‘Good writing’ is something that everybody strives for. From the critic of a novel stating that this or that could have been written better, to the perfectionist author wondering if that last sentence was any good.
What defines good writing? In my experience, there are a lot of factors that weigh very differently. Grammar and punctuation spring to mind immediately – but they are the things that you only take notice of if they’re poor. Writing being technically correct isn’t necessarily ‘good’ but just its expected, default state.
Being fit for purpose is another key one. If I wrote prose as I write marketing content, that prose would not be good. The marketing content, however, is good – because it suits the purpose for which it’s being written. Conversely, a verbose and overlong descriptive piece about the backstory of, for example, a scarf you’re trying to sell would be bad writing too, even if it was the most beautiful excerpt from a fantasy novel that had ever been created.
Those points are fairly basic, and can also be easily corrected. Many bestselling authors do not have good grammar and spelling in their drafts – that’s why there are careers built around editing and proofreading. Purposes tend to be straightforward, so any writer with experience can differentiate between different types of work.
If we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, we come across the question: Is good writing subjective? Googling this yields mixed results – some are adamant that writing is either good or bad, while others insist something along the lines of ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The latter seems to be the most popular opinion.
I also agree that good writing is subjective, for the simple fact that an author is always advised to consider their audience. Therefore, a piece of writing will almost always appeal more to one type of person than another. In simplistic terms, a novel such as James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl would likely not be considered ‘good’ by adults who enjoy gritty high fantasy epics. They will see the prose as too simplistic, unrealistic, or unrepresentative of true behaviour.
Conversely, a 10-year-old child would not gain much entertainment from a novel like A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. The themes are too mature for most children, the language used too advanced, and the plot moves slowly to aid the building of the world and characters. A child would quickly lose interest and view it as a chore. Of course, there are exceptions to both of these, but the idea is that both of the exemplified novels could be seen as among the best in class. And someone will still think it’s bad.
I think, therefore, that for anybody who is just starting out in their writing, and is worried about how ‘good’ it is – don’t feel like good means pleasing everyone. It’s impossible. Many budding writers, myself included, become caught up in whether their writing is good enough for them to be a writer. But the only thing that defines whether you’re a writer or not – lo and behold – is actually writing.