No one definite answer to “What makes for good writing?” exists. Some people focus on mechanics, others on plot. Some label a piece of writing as “good” simply if it holds their interest.
However, when it comes to the debate of what makes a good writer, I often feel one element gets ignored: context.
Context is why a very strong report writer, who excels at sifting through information and can organize it in such a concise way that the right information is presented at the right time to the right eyes, may suddenly become a “bad” writer if asked to write poetry.
Literary = Good, Commercial = Bad?
Let’s say you’re reading a commercial-style writing giant, like Danielle Steele, and you’re comparing her to a literary-style writing giant, like Alice Munro. Judging by mechanics, I’d say both are equal. If we judge by plot, some will prefer Steele, others Munro. Same if we talk about what holds your interest.
If I reflect on my own experience reading both authors, Steele’s was the book I opened up on a sleepless night, staying awake until it was done (and paying for it at work the next day). Munro’s book (a collection of her short stories) was far too complex to read with half a brain in the middle of the night. I also couldn’t finish it, because I eventually lost interest.
Does that make Steele the good writer and Munro the bad one? Absolutely not. We’re not talking about popularity here, and both certainly have very large followings. (Not to mention, Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature.)
Munro writes deeply layered portraits of people, real people, with desirable and undesirable traits. What bored me was, in part, the absence of a novel; I couldn’t get deeper into her characters. (I know she’s written one, but I haven’t read it yet.)
Steele’s plot moved at a fast clip, and I found myself easily cheering for the protagonist. Her writing was tight, she clearly knew how to tell a story, and her characters were interesting. But I was left feeling like I hardly knew any of them, because she only wrote what was needed to further the speedy plot, and nothing more.
How This All Helps
When I judge if someone’s a good writer (and let’s face it, many of us do), I still include the basics among my criteria: conciseness, strong command of grammar, an appropriate vocabulary, respect for the reader, staying on point, and many others.
But context is why a chatty blogger can get away with not being very concise, a technical writer doesn’t need similes and metaphors, and millions of viewers accept that people just break out into song and dance in a musical.
There is most definitely not one clear definition of what makes a good writer, and I don’t purport to have the answer, either. But I think many writers would agree that what makes a good writer in one genre or style does not necessarily apply in other genres and styles, like a brilliant comedic actor who suddenly falters in a drama.
What do you consider when you’re debating if someone is a good writer?