Asking “What is good writing?” sounds a little like the start of an unsolvable riddle.
After all, one person’s definition of good writing would be the kind of prose that would repel another reader. Just look at the popularity of authors like Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown. While a lot of readers and writers heavily criticize their work, surely they’re doing something right to sell so many copies and win so many fans?
In fact, the difference in opinion on what constitutes good writing is the answer to the question itself.
While there is no universal definition of good writing, any writing that pleases the person reading it can be considered good.
Of course, the matter is a little more nuanced than that. While we can agree that satisfying an intended readership is the hallmark of good writing, how exactly does a writer achieve that aim?
Let’s take some time to consider why good writing matters before delving deep into what good fiction and nonfiction writing looks like.
Why does good writing matter?
It’s easy to be self-deprecating about working as a writer.
This attitude stems from several places. You can look around at people working as doctors and other professions that get a lot of respect from society and feel like your work pales into insignificance in comparison. Writers are also often the punchline of jokes about low-paying careers.
But while it’s vital to stay humble and retain a sense of humility, it’s also important not to do yourself and your craft a disservice.
Good writing matters.
Stories can give people a breadth of experience that they would be unable to achieve in the course of their everyday life. It creates empathy with types of people we would never meet. We can visit places that we would never otherwise travel to – including those that don’t exist in reality.
Think about the beautiful moments of escape provided by getting lost in a fiction book. They offer relief and joy for people living tough lives severely lacking in either. That matters, and should never be dismissed.
Nonfiction is also just as important in changing and enhancing people’s lives.
People have regained a sense of hope and purpose after picking up works of nonfiction. Whether through a self-help book that speaks to their pain points in a way that no one in their real life ever could, or a memoir or autobiography that opened their eyes to a successful path in life, nonfiction offers countless avenues for making life better.
So by all means retain a sense of humor about writing and the lifestyle it entails. But never dismiss it as unimportant.
Writing matters. With that being the case, isn’t it worth striving to write well?
Let’s take a look at some practical aspects of good fiction and nonfiction writing.
What makes a good fiction writer?
Good fiction writing is dependent upon the genre being written, but some aspects are universal to almost all genres.
If you take a moment to think about the fiction that has most captivated you, you might bring to mind stories that feature the following elements.
A gripping plot
Without a good plot, fiction falls flat.
There’s nothing worse as a reader than being intrigued by the premise of a novel but finding its plot to be confusing or lacking in structure.
Lovers of the written word can debate all day if a book’s plot or characters are more important. Try having that discussion next time you’re around like-minded people. It’s an interesting way to pass time.
Truthfully, some books are considered classics based on a great plot but relatively shallow characters. Others have incredible, lifelike characters but a less than exciting plot. That’s to say that fiction can rely on either, but to be truly great, it should feature both.
Different story structures can be used to strengthen your fiction plot, and different schools of thought on plotting VS pantsing.
No matter how you go about it, find an approach to your book’s plot that works for your style of writing and keeps your readers engaged.
The best fiction characters are written in a way that makes them seem almost real. They take on a life of their own in the mind of the reader. People truly care about their fate and think about them long after the final page has finished.
Writing a good character is partly reliant on the genre of story they feature in. For example, the protagonist of a work of literary fiction is likely to be portrayed very differently than the main character in a fantasy epic.
But regardless of genre, memorable characters often share some commonalities. The main character in a story is often relatable and someone the reader is likely to root for. There are of course exceptions, but often the reader can see themselves as similar in some way to the protagonist, creating a sense of empathy and investment.
No matter what type of character you write, aim to give them depth and a sense of coherence. There is nothing more jarring for a reader than when your character does something that seems, well, out of character! It breaks the suspension of disbelief and sense of emotional investment a reader has.
Have you ever read a story that seems to end kind of abruptly? How about one that drags in the middle leaving you deeply bored? Or what about a book that takes an inexcusable length of time to get going?
If you’ve ever experienced bad fiction pacing as a reader, you know just how detrimental it is to your enjoyment of a book, even if the other elements are solid. Sadly, as a writer, it can be a little harder to spot.
When writing, it’s easy for us to get caught up in overexplaining certain parts of our story. We sometimes have a lack of faith that our story will make sense unless we over-explain it. This is understandable but needs to be guarded against.
