What makes writing good? Who gets to judge what “good writing” is? What can we learn from examples of good writing from successful writers? Let’s look at a few short excerpts from professional authors and find out.
Good writers are “particular.” That is, they have a unique way of expressing themselves that goes beyond drawing readers in. They keep readers hooked by writing words and sentences that are clear, easy to read, and interesting. Some writers seem like they’re born with natural writing talent; most of us have to work at it. In fact, I wonder if succeeding as a bestselling author is more about a writer’s personality traits than innate writing ability.
Here’s what an editor and writing teacher said about good writing: “During the decades that I served as an editor and publisher, what drew my attention to a piece of work more than any other factor was the use of apt particularities, the detail that differentiates one person from another, one act from another, one place from any other like it,” writes Sol Stein in Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies. “I’ve seen the use of particularity make an article on a mundane subject sing on the page. The nonfiction books I edited that became classics all had the quality of particularity.”
Reading and rereading collections of professional writers’ essays is one of my favorite ways to see different types of writing. I examine how and why their writing works. This helps improve my own writing skills.
For instance, I just finished reading Afterbirth: Stories You Won’t Read in a Parenting Magazine. These examples of good writing are excerpted from that book.
4 Examples of Good Writing From Different Authors
What makes good writing good? Not personality or style, as you’ll see if you read The Best Writing Quotes From Capote, King, Lamott, Orwell and More.
To some extent good writing depends on the reader’s tastes and interests…but there are certain universal truths that apply to all types of writing.
1. Good writing startles, provokes, or makes the reader curious
Here’s one of my favorite sentences in Afterbirth (which is a book that destroys the idealistic fantasies of what it’s like to be a parent):
“What can I tell you about my personal battle with breast cancer? Oh, wait a minute, that’s next week. This one’s about kids.”
That was Matthew Weiner’s introduction to his essay, “Go Easy on the Old Man.” What makes this an example of good writing – and a great introduction? Here’s what did it for me: I stopped, thought twice, and then laughed. And I was curious about whether he really did struggle with cancer, and how he makes a living as a writer. Above all, I wanted to keep reading. That’s the key definition and best example of good writing: it keeps the reader engaged.
2. Good writing shares personal experience that is real – but not too heavy
“Cocaine was strictly for parties, to enhance my Tae Bo workout, to motivate me to clean my apartment, and occasionally to snort off a stripper’s ass during a threesome – whatever, it was the ‘90s,” writes Marta Ravin in the “Baby Powder” essay. “Anyway, after I got married, I slowed down the drug use quite a bit except for the rare bender over Yom Kippur.”
Why is this an example of good writing? Because it reveals the writer’s struggle with addiction without making readers want to cry or call the police. Her writing lightens a very heavy topic without mocking it, and endears us to her.
3. Good writing doesn’t tell you what to think or feel
Cindy Chupack’s essay “We’re Having a Maybe!” is a great example of writing in your own voice and style. It’s like she’s sitting at the dinner table, telling us about her experience while on safari in Africa. She was in her bungalow. “Then I heard this thump thump thump thump thump, and I knew something wasn’t right, so I got up and looked into the living room, and there were seven monkeys, throwing food around, and they froze as if I had just walked in on a teenagers’ party. One was on a table by a big bowl of fruit, and it just stared at me, holding an apple, midbite.”
What make this an example of good writing? Her long sentences mimic the breathless style of someone telling the story in person. This writer describes what she saw and heard without embellishing it with unnecessary details.
4. Good writing shares the writer’s insight, change, or realization
The best, most interesting stories, articles, books, or even blog posts reveal a change in the writer. A writer’s revelation doesn’t have to go on for pages or chapters. Just a sentence will do; a sentence that reveals change and self-insight. For example, in “What Grown-Ups Do”, Brett Paesel describes how her son was being bullied at school, and how she confronted the bully:
“I know what you did,” I say, bringing my hand up and jabbing two fingers in his direction like as hex sigh as I warn him ominously, “I am watching you.”
What makes this an example of good writing is her ending: “Of course, the child I was protecting today wasn’t Spencer, who might have been able to handle it all by myself. The child I was protecting was me.”
Find a passage of good writing – with lots of examples of good writing that you’re amazed by – and copy it out. Pay attention to the rhythm and flow of the writing. What words stand out to you? Emotions? Sensory experiences? Personality traits of the writer? Whatever resonates with you is what makes that paragraph an example of good writing.
By copying out that writer’s words, you’ll start to internalize her style. You won’t become a carbon copy of her, but you will learn more about how good writing works.
Above all, good writing tells a story
“Whether you know it or not, your desire to write comes from the urge to not just be “creative,” it’s a need (one every human being on earth has) to help others,” writes Shawn Coyne in The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. “A well-told Story is a gift to the reader/listener/viewer because it teaches them how to confront their own discomforts.”
Do you think there’s a common denominator that ties these examples of good writing together? Is there something that all professional writers do to make their writing better? Your comments are welcome below.
For more examples of good writing, read 4 Examples of Sensory Details to Fire Up Your Writing.