Christopher Curley holds a B.A. in English and Philosophy from Ursinus College. He has extensive writing experience, contributing on topics including health, wellness, health research policy, and health science, as well as tutoring experience in English and standardized testing prep.
What Makes Writing Good?
What makes writing 'good'? It's a simple question, and like many simple questions, it has a lengthy and complicated answer that won't satisfy any one person. Pick a hundred writers out of a room, and you'll get a hundred different answers, all of them wrong.
I'm kidding about that last part but only partially. You see, in the end, what makes writing good is you. Yes, you - your point of view, your thoughts, your experiences. It doesn't matter if the essay you're writing is personal or purely analytical, everything gets filtered through your brain. So, even if you've never gotten an A+ on a paper, you are still the best chance you have of turning out a great essay.
Great Ideas (Content)
Great writing starts with strong ideas. That means brainstorming for strong examples, searching within yourself to figure out what you think or feel about the topic, and putting those ideas on paper to see which make the most sense, which are the most persuasive, and which you think will affect your reader the most.
When trying to come up with a good argument, don't just settle for the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, try to dig deeper and come up with something you think is true that no one's said before. With many assignments, teachers are reading the same arguments (the one everyone thinks of first), meaning he or she ends up reading 80 variants on the exact same paper. If you want to earn points, try to be the one who takes the road less traveled and finds a new angle; that's what makes for good and memorable writing, and that's what will help you earn that A.
Of course, we're not all geniuses every time we sit down to write a paper, so if you can't think of anything original, make sure that the point of view you do choose is rock-solid and full of strong specific examples. That brings us to our next topic.
Writing an essay means telling a very specific kind of story. With the exception of the informal, personal essay - in which you're drawing solely from your personal experience - most essays are going to require a stew of outside facts and your own thoughts. Whether you're writing a persuasive essay, a compare-and-contrast, or even a scientific expository essay (just the facts!), you need to be specific and concrete in the examples you use to get your story across.
Now, some would argue that an expository essay (that's that scientific essay we're talking about - the research paper) isn't storytelling at all, but they're liars. All writing tells a story. Even if it's a very, very boring one.
The important thing, anyway, is not to wander. The more specific you are, the better supported your argument is and the stronger your story; thus, the better your writing is.
Organization and Clarity (Form)
Once you've got your bright idea and your examples tucked away, you have to consider the form of your writing. That includes sentences as well as paragraphs, and this is where an outline can be beneficial to make sure your writing makes sense. The goal here is clarity. How can you get your point across as clearly and effectively as possible? If you're writing a persuasive essay on why Hamlet is a total jerk in Shakespeare's play, for instance, you probably don't want to spend one long paragraph on Hamlet talking to his dad's ghost and then three sentences about why he hates his girlfriend. You want to build your essay from your lightest examples to your strongest so that you end on a high note. Moreover, the reader should be able to follow your arguments in a straight line from your thesis to your conclusion, hopefully learning something along the way.
Structure is important. The best writing has a unity of content and form, meaning that the structure of the piece reflects the arguments you're trying to make or the story you're trying to tell. For instance, a funny, sarcastic personal essay might use colloquial words and its fair share of personal examples, and thus have a loose sentence and paragraph structure - the 'Vegas Wedding' of unity and form. Your more traditional, formal papers will do best if their structure is relatively rigid, the word choice professional and considered, and the examples chronological, or at least sensibly ordered - the 'First Time Meeting Your Boyfriend's Parents,' in other words.
Style and Voice
The things I just said about word choice and sentence structure figure heavily into what the style and voice of your piece is like. Good writing, as you may have observed, almost always has a consistent and definable voice. In most essays that you'll be tasked with writing, that voice should be confident and authoritative because your job is to convince your reader that your analysis, argument, or interpretation is the correct one.
Your style and voice will be unique to you, but in general, you want to use active verbs whenever you can, avoid the passive voice except when necessary, vary your sentence length with short and long sentences (at your discretion), and don't be afraid to write like you speak - as long as you promise to edit like you read.
Let me elaborate on that a little. I've often had students tell me that they knew how they felt about a particular argument or concept, but they had trouble putting it on paper and making it sound the same as what they did when they told it to me. For instance, let's say an essay prompt asks you to take a position on whether or not you think grades are beneficial for students or if they do more harm than good. If we were having a conversation and I asked you what you thought about this, John T. Collegestudent might answer like this:
'I don't know. I hate having to worry about grades, especially with my parents. But... if we didn't have grades, how would we know whether I could advance to the next class or get my degree? I don't like them, but they might be necessary.'
As a person, a student, you have clear thoughts and opinions, but for some reason, sometimes these ideas get dropped on their way to the page. If you want your voice to come through - let it! But edit it to make it more formal and confident. So, that last statement might come out like this:
'Grades are a huge source of both personal and parental stress. But grades are also a necessary evil. Without them, how would we know who advances to the next class or who graduates?'
Some of the DNA of the original conversational style is there and so is all of the content. That's just one approach you might take as you develop your writing.
Free from Distractions
You didn't think I'd get through a whole lesson without mentioning spelling, grammar, and punctuation, did you? In this college composition course, you learn a lot about what makes a sentence right or wrong grammatically and punctuation-wise, and those specifics are important, but they're not important in and of themselves. They're important because every mistake you make weakens your writing a little bit more. Why? Because mistakes are distracting! Worse, if you're trying to make a persuasive argument, those mistakes are going to ruin your credibility.
That's the big picture. Few people take joy in learning about the proper way to use a comma, but it's important to do so because it will give your writing the best shot of being the best it can be. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors are like little shards of kryptonite: relatively harmless on their own but taken together, they can make your invincible writing a lot more vulnerable.
Want to know if you're writing is 'good?' Here's a quick checklist for when you edit. If you can answer 'yes' to all of these, you're going to do fine.
- All of my ideas are interesting and worth talking about.
- My examples are specific, and none of them are distracting.
- It is clear to the reader what the purpose of my writing is, and they can follow the argument from beginning to end.
- My writing is well organized and doesn't take random detours.
- My writing has an identifiable voice that doesn't change.
- The work is free of spelling and grammatical mistakes.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to determine what makes your writing 'good' based on content, form, style, and voice.
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