Friday, February 16, 2007

Extended Inquiry: Good Writing Fundamentals

This is the first of a series of articles I'm going to write on the subject of good writing. Though I'm not the foremost expert in all the wide world, I still think that there are some good points that I can make about this topic. As always, I welcome your comments, both for and against the assertions I make. Here goes--

What is it?

What is good writing? How can it be defined? How can we recognize what is good about a written piece? Perhaps more importantly, how can we recognize what isn't so good, and figure out how to
avoid those mistakes when we write? Ask an expert, and she'll give you quite a lot of answers to those questions. Ask a normal reader, and she'll probably have this sort of answer:

“I don't know what good writing is, but I can tell when I see

While that's a rational answer, I think that the topic demands more study. There's no sense in living the unexamined life, after all. We will find it more difficult to progress as craftsmen in the art of writing if we don't analyze our own work, and the works of others. We'll be functioning purely on an instinctual level. I'm sure that there are fine writers who have never had to think deeply about why their pieces hold together and work at a high level, but few of us have such impeccable instincts at our disposal. We'll have to resort to logic and rule-making.

During the course of this discussion, I'm going to concern myself primarily with creative writing, though many of the concepts, especially in regards to structural elements, can be applied to most any writing foray.

To begin with, let's cut the subject up and see what its constituent parts are:

1)Structure: When we talk about the structure of a story, we're talking about a fairly big group of concepts. Each subheading has its own set of concerns that we'll pay attention to. In future columns, I'll go into greater detail about each of our subheadings, discussing the pitfalls and triumphs possible in each writing element.

a.Organization of Information (Flow): What information goes where? Is there an intelligent and reasonable flow of information? Does the reader have the knowledge she needs at the right time? Does clumsy exposition make the writing bog down? Does the story start where it should, or wander into the critical events after a lengthy preamble?

b.Grammar: Does poor sentence and paragraph structure obscure the quality of the story? Are spelling and grammar errors frequent? Do basic, structural concerns within the writing distract the reader? Are certain grammatical quirks appropriate to the situation or character within the story?

c.Clarity: Is the general thrust of the writing clear? Can the reader easily understand the information being conveyed?

d.Internal Consistency: Does the narrative hold together? Even in fantastical writing and poetry, there must be some “center” to which the piece clings. Are there logical paradoxes or unwarranted exceptions to whatever set of rules have been agreed upon for the piece?

e.Content: Is the content worthy of inquiry? Does the subject matter have sufficient vigor to sustain the interest of a reader? Does the writer have the required knowledge to convey the the content in an accurate, effective manner?

f.Quantity: Is the piece long enough to adequately cover the material? Is the material extensive enough to carry the story to its intended length? Does the format of the piece match with the breadth of the idea at hand?

g.Compression: Does the writing stay on task or ramble? Is the story weighed down by non-sequitur passages or excess verbiage? Are ideas and events re-hashed more than necessary? Are situations explained when they need not be? Are all the scenes and events in the story important? Are some details immaterial to the story, and therefore without merit?

2)Style: When we talk about style, we're going into a land where there are no absolutes, but we will be brave nonetheless. While style is inextricably linked to structural concerns, we will talk about it separately, if only to impose some artificial but useful boundaries in our inquiry.

a.Tone: What mood should the piece evoke? Does the piece shift gracefully between tonal shadings, such as humor and sadness? Does the tone match the subject matter? Does the tone of the story help the reader to better appreciate the meaning of each event?

b.Tense: Is the story told in the past or present tense? Does the tense of the story somehow detract from its immediacy and tension? Could the story be more effective if told with a different tense? Are there troublesome shifts in tense within the story?

c.Point of View: Who tells the story? Is she a person with limited knowledge? Does the narrator have an omniscient viewpoint, knowing all the events, thoughts, and emotions of every character? Is the narrator one of the characters in the piece, or a neutral observer? Is the narrator of the story reliable, or does she skew the facts to suit her purposes?

d.Word Choice/Linguistic Complexity: Are the right words used to describe actions and events? Are there better ways to express the thrust of the action? Do some words mislead the reader or throw them off track? Are there any instances of out-of-place words that detract from the flow of the narrative? Does the vocabulary and sentence structure match the intended audience? Is the narrative's language held back by overly-complex passages? Are subtle shadings of meaning lost in the absence of specialized or complicated terminology?

e.Intensity: Does the piece maintain a quick pace, challenging the reader to continue? Are the facts or events in the piece powerful and exciting? How high are the stakes? Can they be raised to increase tension?

f.Emotion: To what level are the readers affected by the emotional elements of the piece? Are the events more or less important than their emotional responses?

g.Intent: Does the piece aim to inform, persuade, entertain..? Is the piece, in the end, hopeful, tragic, humorous, or simply factual? Does the story end here? Is the piece part of a larger framework of other works, or does it end with a full stop, standing alone? How well does the piece fulfill its intended purpose?

h.Character: Yes, perhaps the most important concern, characters form the basis of all our storytelling. Without characters to root for, the best plot fails to engage the reader. So, then: Are the characters realistic to their setting? Can readers empathize and understand the characters in the story? Are there several characters which can serve as “points of entry” to readers of differing tastes? Are the protagonist characters admirable, yet flawed? Are the antagonist characters realistic and fully-drawn? Do the characters make realistic decisions? Do characters use the tools they have at their disposal? Do the protagonists face escalating difficulties? There are a million questions to be asked about the topic of character in fiction, but the most important is this: Will the readers fall in love with these characters, wanting to come back again and again? If the answer is “yes”, then that quality alone will cover many sins.

Well, that's the breakdown. There are certainly other elements that may be cogent to the argument, and some people will assuredly think some things I've classified in “Structure” have more to do with “Style” or vice versa. I'm sure that they have good arguments for these assertions, and I'm sure I'll be happy to hear them, but for now, we'll use these topics as springboards for further commentary.

Next time: Organization of Information (Flow).

1 comment:

drthunder said...

This looks as though it's an amazingly ambitious undertaking, Patrick. Your knowledge is obviously extensive, but your poetry and fiction seem to profit by your understanding of the writing process. I hope that you will gain many readers for this section of your website. Your earlier comment about the Trolley Square incident was very moving. Thanks for putting it into words.