The other day, someone asked me what makes for a good writer. We were discussing Jonah Goldberg’s new venture and I pointed out that the big challenge they will face is finding writers that are any good. It’s not so much that their opinions are banal and lacking in authenticity. It’s that the people writing for these sites are dull writers. The whole space is full of people, who should be writing technical manuals. Almost everyone with writing chops has been chased off by the loathsome carbuncles of Conservative Inc..
The question though, is why are some writers more interesting than others? Mark Steyn is not offering many unique insights, but he makes general commentary about the political scene fun and interesting. He is a great wordsmith. Steve Sailer is not a great wordsmith, but he often makes great observations about the world. In other words, you can be an interesting writer without being brilliant or a great wordsmith, but you better do something that gives the reader a payoff for having read your stuff.
Thinking about it, what often makes a writer good, is that they avoid the things that all bad writers seem to share. In this sense, “good” is not a state in itself, but simply not being in the state we call “bad.” A great wordsmith is further away from the state of bad writing than someone who is just an average writer. That average writer can appear to be much better, by offering keen insights and clever observations. The path to becoming a good writer, therefore, starts with avoiding the things that define a bad writer.
The most common trait of bad writers, it seems, is they write about themselves. Unless you are an international man of mystery, you’re not that interesting. No one is. Bad writers, always seem to think they are the most interesting people they know. This is what made former President Obama such a boring speaker. No matter the subject, his speech was going to be a meditation on his thoughts and feelings about the subject. It became a game of sorts to count how many times he referenced himself in a speech.
That’s the hallmark of bad writing. Instead of focusing on the subject, the writer focuses on himself, which suggests he does not know the material. Even when relating an experience or conversation, the good writer makes himself a secondary character in the story, not the focus. Bad writers are always the hero of everything they write, as if they are trying to convince the reader of something about themselves. Good writers avoid this and focus on the subject of their writing.
Now, in fairness, there is a division between the sexes on this one. Female writers only write about themselves. It’s why autoethnography is wildly popular with the Xirl science types on campus. They finally have a complicated sounding name for what comes natural to them. Presumably, female readers like reading this stuff, so there may be a Xirl exception to this rule. The fairer sex is wired to understand the world, particularly human relations, by observing the reactions of other women to that person or thing.
Another common habit of the bad writer is to use five paragraphs when one paragraph will do the trick. One of the first rules they used to teach children about writing is the rule of women’s swimsuits. Good writing is like a woman’s swimsuit, in that it is big enough to cover the important parts, but small enough to make things interesting. This is a rule that applies to all writing and one bad writers tend to violate. They will belabor a point with unnecessary examples or unnecessary explication.
Bad writers are also prone to logical fallacies and misnomers. There’s really no excuse for this, as there are lists of common logical fallacies and, of course, searchable on-line dictionaries in every language. In casual writing, like blogging or internet commentary, this is tolerable. When it shows up in a professional publication, it suggest the writer and the editor are not good at their jobs. A brilliantly worded comparison between two unrelated things is still a false comparison. It suggests dishonesty on the part of the writer.
Certain words seem to be popular with bad writers. The word “dialectic” has become an acid test for sloppy reasoning and bad writing. The word “elide” is another one that is popular with bad writers for some reason. “Epistemology” is another example, popular with the legacy conservative writers. Bad writers seem to think cool sounding words or complex grammar will make their ideas cleverer. Orwell’s second rule is “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” It’s the commonly abused by bad writers.
Finally, another common feature of bad writing is the disconnect between the seriousness of subject and how the writer approaches the subject. Bad writers, like Jonah Goldberg, write about serious topics, using pop culture references and vaudeville jokes. On the other hand, feminists write about petty nonsense as if the fate of the world hinges on their opinion. The tone should always match the subject. Bad writers never respect the subject they are addressing or their reader’s interest in the subject.
No doubt there are more complete and concise descriptions of bad writing than this quick list of observations. The pedants reading this sees all writing as bad writing, as everything they read violates at least one picayune rule they cherish. To normal people, though, good writing is mostly the absence of bad writing and bad writing is the violation of some basic rules of written communication. Therefore, if you want to be a good writer, you should first avoid being a bad writer. That gets you at least halfway home.