Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Recognizing Good Writing
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
I suppose to some people, good writing is like art: you may not know much about it, but you know what you like. If you’re like one of my clients who actively tries to write better each time he writes, it helps to know what to look for if you want to emulate it. Read through a piece with pleasure, and you’ll probably find a consistent voice, a clearly targeted audience, complete and focused topic coverage, and clarity of language.
One thing that invites readers to read through to the end is a comfortable and appropriate voice. This means that the text doesn’t waffle from saying “I did this” to “you do that” to “developers can do” and back again. The author decides who to address and how, and sticks to it.A unified voice means that if the coverage is direct and didactic, it doesn’t get all warm and gooey in places, and vice versa. Write as yourself, not some wishful interpretation of yourself. If your personal style is cheerful and friendly and you love your topic, write like that—don’t try to be snooty. If you tend to speak in metaphors, use polysyllabic words more than not, and your pronouncements often send your listeners to the dictionary, go ahead and write like that. As you become a better writer, you also gain facility controlling your voice, and can decide whether to be snooty or hip before you write, using the intended audience as a guide. The language in a unified-voice piece is consistent. You don’t say PPP in one place, Plotters in others, and Purple People Plotters in yet others. If it is to be a hip, stylized marketing piece, jargon use is consistent and can be understood from context. If it is not a hip, hyper-personal marketing piece, there is no jargon, terms are spelled out before they are abbreviated, and sentences are likely to be short or medium in length—just as you’d speak about the same subject.
It’s easy to tell when an author hasn’t defined the audience: the paper tells too much and takes forever getting to the point of the piece.If you find yourself telling the history of something, the whole piece should be about the history. Otherwise, you don’t need it. If you find yourself telling the reader how to turn on the computer or navigate to the main title bar to save their work, the piece had better be for abject beginners. If you find yourself going down tangents, you probably haven’t narrowed your topic or your audience sufficiently.I’ve written a whole blog on identifying audiences, so I won’t go on about it here. But you can look for the audience in the work you read by trying to guess who it is in the first paragraph or two. Then check in at the end and see if you still choose the same readership. A good piece matches readership from the beginning to the end.
It’s easy to tell if the coverage is appropriate too—did the piece end up where it promised in the title with little wandering and a clear sense of finality at the end? Do the subheadings or chapter titles seem to lead down an obvious path? Is the level of coverage suitable to the audience you’ve identified (in your opinion)?The crafty folks who contract content are pretty good about estimating how much can be covered in a single article or chapter. If the piece seems too long or too short, that’s a clue that the level of coverage is off. If you’re reading something that you already know a lot about, you won’t have much trouble determining whether the coverage is appropriate to the audience or if it’s sufficiently comprehensive. But if you don’t know the subject, you may have to follow along closely to recognize whether promises where kept. If you find yourself rereading sections often, or you don’t feel a sense of having learned something at the end, the coverage was probably insufficient or indirect.
If the author has to repeatedly explain elementary aspects of a product or process, the audience probably wasn’t well defined. If the author has to point to other parts of the same piece, it may not be a linear discussion. If there are jargon, frequent metaphors, or rarely used words, the author was just showing off, not being informative.Clarity is probably the hardest part of writing; you have to guess what your readers will know and in what context they will read. You have to assume some basic level of comprehension (did you know that journalists are trained to aim for an eighth grade reading level, as that is average in the US?), but aim high enough to intrigue literate readers. And you have to cover your chosen topic, and no more, without lapsing into fluffy filler or chest-thumping to seem personable. Clarity can be influenced by creating an outline before you write, and by illustrating concepts with textual examples, code, lists, tables, or images. Clarity can also be influenced by conscientious awareness of a clearly defined audience. You don’t tell a three-year old how to analyze geological information using a spectrographic microscope, and you don’t tell a philosophy professor how to tie a shoe, right? The language you choose should be appropriate to your audience, just like your subject and depth of coverage.