Good pacing is far easier to achieve with someone helping you out. At the very least, try and find alpha readers and beta readers. At best, seek out the highest level of professional editing you possibly can. Your pacing, and your readers, will benefit immensely.
The satisfaction of genre expectation
Fans of genre fiction are looking for certain expectations to be met.
That’s not to say that effective writers shouldn’t play around with genre conventions to surprise and delight readers. But the fact of the matter is it’s far easier to satisfy genre expectations than it is to skilfully subvert them.
So how is this done?
It’s almost a prerequisite for good writing to read widely in the genre you wish to write. This is the only way to get a feel for the tropes and moments that epitomize what readers love and crave.
Aside from reading widely in the genre you write in, take the time to check out reviews. Look at glowing reviews and also one and two-star reviews. What did people love? What did they hate? Getting a sense of these things will allow you to satisfy genre expectations in a way that will please your intended readers.
The very best fiction writing engages readers on an emotional level.
This is true regardless of the genre that is being written. The term emotional might bring to mind certain styles, but it’s widely applicable. For example, consider how:
Good horror writing causes the reader to feel genuine fear and suspense.Romance writing, or romantic plots in other types of fiction, makes the reader yearn for the characters they care for to work out romantically. Effective fantasy writing makes the reader feel a sense of despair, hope, and satisfaction over the ebbs and flows of the hero’s journey.
You could take almost any genre out there and realize how it impacts readers on an emotional level. Ultimately, fiction readers want to be entertained, but they also want to feel something. Give them that gift and you will have them coming back for more.
An effective ending
How often do fictional works fall flat due to a lackluster ending?
Even if people have enjoyed a story up until its closing stages, that can all be for nothing if the ending leaves them with a bad taste in their mouth.
Effective endings should work on a logical and emotional level. Logically, the story shouldn’t leave loose ends or unanswered questions that will frustrate readers. Unless it’s an intentional choice setting up a sequel, but even then, there should be a sense of climax.
Emotionally, readers shouldn’t be left feeling short-changed. Romance readers deserve to see their hopes realized. Fantasy fans should have a sense of epic fulfillment after closing the final page.
Just like writing the start of a story, learning to get the ending right is difficult. It takes time, patience, and intentional practice.
Study the endings of stories that are almost universally praised, and practice these principles in your own writing. The ending of a fiction story carries far too much importance to be left to chance.
What is good writing for a nonfiction writer?
In some ways, being a good nonfiction writer is simpler than being a good fiction writer.
Fiction is very much an art form. Even the bestselling and most widely-praised fiction books have people that hate them and are very vocal about their feelings. It’s a lot rarer to see that level of vitriol aimed at nonfiction.
Ultimately, good nonfiction writing is about fulfilling a promise to the reader. From a book’s title, subtitle, and description, the reader should have a clear idea of the benefit they will gain if they take the time to read a book.
A self-help book should clearly define the problem it will solve, the person it will serve, and the positive outcome achieved by finishing the book.A memoir or autobiography should explain the life story it will share, why it matters, and the lessons the reader will learn along the way.A how-to book should explain why its writer has credibility in that area, the subject matter they will teach, and which type of reader will most benefit from choosing it instead of other competing books of a similar type.
Of course, effective nonfiction writing requires familiarity with genre conventions, writing tone, and the expectation of readers, similar to fiction writing.
But if you’re able to clearly state a promise to the reader before they start your nonfiction book, and fulfill that promise throughout the book, you can consider yourself a good nonfiction writer.
How to become a good writer
Now that we’ve taken the time to consider what good fiction and nonfiction writing looks like, let’s end with some thoughts on how to become a better writer.
It’s important to realize, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, “we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” There’s always room for improvement. Don’t become disheartened by comparing yourself to other writers, for they are fellow apprentices on their unique journey, just like you.
Instead, make sure you’re always getting incrementally better.
The two keys to good writing are consistent reading and consistent practice. Writing courses and writing groups are useful, but unless you’re reading and writing consistently and intentionally, everything else is folly.
Hopefully, you agree that good writing matters to the world.
So don’t you owe it to yourself and your readers to be the best writer you can be?
Keep that thought in mind after you finish this article.
You matter as a writer. Your words can change lives for the better. Never forget that.
Read more: thewritelife.com