What Makes Good Writing

I went to my friend Ingrid’s desk in the English department the other day. I said, “I need to show my students what adverbs do in a paragraph.”

“What?” she said.

I said, “I need to show how adverbs weaken the verbs.”

I started looking through some of the novels she uses in her American Lit. class. The Great Gatsby. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Then I read the opening to Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and found what I wanted.  “No adverbs,” I said.

Ingrid said, “Oh, okay.”

“She’s a good writer,” I said.

“Is that all it takes,” Ingrid said, “no adverbs?”

That made me think.  What does it take to be a good writer?  I thought through a few of the writing rules I try to follow:

– Write stark images. No cliches. Ever. Especially when writing similes.

– Write more verbs.

– Don’t use an adverb unless I have to. In the same way, minimize adjectives.

– Try to never write that a character is “thinking,” “considering,” or “wondering” anything.

– Describe without using abstractions like “glory,” “ugly,” “holy,” phenomenal,” “wicked,” or “good.” Use concrete items to show instead.  Show, don’t tell.

– Activate the five senses to evoke. Write to the body, a reader’s emotions, not the head.

– Write dialogue as the character would speak, not how I would speak and certainly not how I wish somebody else would speak.

– Action should be real and necessary to character development or plot arc.

– Structure matters and should enhance the book. No structure gimmicks.

– Plants and animals and locations have to be researched and portrayed accurately.

– Central conflicts should be epic, not mundane (all first-world problems make books silly – don’t write about a missing cell-phone charger, for example, or getting the wrong drink at a Starbucks coffee shop)

Those are just a few of the rules that I think about as I write.

But to be good, to write well, I have to read great books.  I like the image of Andre Dubus III reading poetry for fifteen minutes each day before sitting down to write in a walled in, naked room in his basement. No internet. No distractions. He also drinks black coffee as he reads the poems.

I like coffee and poetry as well. I also refuse to look on the internet as I write.

Reading list this last month:

Home by Toni Morrison

A Mercy (rereading) – Morrison

Multiple poetry collections by Tony Hoagland

Home Burial by Michael McGriff

The Book Of Men by Dorianne Laux

Ordinary Wolves (rereading) by Seth Kantner

The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor

New stories and poems in Tin House.


4 thoughts on “What Makes Good Writing

  1. Peter, even I think that outlining the traits of a good writer is very important. What do you think makes anyone a good writer? Is it a sum total of traits or is it simply about how many copies one can sell.


    • Tanisha – Thanks for starting a dialogue. While many great writers have sold millions of copies (Faulkner, Angelou, Kesey, Joyce, Plath, etc.) sales don’t make a writer great. Patrick DeWitt wrote the best book I read last year, and while The Sisters Brothers did well, it certainly didn’t sell a million copies. And I’m sure that there were quite a few excellent novels last year that sold fewer than 10,000 copies. I’m not sure greatness is following aall of those rules I laid out either. Greatness is more ambiguous than that. There’s no formula. A computer can’t do it. But there are easy ways to be terrible.


      • I’m going to be heading off to college later this year for creative writing. My question is, which of the points you listed above would you say are the biggest Dont’s in writing? I’m just wondering what your opinion is. Which rules are more okay to break, and which would be the ones to stick to?


  2. If only knowing meant doing, then I could be a good writer. Out of guilt, might I suggest adding “discipline” as an essential? Or perhaps, that is what is needed to make one a writer, and your suggested rules help raise the quality to “good” writing.


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