This essay started its life as an e-mail to a student who wanted to know if all writing was, on some level, “just subjective,” which would imply that grading is bogus and so is much of what we do in English classes. I didn’t have time to offer a nuanced explanation of what makes good writing good, so I wrote to him later that night. He didn’t reply to this e-mail.
I was thinking about our conversation and realized that I have more to say about the issues of subjectivity and skill in writing. As you observed, there is an element of subjectivity in judging what’s good writing and what isn’t. But it’s also worth noting that dominant opinions change over time—a lot of the writing from the 18th and 19th Century, for example, was considered “good” if it contained long sentences with balanced, nested clauses. Such stylistic preferences are one reason why a lot of contemporary students have trouble reading such material today, because most of us value variety in sentence structure and value less complexity, overall, in sentence structure. This is normally the place where I could go off on a rant about Facebook and cell phones and texting speak and how the kids these days are going to hell, but I’ll avoid that because it doesn’t appear true overall and certainly isn’t true regarding writing. The overall trend, including among professional writers writing for other expert writers, has been towards simpler structures and informality, which probably tells you a lot about the culture as a whole.
That being said, if you want to write a paper full of long, windy clauses and abstruse classical allusions, I’m not going to stop or penalize you and may even reward you; as long as the content is strong, I’m willing to roll with somewhat unusual stylistic quirks. I’m fairly pluralistic in my view of language use.
So how do you figure out what good writing is? You practice, you read, you think about it, you practice some more, like you would if you were learning to play a guitar. I’ve never heard guitar instructors say that their students say all music is subjective; playing the guitar appears to be transparently hard, in the sense that you know you’re bad at it, in a way that writing isn’t. Still, if you’d like to know a lot more about good writing, take a look at Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s ıHow Fiction Works, and Jan Venolia’s Write Right! When you’re done with those, move on to B. R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto. When you’re done with that, move on to the New York Times’ series Writers on Writing. Collectively, these books will teach you that every word counts and every word choice says something about the writer and the thing the writer is conveying, or trying to convey. Not only that, but every word changes, slightly, the meaning of every word around it. Good writers learn to automatically, subconsciously ask themselves, “Does this word work? Why? Why not? How should I change it? What am I trying to convey here?”
Eventually, over time, skilled writers and thinkers internalize these and other ideas, and their conscious mind moves to other issues, much like a basketball player’s shot happens via muscle memory after it’s been practiced and tweaked over 100,000 repetitions.
In addition, skilled writers are almost always skilled readers, so they have a fairly large, subconscious stock of built-in phrases, ideas, and concepts. Somewhere along the line I’ve read a fair amount about how athletes practice and how athletes become good (perhaps some of that material came from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience). I know how important practice and repetition are to any skill-based human endeavor. So I combined the idea of skill with writing and skill in basketball, since many students are more familiar with sports than with writing. Where did that analogy come from? I don’t know, exactly, but it’s there now, along with the idea that analogies are good, and explaining what I’m doing is good, and so are many other things.
To return to the athletic analogy, skill in sports also has a subjective element. Is Lebron James now better than Michael Jordan was when Jordan ruled? You can have this argument with morons in bars all day long. I’ve heard it and find it particularly tedious because the outcome is so unimportant. But both players are very clearly good, and at the top of their peers in their respective eras. The comparison at least makes sense.
One could also argue about whether Elmore Leonard or Alain de Botton is the better writer, although I would argue that they’re too different to make that a fruitful comparison; Elmore Leonard would be better matched against someone like Raymond Chandler or Patricia Highsmith. But Leonard and de Botton are both fantastically better writers than most freshmen; for one thing, most freshmen haven’t yet mastered the mechanical parts of writing, like how to use commas consistently and correctly if they wish to, let alone higher questions about vocabulary, metaphor, and so on.
If you really want to get better, spend a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking about those activities. Then look back at your earlier work and judge its quality for yourself. Very few students think the first draft of their first paper is as good as the final draft, and I tend to agree.
With regard to thesis statements, good ones tend to have some aspect of how a text (I hate the term “text,” but it fits here) shows something (“Free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft. . .'”), what a text shows, usually symbolically (“is used to demonstrate how Paula and Jason, despite being a couple, really disdain each other”) and have some larger point to make (“which shows that what people think and how people behave don’t always match”). That’s not a great thesis statement because I’m doing it quickly and freeform, but a better one might say something like, “The use of free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ demonstrates that Paula is actually soft, despite her repeated claims to the contrary, and that Jason and Paula’s mutual loathing sustains their relationship, despite what they say.” That’s still not the sort of thesis statement I’d use to write a publishable academic paper, but it’s closer. Many if not most student papers are missing one of those elements. Not every thesis needs all three, but they’re not bad ideas to check for.
Over time and with experience, I’ve developed, and you’ll develop, a fairly good eye for thesis statements. Eventually, when you’re sufficiently practiced, you won’t necessarily use explicit thesis statements—your thesis will be implied in your writing. Neal Stephenson doesn’t really have an explicit thesis statement in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” although his last line may function as one, and Roland Barthes definitely doesn’t have an explicit one in “The Brain of Einstein.” Thesis statements aren’t necessarily appropriate to all genres, all the time.
