What makes writing good?

What makes a book feel like a friend? Or a news article share-worthy? Or a story cause you to take action?

what makes good writing

I was asked what makes writing good in an interview last year, and here’s how I responded:

Great thoughts. Anyone can slap words on paper (or clink them out keyboard), but good writing materializes with the infusion of creative, authentic ideas. Writers paint with words, using a palette of verbs and nouns. When they get it right, they gift readers with power-punch phrases, such as this beauty from the September 2012 Real Simple magazine: “My ratio of tra-la-la to ay-yi-yi shifted noticeably.”

Since then, I’ve thought about the great thoughts and good writing in my life. I’m always paying attention: the plastic wrapping on my fruit leather, tweets from standout writers, and billboards I pass on my way to work. Words are everywhere. What makes some combinations more powerful than others?

Good writing resonates. It touches a piece of my soul, often connects me to something greater and inspires makes me want to act or think new thoughts.

Today I saw a tweet by Steve Martin (I heart him!) that led me to this interview. The phrase “the most beautiful words ever written” caught my eye:

Martin: I was always a huge fan of ee cummings. He did a series of lectures at Harvard or Princeton, and they were recorded. And they were incredibly moving. He does this long anecdote, and then he says, “To me, these are the most beautiful words ever written in the English language.” Suddenly you’re really listening. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I thought about that a lot. It’s like when you listen to a comedian, you think, “Well, what is your life?”

As the Three Amigos comedian alludes: We need writing that moves us, inspires us. Words grant us more than means of mere communication. They are the medium by which we define our lives.

Now it’s your turn: What makes writing good?


10 Comments


  1. Well said, and makes me think. But writing that has a specific beat or rhythm or cadence is somehow powerful. It becomes pleasurable to listen to because you can almost predict the finish of each sentence. Winston Churchill had that style of writing, perhaps and especially because he actually dictated his writing, and the result was a straight-forward melody of words and thoughts.
    p.s. – speaking of e.e. commings, I saw his typewriter in the NY Metropolitan Museum last year, and was shocked to see shift keys. 🙂

    • Good point, Paul. The cadence and flow of words definitely plays into the quality. Thank you for your thoughts.

      How neat you saw cumming’s typewriter! (I admit I get a kick out of how it’s correct to lowercase “e.e.cummings”)

  2. LOVE this post, as I’m always asking myself that same question. For me, I think it’s in the details. Anyone can say, “there’s an apple on the table.” But to give it detail like no one ever has, to compare the apple to a completely unrelated object—not only to make me understand and enjoy reading about it—but to make me feel or think. That’s good writing.

    • Thanks for your comment, Meg. I concur. What kind of apple? Is it sliced? Applesauce? Or does the apple symbolize the forbidden fruit? The detail and intrigue allowed by words wows me.

  3. Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing

    What a great short post! I’m still working on writing shorter. 😉

    I’m always trying to explain to my kids that I’m really paid to THINK. Writing it down is the short part. Ideation — creating, realizing what the idea is that you should write on — is the WORK.

    • YES! That’s what makes being a writer such a thrill – it’s being a puzzle solver, solution provider, and word masseuse all rolled into one. You know better than most all the MENTAL WORK that goes into getting it done – quality, quantity, and on deadline.

      Thanks for reading, Carol. And your compliment made me smile. Still smiling. Cheers.

  4. First of all, I’m totally jealous that Carol comments on your posts. That is epic! Second of all, I do think good writing is completely subjective. If a new reader hasn’t been exposed to good writing and picks up something not so great, it may still resonate with that person…until they find something even better.

    I think that’s a key lesson for me. I’ve been writing since I was a young’in, but you are always, always trying to make it better.

  5. I love the incredible amount of passion you’ve injected into this blog post. In fact, your passion is just oozing out of your whole site. I love it!

  6. For me, it’s about playing with the words. I want strong images and different metaphors. At some point in a piece, I want to think “Wow, I love that line.”

  7. What a thoughtful and succinct post. This is what drives my life and always has-words and their order, as I put it.
    Writing short is harder then writing long as you must think exponentially and then reverse the process and boil it down to the word-the phrase that will elicit the readers response.
    Saying that, I am getting back into the long form writing as the pace is so different from what we live today. It’s a breath of fresh air. In a master’s hand, it’s a lavender breeze.
    And I agree with you; Steve Martin is an incredible writer and in turn appreciates good writing. That is the crux of a good writer; appreciating other’s writing.

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