The short answer: I don’t know.
Trying to define so called, “good writing,” seems to me a task curiously similar to trying to explain why some people prefer chocolate ice cream above vanilla ice cream.
Ultimately, it boils down to a matter of taste.
Nevertheless, despite the fact – I feel comfortable in using the term, “fact” – that good writing is boiled down preferentially, it seems that there is a certain sort of, shall we say it, “objective benchmark” that must be met before preference becomes fully involved.
Again, sticking to the ice-cream theme, and for instance; I might personally prefer, on a typical day, chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream, but if the chocolate ice cream is made poorly, then I might, on that same day, choose vanilla instead.
The question however remains: What is to determine whether or not the chocolate ice cream has been made poorly?
Here’s my rather meaningless answer.
1. Grammar’s important
I’m all for bending the rules. Recalcitrant is my middle name.
And so, by no means am I a Grammar Nazi. Bad grammar doesn’t bother me, not in speech or (see, not so bad) in writing. However, it does very much bother me when it knots my understanding of what the writer wants to convey.
If you want to write “badly” – using a technical scale of the word – my guess is that you have to know exactly what rules you’re bending, and you’ve got to bend with purpose. Lazy mistakes are just lazy mistakes. Intentional bad grammar can sometimes be more effective than sticking to the rules. Know the difference and make it work.
Sentence fragment? No problem.
Let’s eat grandma. You cannibalistic monster!
2. Similes that don’t work
I’ve not yet read a book where I’ve thought to myself, “Why does the author use so many damned similes? They just don’t make for good prose.”
People will have their own opinion on allegorical writing, and the extent to which it should be employed in fiction (or even non-fiction, really). This doesn’t bother me personally, and I don’t think it’s a good measuring stick to set good writing apart from bad writing. Cause technically, if you think about it, and without wanting to get into such a deep philosophical discussion on the matter, every written word is, in some sense, a simile; an abstracted symbol purporting to explain the world around.
Having said this though, and regardless of how often you use them, similes need to work. If you use a simile that paints an unclear picture in your reader’s head, then your reader’s going to have a bad experience, and your words will leave a bad taste in their mouth.
Like they were a blind person that you trapped inside of a movie theatre without a sound system. (You judge for yourself if that works; I’m not so sure myself).
3. Painting a loose picture
There is nothing wrong with being general, generally. The phrase, “too general,” is only valid contextually.
Key word here: Context.
Good writing, I think, goes into detail at the vital points in a novel. What are those points? I don’t know. I won’t even bother to try and elaborate on what those points are, cause I honestly haven’t the slightest of clues. All I know is that when the time calls for it, author’s turn up the detail-dial, weaving their words with intricate preciseness, and expressing their ideas immaculately.
This goes the same for generalness. Sometimes a clear painting doesn’t need to be painted, and a murky water coloured portrait will suffice. When is this the case? Again, I can’t say. Sorry.
If you signed up for a twenty km fun run, would you start off your race by sprinting out of the gates?
(Granted, I’d never sign up for a 20 km run. I don’t find running fun).
Good writing always seems to naturally possess a mellifluous flow, a poetic cadence that breathes easily. It doesn’t sprint when it shouldn’t, but it does so when required; the same logic of course being applied to jogging.
Good writers know how to pace their story perfectly.
What makes for good pacing? Again, I dunno.
If you were to press me, I’d take a stab and say that like life, good writing has its ups and its downs. Almost like a cosine graph. Good writing is always either descending or ascending, but never at a plateau. If your story’s not moving forward, either for better or for worse, than your story’s not moving. And alas, your reader will not be moved.
This doesn’t answer much though. Because who decides this?
Which brings me to my next point.
5. Don’t listen to people tell you what makes good writing good, and bad writing, bad
With the exceptions of: an English professor, a linguistics professor, or someone who can help you technically.
The bottom line is that, like ice cream, the way we devour and enjoy words is a personal process.
Sure, it can be said that there is a certain sort of benchmark that must be met before subjective preference comes into play. But that’s a real simple sort of benchmark, and it’s a bench that doesn’t at all mark much. All it does is measure the degree to which one understands the English (or whatever other) language. And this is by no means a good indicator to measure this thing we like to call, “good writing.”
Ultimately, I’m not sorry to say, there’s no real anecdote to set apart good writing from bad writing, and there’s not a general panacea that be implemented to cure the ails of “bad” writing once, and for all.
I don’t know why I usually prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream. And similarly, I don’t know exactly why 1984 is my favourite book of all time. But it is. Definitely. And so be it.
My pro-tip for what makes for “good writing?” then: Write from your heart, through an authentic lens, a brave lens, and stop trying to please everyone.
Humans-are-story-tellers. And some stories are told better than others, but this doesn’t necessarily make them better stories.