As an English teacher and writer, I’ve always wondered: what makes writing good? Like a music producer who knows when he’s discovered the next star, we know when we’ve encountered someone with a talent for words (“Wow, this is good!” my twelve-year-old students exclaim when I show them a passage from The Great Gatsby or A Farewell of Arms) yet it’s hard to dissect why a piece is good. Is it the rhythm of a writer’s sentences? the beauty of their choice of words? Is it the irresistible logic of their argument or the originality of their ideas? Was it something that could be taught or was it something more mysterious, a gift bestowed on a select few?
In If You Want to Write, the soul-stirring entreaty to write daringly and dauntlessly from your authentic self, Brenda Ueland explores what makes writing “good.” After teaching all kinds of people, Ueland came to believe that all people can write and write well. Whether you’re a business executive or traveling salesmen, an apron-skirted housewife or sheltered servant, a stock trader on Wall Street or panhandler on 42nd, you can write well if you write honestly, if what you write is alive and can be felt.
To illustrate this idea, Ueland describes one of her students, a bold, vivacious young woman with clear green eyes and black hair. Though she had a “hearty baritone laugh” and was as “dashing as a Cossack,” her first drafts often fell flat.
Despite these feeble first attempts, Ueland knew the woman could write. “To look at her I knew that her writing would be good because it would be like her: jolly, handsome, loud-laughing and slightly ribald. Because she had vitality and bright colors, I knew that she could see bright colors and they would sparkle in her writing, and so would her jokes and her stylishness.”
But how could this woman be so irresistible in life yet so boring and bland on the page? Simple: she wasn’t writing like herself— she was writing like a “writer.” Rather than write truthfully and record what her characters thought and saw and felt (which would be infinitely interesting because they’d be expressions of her incomparable singular self), she assumed a persona whenever she wrote. She was no longer a lively, light-hearted woman full of laughter— she was a serious erudite “author.” Instead of describe things simply as they were, she’d reach for her Roget’s thesaurus to find a more “literary” word. When her characters spoke in a real way like ordinary people she’d observed in grocery stores and subways, she filled their mouths with exalted, elevated dialogue. “No, no!” she’d insist, “They must sound like Jane Austen characters!” The result? The woman with black hair and clear green eyes could only produce dead work.
Ironically, we only write badly when we try too hard to make our writing “good.” What we call “bad” writing is merely an attempt to sound literary by using more pompous, pretentious words. Though it’s been many years since most of us were in school, we remember all too clearly the red-inked admonishments of our English teachers:
“Avoid lifeless forms of ‘to be’ like ‘is’ or ‘are’!”
“Don’t use contractions like ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’!”
“Good writing is elaborate. Shakespeare would never be so lowly as to use common words!” (Never mind that, for all his extensive vocabulary, the bard loved simple, monosyllabic terms).
“When you have written a story and it has come back a few times and you sit there trying to make it more impressive, do not try to think of better words, more gripping words,” Ueland advised her students nearly a century ago, “Try to see the people better.” Rather than reach for more scholarly, sophisticated words, we should observe more closely. To recreate a whole other world— whether it be in a story or song or symphony— we must first see it clearly. If, like Van Gogh, we want to depict the surreal shape and strange movement of cypresses, we have to sit and study our object: what color are its leaves? what are its dimensions? how does its shape look against the summer sky? how would we describe the movement of its bare branches? Ultimately, art is an attentiveness to life and writing, like all art, begins with observation.
Need more of Brenda Ueland’s infectious enthusiasm and blazing spirit to rekindle your creative fire? Read her on writer’s block, the qualities of good writing, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine, the importance of idleness to creativity, art as infection, and art as a grand gesture of generosity. Want even more timeless advice on writing? Visit Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments from Bird by Bird, the endearing 1994 instruction manual on life and writing, and Dorothea Brande on the 15 minute rule and being a stranger in your streets from Becoming a Writer, a 1934 classic which combines the practical tips of modern how-to writing guides and the free spirit of If You Want to Write.