There’s No Such Thing as “Good” Writing

“You need to be a good writer in order to succeed!” “His writing is just better than hers!” “Good writing is something which can serve you throughout your life.”

Or so they said. I went to university in order to learn what this mythical thing of “good writing” was. I was told that once I had it, the world would open up to me and I would be a powerful person. More or less.

Steven Pinker said it had to do with not using passive phrases, my poli sci prof said that you shouldn’t contract words, the copywriter I follow on twitter said to always keep your sentences under 5 words, so on and so forth.

Who do I listen to?

I ended up just mushing all of their advice together.

What I failed to do in university was realize that good writing isn’t universal – the tools that you use to make writing good cannot be applied for all writing.

When I’m critiquing Aristotle’s notion of moderation for philosophy, the prose structure is completely different from twitter-writing that aims for more followers. My mistake was to think that good writing in one domain is the same as in another.

The truth is that good writing, in any domain, is merely the combination of two things: a clear message to communicate and an awareness of your audience.

If you want to convince voters to stay inside the EU, but you make an argument that depends on them having a utilitarian framework for understanding public policy and rational choice, you will FAIL to write well.

If you want to convince a judge that you shouldn’t be punished because you’re a good person and you care for your community, you will FAIL to convince him.

What you should say for maximum effect depends on your audience.

Ask yourself two questions to understand your audience::how do they like their message to be structured/organized? And what do they already know?

If you’re trying to get your friend to not drive home (after drinking heavily), which would he find more convincing: 1) embarrassing him with what he’d have to say in the morning to his mother when he calls her from jail, or 2) informing him of the likelihood of cops being on the streets and rates of accident while drunk, etc.

It depends on the friend! If he’s like my friend Greg, he’ll probably find the first reason more convincing. If he’s like my friend the philosopher, then giving him a set of reasons with evidence will be more convincing because, well, it’ll tickle his intellect and make him feel smart.

“Convincing” really means making an emotional impact on someone. You need to know what someone cares about to do this.

Next, keep in mind what your audience knows (or doesn’t know).

If you’re speaking to gender studies graduates on why a surplus of women leads to polygynous mating, but a surplus of men leads to rife monogamy, you’re not going to convince them unless you can get them to assume that gender is more than just a social construct – it has biological influences which shape the playing field.

Explaining too much leads to boredom, and explaining too little leads to confusion (and then boredom) or anger (if your argument is provocative).

Last, there’s the message. For maximum effect, it should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and a story (SUCCES) if you can. Check out “Made to Stick” if you wanna learn more about how to make messages that actually are remembered and understood.

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