People say to me quite a lot, “You’re a good writer.” This post is not about whether or not I’m a good writer and not very much about what is a good writer anyway, but about why they say that.
Sometimes it’s flattery, meant to get me to like them, even if they show no signs at all of reading much of what I write or understanding what I wrote. A few will give me an example of what they liked or say what it meant to them.
Most seem to think writing is a personal attribute, like having naturally curly hair, and that I will accept the praise on that level. “How lucky you are!” And then that little hint of, “Gee, I wish I were a good writer“ (had naturally curly hair). Or maybe, “if you’re such a good writer, why aren’t you rich and famous? Did you do something awful? Are you afraid of success?”
It was the same with Bob Scriver except it was “you’re a good artist”. Then the assumption is that having that attribute given to you (um, by “God”?) it’s only natural that you’ve become rich and famous. It was surely all so easy for you. Even if one grants that the capacity to become something is there in one’s brain and muscle, they have no thought of the amount of time, effort and choice it takes to make a capacity into something real. The next assertion is “I don’t have any talent,” as though it were a “thing.”
Back to writing, a few older people are still admiring of proper spelling, agreeing antecedents, reliable punctuation of appositives and participles, clear placement of adverbs, big vocabulary, etc. If you know what I’m talking about, you probably realize that American schools don’t teach that anymore. Yet it’s what some ESL people discover can be held against them and the aspect in which savior-minded teachers will offer to “help” but in the process will end up changing both the nuance and the vigor of the unique point of view.
On the other hand are those MFA grads from Back East fancy schools who say they won’t tolerate things like all caps or people who wear round glasses like Harry Potter because they are annoying. (That’s a quote.) They get hung up on the Harvard comma. [In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called an Oxford comma or a Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms.]
But then there are standard usage implications about arcane distinctions between “bring” and “take,” one blunder that drives me crazy. [The essential difference between these two words is that bring implies movement towards someone or something. “Bring it here.” Whereas take implies movement away from someone or something. “Take it there.”]
Several times I had tribal kids who read a lot and had learned big words from context. They produced a lot of malapropisms, multi-syllabic Latinates that didn’t quite mean what they thought, but conveyed effectively the world of someone who has crossed cultural barriers but still isn’t quite in control. I didn’t want to stamp that out, even though I knew the problem would dissolve over time with more reading. I was always afraid that coming down on them too hard would shut them up. “Correctness” can destroy inspiration. Does a “good” teacher do that?
“You’re a good writer” can mean “I agree with you.” That’s fine, but a coincidence is not usually a reason for praise. If they go ahead to explain why, that’s different. If THEY are good writers, it counts for more.
Opposed to all this fuss about little stuff is the “passionate” school of value. The more intense, the more personal, the more confessional, the more stigmatized and possibly rude, the better the writing is considered. I am not talking about true outrage over real atrocities. I mean “mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most miserable of them all?” Missing-yous, broken hearts, pity for little fuzzy animals, and all that. It is VERY VERY hard to write about the ghastly stuff in the world. The most successful examples are usually a bit understated, specific, and unexpected. Often narrative.
Cool writing, documented writing, informational writing, journalism, analysis — all have their place and different standards for “good.” One writes well when one is presenting what the reader can assimilate and value, so part of being a good writer is knowing one’s reader. In fact, good readers draw out good writing, even define it. Sometimes I wonder whether I have the good readers (actually listeners since I was writing to preach) I used to have. So many now push aside the writing and want to have a relationship with the writer, which is not about writing at all, and usually turns out to be about dominance.
It’s ironic that in a time when it’s so easy to research — not just with search engines but also with specialized websites — readers don’t seem to have as much background as they used to. They need more explanation but don’t always have patience. Neither do some writers.
What makes a good writer? It depends on the situation and the individual, not the number of MFA’s accrued. How much the person is driven, propelled, called, will affect how and what they write. Mostly a person learns to write by writing and writing and writing some more. That can’t be taught. What they are actually doing is creating submicroscopic molecular connections among neurons in the brain which — as they are created — organize themselves or fit themselves into pre-existing categories OR dismiss the connection. Experience, exposure, is the only thing that can make this happen. It’s like the concert pianist said, if one does it enough, like practicing the piano, one’s fingers begin to crave the keyboard.
Moving among connectomes controls whether the brain is willing to access, the specific webwork one wants to use. Knowing what will move one’s mood or attitude into the right place is part of the craft of doing this work. Lots of little tricks out there to find out about, and one develops their own as well. A quick walk for one person, a cup of tea for the next, and Hemingway famously sharpened pencils. It’s simple conditioning, sub-conscious, automatic if conditions are right.
Ah, the sub/under/deep/un conscious! It might fight you. It might take you up on wings. Both happen to good writers and both are useful. Whether you’re dimpling the paper with tears or causing the pets to come see what you’re laughing about, just keep writing.
If people say you’re a good writer, don’t question it. Just say thank you. No one is that sure what writing is, much less which of it is “good.” "You're a good writer," is often an expression of puzzlement from someone who feels like an outsider.