What is good writing and where do I start?

As a language lecturer for English, teaching Bachelor and Masters students at a German university, I am constantly reflecting on the way words work, in particular in English. Alongside our task of engaging the students with cultural, linguistic and literary themes, one of our mandates in the language praxis courses is to hone the linguistic skills of our students and their subtle feeling for the English language, particularly in an academic domain. In the first session of one of my advanced writing classes, we tease out what it takes to produce so-called “good writing”. These are some of the ideas that will generally come out of our reflection.

In general terms “good” writing:

  • has a purpose
  • has the reader in mind
  • gains and maintains the interest of the reader
  • addresses the readers at the level of language and degree of knowledge they have
  • has organised and logically presented content
  • illustrates, explains, supports the concepts being conveyed in some form (for example: in an essay, through objectively formulated arguments; in a poem, through imagery, alliteration or form)
  • is structured according to the text type required
  • uses correctly formulated language appropriate to the domain (but note: what counts as “correctly formulated” will depend on the text type and situation…)
  • can “break rules” for effect

When you look at this closely, you will recognise a fundamental point: good writing is cooperative communication of ideas using organised, correct and appropriate language in a particular written mode.

Being aware of this can facilitate the issue of getting started on a writing task, which is often a problem area of writing. So perhaps we could rephrase the points above as a list of “to-dos” to make getting started a little easier.

First steps to getting started with your writing:

  • Know your aim
  • Know your readership
  • Know the style and structure of the text type you need
  • Know the language of the domain (or at least become familiar with checking it constantly)
  • Play with language
  • Know the rules so you know how and when to break them
  • Organise your ideas and content BEFORE writing your text
  • Help the reader to understand

And for those of you who feel disheartened at times with your struggling attempts to write, remember: only the most skilled writers are able to sometimes produce a text that needs little change from first to last draft – but that is only because they have shifted some of the working steps to take place in their minds instead of in written form. They have practised and honed a skill that now comes almost automatically to them. The rest of us still have to labour through collecting ideas on paper, researching and planning, organising the ideas (and throwing some away), attempting a draft, rewriting, and hopefully winding up with a well-rounded text of the nature we need. So I would like to leave you with a thought: Good writing is a PROCESS, so no text is a failure unless it is sent out to do its job before it is ready– it is just one step of many towards the final goal.

© Cate Kimberley and Word and Affect, 2012


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