How to Become a “Really” Good Writer

February 6, 2012 in Essays

There is nothing good writers like to argue about more than what constitutes good writing.

In my 30+ years in the publishing business I have taken part in my share of arguments about good writing. Many of them were lively. But few, if any, were ever resolved.

Of course you can’t agree on what’s good about anything unless you begin with a definition of “good” that is both mutually agreeable and objective. Put differently, it’s impossible to have a useful discussion of good if by good you mean “It pleases me.”

Three people read Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric.

One person says it isn’t any good because the meter is awkward and because it does not rhyme. “I like only poetry that is regular and rhymes,” he says.

The second person says the poem is great because it evokes beautiful images. He quotes snippets: “The bodies of men and women engirth me” and “framers bare-armed framing a house.”

The third person says it’s “just okay.” What pleases him about poetry is what Ezra Pound called melopoeia – the emotional impact of the musicality of the language. “I got some of that from the poem,” he says, “but not enough.”

Such conversations are dead from the start because they don’t have an objective measure of “goodness” everyone can agree on.

But most discussions about good writing are worse than that because the participants don’t even articulate their underlying preferences. Indeed, they may not even be aware of them.

The ancient Greeks had similarly volatile discussions about what constitutes good drama. They, too, had lots of strongly held opinions but no objective criteria on which to posit their opinions. In 335 BC, Aristotle solved this problem with history’s greatest essay on literary theory: The Poetics. In that essay he attempted to articulate what made “great” Greek theater great.

Aristotle began by listing six elements of Greek drama. Then, by looking at the Greek plays commonly considered to be great, he put those six elements in order of importance: plot (mythos), character (ethos), thought (dianoia), diction (lexis), melody (melos), and spectacle (opsis).

That didn’t end arguments about what makes great drama. But it did give intelligent critics a useful standard to guide their arguments. [Note: If you care to read them, I can recommend Horace’s The Art of Poetry, Longinus’s On the Sublime, Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, Dryden’s An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, and Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.]

In the world I work in – the world of non-fiction writing – no such landmark work of literary theory exists. In fact, we have very little good writing about good non-fiction writing at all. I’m not sure why that is. But it is a significant deficiency. If we want to learn (and teach) how to write well, we must begin with an objective definition of what we mean by “good.”

I’ve been thinking about this for almost as long as I’ve been in the publishing business. What are the elements of good, non-fiction writing? And of them, which are the most important… and why?

Over the years I read dozens of books about non-fiction writing, but I never found a single one that arrived at an objective definition that had the simplicity and power of Aristotle’s.

Finally, it dawned on me: Why not just apply Aristotle’s methodology? Why not look at a sample of the “best” non-fiction writing we have today, and then identify what they have in common?

But that raised the same question: What do we mean by good?

So I used Aristotle’s answer: To be good, it has to be both popular and well thought of by educated people.

Our first step might be to make a list of the 10 best-selling non-fiction books of the 20th and 21st centuries. It would look like this:

  1. Think and Grow Rich (1937) by Napoleon Hill (70 million sold)
  2. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) by Benjamin Spock (50 million sold)
  3. A Message to Garcia (1899) by Elbert Hubbard (40 million sold)
  4. You Can Heal Your Life (1984) by Louise Hay (35 million sold)
  5. In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? (1896) by Charles Sheldon (30 million sold)
  6. The Purpose Driven Life (2002) by Rick Warren (30 million sold)
  7. The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) by Hal Lindsey (28 million sold)
  8. Who Moved My Cheese? (1998) by Spencer Johnson (26 million sold)
  9. The Celestine Prophecy (1993) by James Redfield (23 million sold)
  10. The Happy Hooker (1971) by Xaviera Hollander (20 million sold)

These books would tell us a lot. But since few of them won critical acclaim, they wouldn’t tell us everything. We would need to make a second list, too, this one of best sellers that were critically acclaimed. It would include the following:

  1. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams (14 million sold)
  2. The Naked Ape (1968) by Desmond Morris (12 million sold)
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) by Viktor Frankl (12 million sold)
  4. The Prophet (1923) by Kahlil Gibran (11 million sold)
  5. A Brief History of Time (1988) by Stephen Hawking (10 million sold)

Our next step would be to read all of these books and identify the elements they have in common. I have done that – and here’s what I came up with:

  1. Quality of expression (similar to Aristotle’s diction)
  2. Quality of ideas (similar to Aristotle’s thought)
  3. Sufficiency and persuasiveness of evidence
  4. Impact of the authorial voice

I’d like to believe that if you read these books from the same perspective you’d be comfortable with these four.

