Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Good and Bad Writing

I finished an exemplary novel last night at midnight. It was a long, epic tale that enfolded me, intrigued me, and provoked thought and response in me. It was a delight to read...this doesn't mean that it was all about delightful things. It could be quite dark at times. I was wrapped up in excellent story-telling. Today I started a new novel, and from the get-go I was disappointed. It didn't have the same quality to it. I struggled to understand what exactly was different. This happens to me all the time. I read something startlingly great then later in the week pick up something that could have been written by a high schooler. Actually, that is a bit unfair as I assume there are some high schoolers that write much better than most best selling authors.

Because I had so much trouble forming the differences between wonderful and terrible writing, I decided to google "what makes writing good?" for help. The very first page I went to had 6 qualities of good writing that resonated with me. I think I finally have words to voice what I have been feeling for years.

Here are the 6 phrases used on this random teaching website:

Having simple phrases to describe the good things writers do makes learning about those things easier. Good writing has:

Ideas that are interesting and important. Ideas are the heart of the piece — what the writer is writing about and the information he or she chooses to write about it.

Organization that is logical and effective. Organization refers to the order of ideas and the way the writer moves from one idea to the next.

Voice that is individual and appropriate. Voice is how the writing feels to someone when they read it. Is it formal or casual? Is it friendly and inviting or reserved and standoffish? Voice is the expression of the writer's personality through words.

Word Choice that is specific and memorable. Good writing uses just the right words to say just the right things.

Sentence Fluency that is smooth and expressive. Fluent sentences are easy to understand and fun to read with expression.

Conventions that are correct and communicative. Conventions are the ways we all agree to use punctuation, spelling, grammar, and other things that make writing consistent and easy to read.

The framework I'm using here to talk about good writing is based on the Six Traits model which I received my training in from Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Over the years I have modified, simplified, and in many cases changed much of the language outright because it seemed to work better for me that way in the classroom. NWREL has made many changes to Six Traits, too. In fact, they now call it Six Plus One Traits. But it's based on the same basic idea of using trait-based criteria to define good work. For information on the "official" Six Traits in its most current incarnation, you should visit NWREL at www.nwrel.org.

The book I started reading today had a choppy, immature voice. It was lacking in lyrical or descriptive wording. The narrative spent time on subjects or events that weren't important to the story or to me. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't good either. I found myself losing interest instead of gathering steam as the story unfolded. I can see that some of the things in the list above were not being accomplished which led to my reaction of dislike.

It seems like great authors know how to make every word matter. Each word is like a thread, all building upon each other until the tapestry of a masterful story is completely woven. I suppose good story-telling is a gift for some, present at birth it would seem, and for others the culmination of years of practice and effort. However it comes, some people have it and some don't.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Wow. I think those 6 things do a great job of summarizing what constitues good writing...thanks for sharing this. I'm going to have to find out what 2 books were so good and so bad!