I was asked recently what makes ‘good’ writing?
Someone who describes themselves as a ‘novice writer’ wanted to know how she could recognise good, better, best.
Ha! She probably wished she hadn’t lit that particular touchpaper as I launched into a major rant.
Let me tell you what makes good writing – personal taste. It really is that simple.
If you want to get published, there’s the need to swallow a zeitgeist tablet, too. But really, if you are a writer enjoying the process of writing, you should not to be bullied by literary snobs or talked down from the enjoyment of something that may not be likely to win a high-brow literary competition or published in a ‘worthy’ journal.
Whatever you are reading and writing – trust me on this one – if you like it, it’s ‘good’ enough, regardless of what anyone else has to say. Popular and mainstream don’t necessarily mean ‘good’ either. Although, that’s not to say a writer can get away with poor grammar, badly constructed sentences, mis-placed punctuation and the rest.
And then, of course, a beautiful way with words is special and means many, many people might agree such writing is ‘good’.
Deconstruct a prize-winning story or poem (or novel) and you should find some gems that sparkle, intriguing language, seamless construction, clever premise, good ideas. Yet sometimes, just sometimes, you get the hint of the Emperor’s New Clothes going on.
Picture the scene: there’s a new story published by a well-known writer in a respected journal. You know you should like it because you’ve admired a lot of their previous work, but this time you think it is over-rated and definitely not up to scratch. And you suspect others may have the same view.
In my case, I might steer clear of social media abuse by not commenting at all (see how I’m not naming names here?). But it’s OK not to like something, or conversely, to like it if no-one else does. How public you go with your views is another thing entirely.
Whether you are writing for Ireland’s Own or the New Yorker, the Guardian or your local parish magazine, there are zillions of readers out there, all with different tastes. If you like what you’ve written, then the chances are, someone else will too. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Communication? Connecting with fellow humans who are on your wavelength?
I write (and read) mostly for entertainment, sometimes for information and education, but always I want it to be an enjoyable pastime. I will read material that may be ‘difficult’, distressing or disturbing, but it has to have an element of entertainment, and I will rate it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on my own personal views. But I might not reveal my opinions unless it’s one of those rare days when I’m spoiling for a fight.
Of course, it can’t do any harm to be influenced by other writers you respect, so when a book is endorsed by someone you like, why wouldn’t you give it a go? Doesn’t mean to say you HAVE TO like their recommendations though – make up your own mind. In my case, I’ve had poetry endorsed by Carol Ann Duffy, Dermot Bolger, Jane Clarke and Rita Ann Higgins, and I’ve had short stories selected for publication by Billy O’Callaghan. Doesn’t mean you’re going to like them too (although I’d be thrilled if you did!).
Because it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Like so many things in life, literary taste (thankfully) does not come with a one-size-fits-all label.