What Makes Writing Good?

The whole point of the unessay project, as I understand it, is to further develop and understand tools that enhance good writing. The unessay is one such tool. My early research has been dedicated to the dissection of the unessay: what principles underlie its composition? how does it fit into current theories on teaching writing? And how and why is it an effective tool? Much of this research is centered around the theories of meta cognition and scaffolding. The unessay requires that its user consider every aspect of the writing process (metacognition): form, argumentation, style, topic etc., It also attempts to bridge the gap between the formal essay and free-writing, by giving the writer complete control, allowing them to utilise the skills they already have in a form they are comfortable with. The end goal is always the formal essay, but the achievement of that goal is through the slow addition of knowledge to a student’s pre-existing knowledge (scaffolding). It sounds almost painfully obvious that learning is simply the expanding framework of an existing body of knowledge, but the formal essay often disregards this concept. A student is given a framework, and it is assumed she already understands how to utilize it. I think what many teachers find–myself included during my brief stint in the education program–is that many students do not understand the form, nor do they feel particularly inclined to utilise it.

With a decent framework through which to understand the unessay, and its place in the contemporary teaching of writing, I shifted the focus of my research, broadening it slightly, to try and answer what I feel is the most significant question when assessing any writing tool: what makes good writing? If we can compile a series of attributes that constitute good writing then surely we can come up with a tool which fosters those skills.

“What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers” is an article I came across while investigating this very question. The article begins with an interesting question: how do teachers evaluate a student’s writing? There are numerous issues when doing so, subjectivity being the most contentious: “reader-response theorist Louise Rosenblatt, whose transactional theory to reading, famously defined reading as ‘a transaction between the reader and what he senses the words are pointing to.'” When a teacher marks a student’s paper she is responding to the student’s writing, and making a judgement call about how successful the student is at pointing those words to the topic at hand. Because of the highly subjective nature of this line of inquiry, teachers have attempted to come up with some objective ways of evaluating writing. The 6+1 Traits model of assessment is one of the more popular approaches used in schools. It creates a rubric to define objectively good writing: “In this model, the key traits that define strong writing are ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and presentation” (319). Creating objective marking systems is probably the most popular method of teaching writing right now. It allows the marker to appear impartial, and it allows the student practical, tangible guidelines to follow.

The problem with this method, apart from it being impossible to reduce writing to a formula, is that it diminishes the creativity of writing, which according to many writers and teachers is an essential component of any written work. The unessay, while being far more difficult to mark than a paper adhering to the 6+1 traits method, is more realistic and accommodating because it supposes that writing can be successful in many different forms. A study conducted in this article comes to a similar conclusion. The study: “three groups composed of teachers, teaching various age groups, academics, and professional fiction writers were given a series of Q statements about writing (ex: Good writing is clear and easy to understand. Readers don’t have to struggle to get what the author is saying.), and asked to rank these statements from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree.’

The results of the study:

Group 1: emphasized “the connection between writing and thinking” (322). They tended to disregard standard conventions as a necessity of good writing. They valued creativity, surprise, and ideas over rules of convention or form.

Group 2: “emphasized organization and ease of understanding” (323). They thought good writing adhered to predictable forms, making it easier to read, and that the audience was unimportant–good writing will be clear regardless of the audience.

Group 3:  “valued clear purpose, voice, and correct writing mechanics” (324). They thought that good writing ought to follow the mechanical rules of grammar and punctuation, but that writing was not hindered by subverting conventions in argumentation or style.

This study suggests that there is no such thing as a universal standard for good writing. It is conditional, and based on a number of factors. One of the most important factors in determining good writing is fashion. What kind of writing is fashionable or ‘in’ at that particular moment in time? The article cites the influential Elements of Style as one such example. The Elements of Style preaches the hemmingway-esque style of writing: stripped-down, plain and clear language, using adverbs and adjectives sparingly. The article emphasizes that though this may be the dominant style, it wasn’t always, and is unlikely to remain so indefinitely (319-20). Take Nabokov’s Lolita for example: the language is flourish and overdone, soaked with adjectives, adverbs, and very wordy, yet it is considered one of the greatest novels of all time; its language and style being two of the biggest parts of that success. Nabokov uses the language to convey themes and ideas, to suggest that language can disguise the hideousness of an action or individual.

Nabokov demonstrates something that the article touches on in its conclusions, namely, that although there is no ultimate standard or checklist to define good writing, there are some general rules which will help all writers: “within each perspective teachers do need to consider the purpose for a particular piece of writing. For example, a creative personal narrative about a new stepmother does not need to adhere to the five-paragraph structure, nor should an essay written for a standardized test get ‘creative’ with punctuation” (325). As the unessay promotes, the common theme to good writing is an understanding of your purpose for writing, and how that purpose is best relayed to an audience formally. The decisions are yours to make. The success of your work is deterimined by your abilities, not adherence to one kind of writing.Consider the audience, the purpose, and the form when writing. Teachers should be aware of their biases and adjust marking schemes accordingly.

Works Cited:

Nauman, April D., Terry Stirling, and Arlene Borthwick. “What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers.” Reading Teacher 64.5 (2011): 318–328. Print.


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