What are the fundamental qualities of good writing?
Many years ago, as a brand new student teacher, I discovered at the last moment that I would be teaching creative writing to at-risk teens at an alternative high school. Luckily, I stumbled across a text called WRITING PROCESS ACTIVITIES KIT by Mary Lou Brandvik. This curriculum (now long out of print) promotes utilizing steps of the writing process (prewriting, drafting, revising, and presenting), and emphasizes four key qualities of good writing.
The book focuses primarily on writing personal narratives (true short stories from students’ own lives), but these fundamental qualities apply to many types of writing, and definitely to writing fiction. I learned so much teaching these qualities to student writers. And now that I am teaching again, it’s a continual refresher course as I witness how powerful writing can be when it exhibits these qualities.
Have a guess—what are four fundamental qualities of good writing?
One is focus. In writing personal narratives, students are encouraged to focus on one particular time, experience, memory, and to make the reader “see” it. Instead of vague generalizations such as, “I love my mom and I’m really going to miss her,” focusing on a particular moment and experience can produce something like this brief passage from one my favorite YA novels, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, by Stephanie Perkins:
My mother lingers behind. “You’ll have a wonderful year here,” she says. “I just know it.” I bite my lip to keep it from quivering, and she sweeps me into her arms. I try to breathe. Inhale. Count to three. Exhale. Her skin smells like grapefruit body lotion.
Focusing on this small moment allows the reader to experience it right along with the main character, and to feel what she is feeling.
Another quality of good writing that is beautifully illustrated by the above passage is use of specific details. Specific verb choices such as “lingers” and “sweeps” help us picture the scene. Specific details make characters, worlds, thoughts, and emotions come alive. Bonus points for use of sensory details, which are specific details pertaining to the perceptions of our five senses—not just the sense of sight, which most of us tend to naturally rely on and use most frequently in our writing. Including details that the other senses perceive—such as the scent of “grapefruit body lotion” can have a powerful impact.
A third quality of good writing, one that is often discussed and sometimes causes confusion for fiction writers, is showing, rather than telling. Writing that is focused and uses specific details already has a high probability of showing, not telling. Writing that shows puts a picture in the reader’s mind, engages the reader, and makes them feel emotions right along with the characters(s) in the story. In the passage above from ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, specific details about Anna’s body language convey that she is on the verge of tears without ever having to name an emotion. Often if we check our writing for words that name emotions, such as happy, angry, or jealous, we can find opportunities to replace these words and show the reader what the character is feeling, using specific details, rather than naming that emotion. Similarly, checking writing for “filter words”—such as think, feel, wonder, remember—can help us find places where we can show the reader our character’s thoughts and feelings, rather than telling the reader about them. This is not to say that these filter words should never appear in a manuscript, but that they may signal places where we can make our writing better, stronger, more powerful by showing rather than telling.
Finally, a quality of good writing is honesty. The idea of honesty in writing—particularly honesty in fiction—often caused confusion and discussion in my classroom. No, honest writing does not mean that everything one writes must be factual or that one must record events and dialogue exactly as they occur. So, how can a fictional story be honest? By expressing honest thoughts, feelings, and behavior that is true to the human experience. Even in way-out-of-reality sci fi and fantasy, writing is often at its most powerful because of honesty. And moments when we convey true, honest thoughts, feelings, or behaviors—ones that are not pretty or heroic or glamorous—are often the moments in a novel that evoke the most powerful emotions, or the biggest laughs. Those honest expressions of humanity are what readers connect with most strongly. We recognize our own human frailties and flaws and relate to them, sympathize and empathize with them. And this can lead to a powerful, unforgettable connection with a character and their story.
In this passage from another one of my YA favorites, ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell, Park realizes something unflattering about himself: Park rolled onto his stomach and pressed his face into his pillow. He’d thought he was over caring what people thought about him. He’d thought that loving Eleanor proved that.
But he kept finding new pockets of shallow inside himself. He kept finding new ways to betray her.
This honest recognition of ugly qualities within himself feels so real, so authentic, so believable, and it makes the reader connect with him powerfully and makes his love for Eleanor feel even more authentic and strong. No wonder ELEANOR AND PARK is loved by so many readers.
Remembering and continually refreshing our awareness of these four fundamental qualities of good writing—focus, specific details, showing-rather-than-telling, and honesty—can help make our writing not only good, but powerful.
Please comment below if you have thoughts or questions on qualities of good writing and how to put them into practice!