It's usually pretty easy to identify good writing: we all know when we're reading something that's well written because we understand and enjoy it. This kind of great writing not only communicates clearly, but also present its message in a way that's engaging and easy to understand. It's often harder, though, to pick out just what it is about the way it's put together that makes a piece of writing successful. Your work might be technically accurate, but still not read like the type of writing you know is truly excellent. So what separates the just ok writing from the really great? While the mechanics of good writing
might seem mysterious, there are several easy-to-follow rules that will quickly take your writing from so-so to fantastic.
1. Vary the sentence structure
Can you spot the difference between these two passages?
#1: There were many factors that led to the Civil War. Slavery was the most important of these factors. States' rights was another issue that led to the Civil War. Economic differences between the North and South is the last big factor that led to the Civil War. These three factors caused the Southern states to secede. Secession led to war. The war was terrible. The war was necessary to stabilize the country.
#2: There were many factors that led to the Civil War. Slavery was the most important of these factors, but states' rights and economic differences also led to the Civil War. These three factors caused the southern states to secede, and secession led to war. The war was terrible and necessary to stabilize the country.
Both passages contain the same factual information, but the second is much easier to read. Why? Because the sentence structure in the second passage varies, while all the sentences in the first passage are the same. All the sentences in the first example are simple sentences with a straightforward structure. Each has only one clause with a single subject, a single verb, and a simple phrase after the verb. While there's nothing technically wrong with this structure, it's boring and makes it difficult to hold the reader's attention.
Writing is a lot like music: you have to change up the notes to make it more interesting. Think of how boring a song would be if it just contained the same three notes in the same order over and over and over. To keep your writing exciting, and to avoid lulling your reader to sleep, you need to mix things up. In the second passage above, several of the sentences are combined using conjunctions to create compound sentences, and some of them were left alone. Now all of the sentences have varying structures and the writing flows easily from sentence to sentence.
2. Don't be repetitive
Let's look at that second passage again and at a third version that's been rewritten:
#2. There were many factors that led to the Civil War. Slavery was the most important of these factors, but states' rights and economic differences also led to the Civil War. These three factors caused the southern states to secede, and secession led to war. The war was terrible and necessary to stabilize the country.
#3. There were many factors that led to the Civil War. Slavery was the most important of these factors, but states' rights and economic differences also divided the country. These three issues causes the southern states to leave the union, and their secession led to war. The war was terrible and necessary to stabilize the United States.
Our new re-write demonstrates our next rule of great writing: avoid using the same words over and over. Notice that in the second passage, the word factor and the phrase led to the Civil War both appear repeatedly, and that secede also appears twice (in the form secede and secession). As with repetitive sentence structure, being repetitive with your word choice will also quickly lead to boredom for your reader. There's nothing technically wrong with passage two, but when we replace those repetitive words with something new, it livens up the passage. The human mind likes variety, so keep your reader engaged by using new words.
There is an important exception to this rule: in scientific writing
, it's more important that you be accurate than exciting, which means it's acceptable to use the same words over and over. Even closely related synonyms will have slightly different meanings, and when you mix up your wording you run the risk of changing your message. So, when you're writing in the sciences, this rule often gets ignored.
3. Transition smoothly
Now we're going to rewrite our passage again:
#4. There were many factors that led to the Civil War. Slavery was the most important of these factors, but states' rights and economic differences also divided the country. These three issues caused the southern states to leave the union, and their secession led to war. This Civil War was terrible; however, the war was necessary to stabilize the United States.
In passage four, we've added another key to great writing: transition words. These words, such as however, therefore, on the other hand, and in fact, tell the reader what kind of relationship there will be between the sentences. In the original passage, it's unclear what point we're trying to make in the last two sentences. By adding the word however in passage four, we've told that reader that we mean to say that even though the war was terrible, it was necessary. Notice that the conjunctions but and and, which we added in the first re-write, are also transitions that tell the reader the relationship between the two clauses they join.
When you use transitions, the reader will know what kind of logical argument you're going to make instead of have to guess or figure it out for themselves. If you tell the reader beforehand that you're going to add more evidence to your argument or present a counter-example, it lessens the amount of work they have to do. The reader shouldn't have reread or guess what you're going to say next because your transitions have already told them.
4. Be active
The last change we're going to make is to our verbs. In the original passage, several of the sentences use linking verbs (verbs that describe a state of being) instead of action verbs (verbs that describe an action). In general, if you want to keep your reader engaged you should stay away from linking verbs: they make your writing stagnant and don't provide as much information as a well-chosen action verb. Here's our passage without all the linking verbs:
#5. Many factors led to the Civil War. Most scholars cite slavery as the reason for the war, but states' rights and economic differences also divided the country. These three issues caused the southern states to leave the union, and their secession led to war. This war devastated cities and families; however, it also stabilized the United States.
Notice that the words were and was have been replaced with words that are much more descriptive. By using action verbs like devastated and stabilized, we can load a lot more information into each sentence and thus make the sentences more exciting. Also note that in the second sentence, we've swapped out the linking verb for the phrase most scholars cite slavery as the reason for the war, which not only gets rid of the linking verb but also gives the reader more evidence for our argument.
Here's another example of how sticking to these rules can improve the quality of your writing
The Great Gatsby is the story of Jay Gatsby. Nick is the narrator of the story. Gatsby is his suave, mysterious neighbor. In the story, Nick learns Gatsby's story. He learns that Gatsby loves Daisy, who is rich and spoiled. This love finally kills Gatsby. Myrtle also dies because Gatsby is trying to recapture Daisy's love. Daisy accidently runs down Myrtle. This accident shows Gatsby and Daisy to be petty and immoral. The aftermath of the accident also shows that they are bad people.
Gatsby himself is not a moral character. At the start of the story, Nick is impressed with Gatsby's obvious hope. Nick is also impressed with Gatsby's earnest belief in the power of his dreams. Gatsby earns Nick's respect. This redeems him in Nick's eyes.
The Great Gatsby tells the story of Jay Gatsby, the suave, mysterious neighbor of the narrator Nick. Over the course of the novel, Nick learns Gatsby's story and watches as Gatsby's love for the rich, spoiled Daisy destroys, and finally kills, Gatsby. Along the way, Gatsby's attempts to recapture Daisy's love directly leads to the death of Myrtle Wilson at the hands of Daisy. It is during the car accident that kills Myrtle and its aftermath that the reader sees the petty and immoral nature that defines Gatsby and Daisy.
Nick acknowledges Gatsby's moral problems, but despite his lies and his overwhelming desire for wealth and privilege, Gatsby still earns Nick's respect. When the novel opens, Nick tells the reader that it's Gatsby's obvious hope and his earnest belief in the power of his dreams that ultimately redeems him in Nick's eyes.