What is good writing?

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How do you know if you’re a good writer or if what you’re reading represents good writing?

Most people believe that good writing is subjective. They think it is an art, not a science, which is to say that it’s imprecise, follows loose guidelines and is open to interpretation. This approach is in direct contrast to a field such as civil engineering, where there are complex and rigid rules of physics and unbreakable laws of nature that determine success or failure. The levee breaks, or it does not. The bridge stands, or it falls. You succeed, or you fail.

With writing there’s often a different perspective. Some journalists, writers, authors and creative services professionals contend these iron clad standards or formal litmus tests for their output do not exist. They say that good writing just is. Like the crusading politician said when asked what pornography is, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

As screenplay writer Josh Olson wrote in the Village Voice in September 2009, “It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.” But even that criterion can be inadequate when it comes to judging the written word. It’s one point to identify a thing’s qualities—this tastes good, that smells bad, this looks great—but it’s another altogether to be able to say why and to apply those same standards to another example.

In an attempt to be more discerning, perhaps in business in particular, it’s best to judge writing not as an art, but as a science. That sounds counter-intuitive, but we have to look at the purpose of the writing and whether that purpose is achieved. What is the goal of business writing? To communicate an idea or to relay information. Business writing is clear, precise, organized and logical. That’s not to say it should be boring, but, on the other hand, it’s not Hemingway or Steinbeck and isn’t meant to be.

Using this criteria (clear, precise, organized and logical), we have a standard by which we can judge the effectiveness of business writing: Does it achieve its purpose? If the goal is to explain a new management strategy, does it adequately do so? If a memo is intended to define a company policy, does it achieve that purpose? Does the reader understand the information? Is the information easy to retain? If the answers are “yes,” then the written output is a success.

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