How to Write Well: What Makes Writing Good?

Why is the craft of writing in such a dire state? The best writers of our time create magnificent prose, and additional tiers of talents do a fine job of communicating. But the vast majority of people seem competent at best, and many of those who are paid to write — or for whom writing is at least part of their job description (and, these days, that’s just about everybody) — frequently demonstrate a lack of understanding of, or concern about, the most basic rules of grammar and usage.

How can this be? High school graduates spend part of virtually every day of school for thirteen years learning, and relearning, and then learning again, the fundamentals of the English language, from letter recognition to critical essays. Why, then, do many colleges and universities have remedial writing courses packed with students who earned exemplary grades in high school English?

Most people, at least in developed countries, spend at least a couple of years in college, which involves completion of many writing assignments. How is it that many employers bemoan the poor writing skills of their college-graduate workers and toss so many ineptly written resumes in the trash?

Here’s a radical response to those questions: You can teach writing, but you can’t teach good writing. As a former public school student, and as a former public school teacher, I know that much of what passes for instruction in writing is dull and bereft of context. But I also know that many teachers succeed in devising and/or employing imaginative ways of helping students develop their writing skills. As a student, I experienced much of the first approach and little of the second. As a teacher, I used both methods but tried to focus on the latter strategy. I’m not sure that my efforts were successful.

I also taught copyediting to adults for many years. Some students didn’t belong in the class, because they virtually matched me in skill. Others didn’t belong in the class, because they had no business working in the writing and editing business. Most were somewhere in between. Did I help them? In class evaluations, many claimed that I did, or at least that I opened their eyes to how complex and creative editing can be.

I believe that students young and old can be taught the basics of spelling, style, and syntax, and of grammar and usage. But how do they develop the skill to integrate all these components into a clear, concise, coherent whole? As with any other skill, it takes practice, practice, practice — that’s where year after year of language arts instruction comes in. But I also believe that much of writing skill is innate: You have it, or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get it.

That doesn’t give anyone an excuse to give up. You can’t help but get better through repetition. Positive learning experiences and inspirational teachers are significant factors, but ultimately, becoming a better writer is a matter of learning what better writing is (reading well-wrought fiction and nonfiction) and of composing your own prose. My tip for today? It’s simple. Read a lot, and write a lot more.