What distinguishes good writing from bad writing? And how can we tell a good writer from a bad one? There are no simple answers to these questions. Or rather, there are many different answers, some simpler than others.
Here are ten writers and editors, ranging from Cicero to Stephen King, offering their thoughts on the differences between a good writer and a bad writer.
- Don't Expect It to Be Easy
You know what, it is so funny. A good writer will always find it very hard to fill a single page. A bad writer will always find it easy.
(Aubrey Kalitera, Why Father Why, 1983)
- Master the Fundamentals
I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
(Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 2000)
- Say What You Think
A bad writer is a writer who always says more than he thinks. A good writer--and here we must be careful if we wish to arrive at any real insight--is a writer who does not say more than he thinks.
(Walter Benjamin, journal entry, Selected Writings: Volume 3, 1935-1938)
- Reach for the Best Word
It is the misuse and overuse of vogue words that the good writer must guard against. . . . It is extraordinary how often you will find vogue words accompanied in the same sentence by pretentiousness or sloppiness or other signs of sickness. No motorist is to be blamed for sounding his horn. But if he sounds it repeatedly we are not only offended by the noise; we suspect him of being a bad driver in other respects too.
(Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words, revised by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, 2002)
- Order Your Words
The difference between a good and a bad writer is shown by the order of his words as much as by the selection of them.
(Marcus Tullius Cicero, "The Oration for Plancius," 54 B.C.)
- Attend to the Details
There are bad writers who are exact in grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, sinning only through their insensitivity to tone. Often they are among the worst writers of all. But on the whole it can be said that bad writing goes to the roots: It has already gone wrong beneath its own earth. Since much of the language is metaphorical in origin, a bad writer will scramble metaphors in a single phrase, often in a single word. . . .
Competent writers always examine what they have put down. Better-than-competent writers—good writers—examine their effects before they put them down: They think that way all the time. Bad writers never examine anything. Their inattentiveness to the detail of their prose is part and parcel of their inattentiveness to the detail of the outside world.
(Clive James, "Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Lessons on How to Write," Cultural Amnesia, 2007)
- Don't Fake It
In the course of a fairly long work, there are bound to be impasses. The writer must backtrack and choose other alternatives, observe more, and sometimes have bad headaches till he invents something. Here lies the distinction between a good writer and a bad writer. A good writer does not fake it and try to make it appear, to himself or the reader, that there is a coherent and probable whole when there isn't. If the writer is on the right track, however, things fall serendipitously into place; his sentences prove to have more meaning and formative power that he expected; he has new insights; and the book "writes itself."
(Paul Goodman, "Apology for Literature," Commentary, July 1971)
- Know When to Quit
Everyone who writes strives for the same thing. To say it swiftly, clearly, to say the hard thing that way, using few words. Not to gum up the paragraph. To know when to quit when you've done. And not to have hangovers of other ideas sifting in unnoticed. Good writing is precisely like good dressing. Bad writing is like a badly dressed woman--improper emphasis, badly chosen colors.
(William Carlos Williams, review of Sol Funaroff's The Spider and the Clock, in New Masses, August 16, 1938)
- Lean on Editors
The less competent the writer, the louder his protests over the editing. . . . Good writers lean on editors; they would not think of publishing something that no editor had read. Bad writers talk about the inviolable rhythm of their prose.
(Gardner Botsford, A Life of Privilege, Mostly, 2003)
- Dare to Be Bad
And so, in order to be a good writer, I have to be willing to be a bad writer. I have to be willing to let my thoughts and images be as contradictory as the evening firing its fireworks outside my window. In other words, let it all in--every little detail that catches your fancy. You can sort it out later--if it needs any sorting.
(Julia Cameron, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation Into the Writing Life, 2000)