereas non-fiction will use facts about a person or subject to tell a true story (and hopefully reveal a universal truth, too).
If you’re using facts to support your story, make sure they are taken from reliable sources and honestly rendered to the best of your ability. Sometimes, fiction requires an eliding of time, place, or character to make a story work, but non-fiction should not take liberties with the truth.
5. Is Persuasive and Relatable.
While not exactly the same, these two terms are linked. When the reader is persuaded of the author’s point of view, the work becomes relatable. Likewise, when a character is relatable, the reader is persuaded of their story or point of view. The reader relates to the characters or information through emotion or experience or both. A well-crafted story uses specificity to persuade the reader to relate to its characters no matter how far removed those characters might be from the reader’s experience.
6. Is generous.
Have you ever received one of those marketing emails that go on and on about how the product is going to change your life, but they never actually give you any information about the product? Yeah, that is not generous. That’s marketing designed to make you buy something—to get something from you.
A great example of generosity is StoryGrid.com. For years, Shawn Coyne has been writing about his method of editing and posting it on the web, FOR FREE! Recently, he’s developed some courses on the subject that he sells, and he’s put all his know-how into a book that he sells. But there is still tons of information up there for free and he continues to post blogs and create podcasts that walk writers through the process.
Shawn wants people to have the tools that made him a successful editor. He doesn’t withhold anything. Truth be told, you probably don’t ever need to purchase a single thing in order to learn his methodology.
A good piece of writing gives the reader everything they need. It anticipates their questions, simplifies complex ideas, and takes them on an adventure.
7. Has a Clear Through-line.
Remember what we said back in item one about staying on point? A Through-line is a theme or thesis statement that runs all the way through your work from beginning to end. It’s the spine your whole piece hangs on, whether it’s a book, article, film, blog post, or promotional copy on a company website. A through-line can take the form of a theme, character, image, plot archetype, or mood. The point is that it gives a sense of cohesiveness and completeness to your work.
8. Uses Grammar, Punctuation, and Words Correctly.
While this may seem like the most pedantic of the eight hallmarks of good writing, it closes the loop on this list. Most readers will forgive a few mistakes here and there, but too many mistakes can not only become obstacles for readers, but they can also make you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about, or worse, that you don’t care.
Think of grammar and punctuation as hospitality to your readers. If you were having a dinner party, you’d clean up around the house a bit. You’d make sure to remove that morning’s cereal bowl and your insurance paperwork from the dining room table. You’d ensure the right flatware for the meal was set out and that there were the appropriate plates and serving utensils for the food being served. You’d take a shower and put on a nice outfit. In short, you’d think about the comfort of your guests.
Thinking about the comfort of your guests, or readers, can elevate the perception of the other qualities on this list. If your grammar and punctuation are subpar, they might not be so easily persuaded by your story and question its through-line, even if it’s excellently demonstrated.
Hitting all eight of these hallmarks of good writing may seem like an impossibly tall order when you’re just trying to fight the good fight and get words on paper. The good news is that they are all interconnected. So, if you focus on just one of them, it tends to raise your competency in the others as well. You don’t have to master them all now. Rather, these are qualities that you will express through your writing throughout your career – growing and deepening as you persist.