Following Aristotle’s methodology, our next step would be to rank these elements in order of importance.

Had I taken this step thirty years ago – before I became a publisher – I might have put the quality of expression and the impact of the authorial voice at the top of my list. Because back then, my criteria for what makes good writing was based solely on my own objective as a writer: the appreciation (and, yes, praise) of readers I admired. And the writers I admired were masters of expression and voice.

But when I became a publisher, I realized that to keep my job (and keep my business growing), I had to do more than elicit praise from a few smart people for the books and newsletters produced by me and the writers who were working for me. I had to sell those books and newsletters.

It was during a conversation with Bill Bonner that I started to really refine my definition of that kind of writing. I was working with him in an effort to improve the writing in – and sales of – his British publications. (Bill is, in my view, a great writer. But he is also the head of Agora, the most successful newsletter publishing empire in the world.) We were trying to come up with an objective definition of what we meant by good writing because we had to explain our shared view to his editors and writers.

Bill thought we should give them several examples from our American publications. We had no trouble agreeing on whose work that should be. They were writers who were both popular (i.e., their newsletters sold very well and easily) and they produced essays that we always admired. “What is it about these writers,” I asked Bill, “that you especially like?”

“I like their ideas,” he said. “That is what excites me. Their ideas are thoughtful and clever and useful. When I read them I do so with anticipation because I know I will end up with a new thought or perspective that will help me think about the subject in the future.”

“Well, that’s it,” I thought. For my definition of good, non-fiction writing, the quality of ideas jumped to the top of my list. And soon after that, I began pestering Bill’s editors and writers with it. “Good writing is nothing more than the expression of good ideas,” I preached. “If you could consistently conjure up exciting, useful, and believable ideas, that would make you a good writer.”

This definition served me well for several years. But as I used it to teach good writing to fledgling newsletter writers I came to believe that it was not enough. Some of the writers I was working with were skillful in developing exciting and useful ideas. But their manner of expression was dense and convoluted. It was impossible to find those good ideas unless you had the time and commitment to dig through all the verbal junk surrounding them. These writers had the most important skill, but they were weak in the quality of expression.

And so, because it made the ideas – the most important of the four elements of non-fiction writing – more accessible, I made clarity of expression the second most important element on my list.

That left me with two more elements to put in order: the sufficiency and persuasiveness of evidence and the impact of the authorial voice.
I’ve been thinking about these two for about a year now, seeing how they factor into the writing of the most successful non-fiction writers (i.e., writers who are not only critically acclaimed but also produce best sellers). And my conclusion is that they each have about the same level of importance. You can’t be a good and successful writer without providing enough evidence to convince your readers that your ideas are correct. And you can get a lot of that work done by having authority and confidence in your voice.

The ideal writer would have both: the research habits that would provide a full sufficiency of proof and the personal experience to write in a voice that is true and believable.

Most good writers are better at one than the other. Understandably, writers who are doers – such as Warren Buffett – can rely on the authority and sincerity of their voice. Other writers who are reporters – such as Malcolm Gladwell – do better by adopting an honest voice that presents a preponderance of evidence.

That brings me to the definition I now use for good, non-fiction writing:

Good writing is the clear expression of exciting and useful ideas supported by persuasive evidence and presented in an authentic voice.


So how do you apply this to your writing?

Don’t even start to write until you have at least one good and useful idea that you want to express. You can sometimes get that idea simply by thinking about your experience. Oftentimes, however, you must supplement your thinking by doing a great deal of reading. You have to read the best ideas you can find about your subject until some exciting, seemingly new idea hits you. And then, after it hits, you have to spend days thinking about it to make sure it is as good as it seems. (Many seemingly great ideas fade into mediocrity upon reflection.)

When you are sure that your idea is sound, you must then gather lots of evidence to support it. That evidence can be factual but it can also be anecdotal.

Persuading people to buy into your ideas is a complicated business. It is achieved by appealing to both the logical and the analogical parts of the brain. So whenever possible, support your ideas with stories as well as facts. Just as a picture can be worth a thousand words, a story can have the weight of a thousand facts.

Write as clearly and simply as possible. And when you’re done, go over it and get rid of every paragraph, every sentence, and every word that is not essential to expressing and supporting the points you are trying to communicate to your reader.

If you do all of that, you will not only be a good writer, you may one day be a great writer… or at least write one great thing.

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