Why is the Pope “allergic” to objectives?
(That’s not the start of a joke.)
You probably know good writing when you read it.
But could you explain what makes good writing good?
It’s a conundrum, isn’t it? Especially since what you think is “good writing” might be indecipherable trash to your best friend, who also happens to love the latest fiction bestseller.
You know… the one you thought had an unrealistic plot, with clunky dialogue spoken by flimsy characters you didn’t care about.
“Tell us, in 100 words or fewer, what the secret to good writing is.”
That directive had snuck in right at the end of a competition entry form I was recently filling in. It took me by surprise, because by the time you get to the submission point of anything, you think you’ve already cleared the trickiest hurdles.
But instead of finishing up and hitting ‘Send’, I spent the rest of that weekend wondering, “is there one, definitive, secret to good writing?”
To say that good writing is grammatically correct isn’t much of a secret, nor that good writing should be clear. But even then, you could disagree. Written dialogue can benefit from lapsed grammar, while some people enjoy the challenge of interpreting hazy meanings.
What about handy writers’ tools, like adjectives and adverbs?
The Pope himself claims to be “allergic” to adjectives and the like, saying that “beauty manifests itself from the noun, without strawberries on the cake.”
Others, like the writing tutor Barbara Baig, claim that you will be “a seriously handicapped writer” if you remove those plump, red, juicy strawberries from that moist, truly delicious cake.
Could elaborate descriptions be the secret to good writing, then?
I remember reading an award-winning short story that was awash with them; in one particular scene, a waitress “floated daintily up to our table, as though she was a delicate ballerina dancing en pointe.”
You might think that’s a beautiful description. I didn’t, because it distracted me from the story, which is generally how I tend to think about ornate prose.
As I read it, my brain taps its metaphorical foot, groaning inwardly like a disgruntled shopper in a languid supermarket queue, fruitlessly waiting for something to happen.
But that’s just one reader’s opinion.
Yours is probably different.
That’s why I don’t believe there is a universal “secret to good writing.”
I can only tell you what that secret is for me, which is that good writing shouldn’t make you feel like you’re reading it.
You’re just there, in the moment, absorbing the words like you’re drinking a glass of water, feeling refreshed without really noticing what you drank.
You might not agree with me, but rather wonderfully, you don’t have to.
Actually, I don’t want you to, because it would be awful if there really was only one secret to good writing.
All writing would then have to be exactly the same, and only a few people would be considered able to do it properly.
Instead, we’ve all got the freedom to give writing a go ourselves, in our own flawed, unique ways… with results that could even become someone else’s personal example of “the secret to good writing.”
By now, you might be wondering if I explained all this on my competition entry form.
You might recall that I only had 100 words to play with, so I wrote something snappy; something I thought the competition judges would want to hear, because that’s what you do, isn’t it?
Wish me luck.