What is good writing?

As an editor and a reader, I hope I can recognise good writing. There are few things as exciting as that moment when I realise I am in the hands of someone who expresses themselves so flawlessly that as I read their words I smile and nod, and the world around me drops away. I forget to be hungry, to want to check Twitter, to need another coffee. I might forget where I am. Of course, in my everyday work this is quite rare – which is probably just as well, or I’d have to find another job.

Many of the books I edit are not written by professional writers, while others are – and either of these groups of authors might produce good writing (or not). A lot of the books I work on are practical, often quite visual texts, written by people whose principal talents lie in other areas, and one of the things I enjoy about working on such projects is helping the essential message to shine through. Often it’s like weeding an established but neglected path – the true course is not completely obscured, but it could be made clearer and easier to navigate.

Meanwhile, the books I read for fun are more often fiction, and most of them are written by people who write for a living, or at least part of a living. These books (which have already been edited, of course) tend to be where I find more of the kind of good writing that makes my jaw drop or my heart sing. But still, I can’t help but harbour an enduring fondness for the kind of good writing that exists to tell you what’s in the tin and how to use it.

In short, I believe that good writing can be as varied as the people who produce it, and the reasons why. It might be deceptively simple, or layered in unselfconscious complexity, but here are some of the characteristics I think it shares whatever form it takes, and whatever its purpose.

  • It’s just good. It defies analysis. You don’t always know immediately when it’s not good, but you always know when it is.
  • It’s a kind of telepathy. It’s not a bunch of letters or a collection of clever sentences – it’s a distillation of raw thought, transmitted directly from the writer’s brain to yours. And as important as the writing itself, inseparable from it, the thoughts are worth divining. It tells a story.
  • It rings like a bell, clear and true: a lone voice rising above the babble.
  • It can cause physical reactions. Tingling, laughing, glowing, crying, shaking, nausea.
  • You stop seeing the words on the page or screen. Like legs hanging in a swimming pool at blood temperature, all boundaries recede and you become one with the writer’s intentions.
  • It can take you by surprise. The most unexpected things can be elegantly expressed.
  • It doesn’t have to make use of esoteric language. But equally, command of unusual words that fit just right, as a cut stone does in an Incan wall, can elevate writing out of the ordinary.
  • It’s like falling in love.  

So how should editors deal with good writing when it arises? The short answer is, by doing as little as possible. We need to develop the confidence to not make arbitrary changes simply to justify our fee. Yes, we can tidy up, and we can format, but there’s no need to meddle. We can stand back and marvel at the velocity of an express train hurtling past a platform packed with weary commuters.

Even in the best writing, however, you might come across a word that’s not quite right; just off in terms of meaning. As airline pilots must deal calmly with unexpected situations after many soporific hours of tranquil skies, so you must be ready. Your challenge, as the editor, is always to find just what the writer is really grasping for, and tweak the offending word so it makes perfect sense. The feeling of doing this is so satisfying. It’s not about being able to brag to other editors about a great catch – it’s about closing your eyes and listening, tuning in to the author’s personal radio station until you’ve eliminated the traces of background crackle.

photo 2016 cropped

Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She probably enjoys reading a bit too much.

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