When I was in college, I taught writing to students for whom English was a second language. It was highly rewarding because I felt I could make a difference. Of course, it is easy to improve something that is mediocre at the outset. It is much harder to improve something that is good already, to take it to the next level.
Some people tell me that I am a good writer. I sometimes wonder what makes a good writer good – what makes a good writer write well – what it is about good writing that makes it identifiable as such.
The most obvious characteristic of good writing is clear communication. If you can’t understand what a writer is saying, then it’s pretty much a non-starter. Thinking through what it is that you are trying to say would be a good start. Then saying it simply and clearly would be the next step. Good grammar and good spelling help. You can fancy things up later in the editing process. But starting out with a clear sketch and then filling in the color and brightening up the lines comes later.
An engaging voice is also a characteristic of good writing. But you can’t manufacture that. I have noticed that people who are good mimics tend to also have interesting writing voices. I suppose that they hear the voices of other writers in their heads and find a way to recreate it, without outright stealing it. A voice that tries too hard to “be” a voice inevitably sounds forced, fake, uncomfortably “manufactured”. Whenever I read what seems to me to be a manufactured voice, I cringe.
Writing for laughes is probably the most difficult kind of writing there is. I find that the writing that makes me laugh out loud is the writing that understates the humor. Broad humor in writing is as unfunny to me as broad humor in the movies. I enjoyed There’s Something About Mary. But I much prefer Spinal Tap. The Onion is far better for a laugh than the Sunday Comics. Frank Zappa, and even Warren Devon, were much funnier than Weird Al.
Writing for shock value is not as difficult as writing for laughs, but it is challenging nevertheless. Like humor, shock is best served understated. Too much, and it can be offputting. But too little, and well, so what? You just try again another time. It’s best not to beat people over the head with it. And derivative is never shocking. Shocking is only shocking when it’s original.
By contrast, writing in earnest is quite easy. It requires nothing but the words to pour forth in a manner that is understandable by the reader. In the end, straightforward writing is probably the most effective when it comes to conveying humor, shock value or any emotion, for that matter. For me, good, straightforward writing is so enjoyable that when I find it, I will sometimes read it even if the subject matter does not interest me. I read it to savor the writing, to hopefully absorb some of the voice into my own, to take lessons from a complicated art, simply expressed.