When I started teaching, I actually thought I was going to be a revolutionary and not teach thesis statements at all. I wrote about that experience here. The experiment didn’t work. Most undergrads need thesis statements. So I started teaching them, and student papers got better and more focused, and I’ve been doing so ever since.
Your question or questions are about the inherent challenges of writing, and those don’t have easily summarized answers. The problem also comes from language. Language itself is imprecise, or, alternately, layered with meaning; that’s where so much humor and misunderstanding comes from (and humor could be considered a kind of deliberate misunderstanding). I’ve read about how, when computer scientists tried to start making translation systems and natural-language processing systems, they ran into the ambiguity problem—and that problem still hasn’t been fully solved, as anyone who’s tried to use text-to-speech software, or Google translate, can easily find (I wish I could find any citations or discussions regarding this issue; if you happen to run across any, send them over).
This line of questioning also leads into issues of semiotics—how signs, signaling, and reception function—and the degree of specificity necessary to be good. Trying to specify every part of good writing is like trying to specify every aspect of good writing: you get something like McDonald’s. While McDonald’s does a lot of business, I wouldn’t want to eat there, and it’s pretty obvious that something is lost is the process (Joel Spolsky’s article “Big Macs vs. the Naked Chef” (sfw) also uses McDonald’s as a cautionary tale, this time for software developers; you should definitely read it).
Actually, I’m going to interrupt this essay to quote from Joel:
The secret of Big Macs is that they’re not very good, but every one is not very good in exactly the same way. If you’re willing to live with not-very-goodness, you can have a Big Mac with absolutely no chance of being surprised in the slightest.
Bad high school teachers often try to get students to write essays that are not very good in exactly the same way. I’m trying to get students, and myself, to write essays that are good and that a human might actually want to read. This basically guarantees that different students are going to approach the problem space in different ways, some more successfully than others, and different essays are going to be good in different ways. I’m trying to get students to think about the process and, more broadly, to think not just about the solutions, but about the domain; how you conceptualize the problem domain will change what you perceive as the solution. That being said, if you ever find yourself in front of 20 or 30 novice writers, you’ll quickly see that some are much better than others, even if there’s much wiggle room between a C and C+.
I don’t get the sense that students who are unhappy with their grades are unhappy out of a deeply felt and considered sense of aesthetic disagreement about fundamental literary or philosophical principles. I suspect I feel this way partially because I actually have a fairly wide range of what I would consider “good” writing, or at least writing good enough to get through undergrad English classes, and someone with sufficient sophistication and knowledge to make a good argument about aesthetics or the philosophy of writing would be very unlikely to get a sufficiently low mark to want to argue about it. Rather, I think most students who are unhappy about their grades just want better grades, without doing the thinking and writing necessary to get them.
These issues are compounded by the a meta-issue: many if not most K – 12 English (and other humanities) teachers are bad. And many of them aren’t that smart or knowledgeable (which tends to overlap with “bad”). So a lot of students—especially those on the brighter side—inchoately know that their teachers are bad, and that something stinks, and therefore they conclude that English is bogus anyway, as are related fields. This has a lot of unfortunate consequences on both the individual and societal level; books like C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures are one manifestation of this larger problem.
In general, I would like for people to try and get along, see each other’s points of view, and be tolerant—not only in fields like religion and politics, but also things like the humanities / sciences, or reason / emotion, or any number of the other possibly false binaries that people love to draw for reasons of convenience.
Finally, at least on this topic, it’s worth noting that, if you think I’m completely wrong about what makes good writing (and what makes writing good), you have a huge world out there and can judge the reaction to your writing. Twilight and The Da Vinci Code are poorly written novels, yet millions of people have read and enjoyed them—many fewer than have read Straight Man, one of my favorite novels and one that’s vastly better written. Who’s right: the millions of teenage girls who think they’re in love with the stilted, wooden prose that makes up Edward, or me, who sees the humor in a petulant English department? It depends on what you mean by “right.” If I were a literary agent or editor, I would’ve passed on both Twilight and The Da Vinci Code. Definitions of “good” are uncertain, and the ones I embrace and impose on students are worth questioning. If you can at least understand where I’m coming from and why I hold the views I do, however, I’ll consider my work a relative success.
Most people also have different definitions of “good” at different points in their lives; I’m in my 20s and view writing very differently than I did in my teens. I would be surprised if I view writing the same way in my 40s. One major change is that I’ve done so much reading, and probably will do so much reading. Someone who doesn’t read very much, or doesn’t challenge themselves when they do read, may find that their standards don’t change as much either. I could write much more on this point alone, but for the most part you’ll have to trust me: your tastes will probably change.
This email is a long way of saying, “I’m not trying to bullshit you, but the problem domain itself is hard, and that domain is not easy to explain, without even getting into its solution.”
The short version of this email is “trust me,” or, alternatively, spend the next ten years of your life pondering and contemplating these issues while reading about them, and then you’ll have a pretty good grasp of what good writing means. Writing is one of these 10,000 hour skills in that it probably takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to get good. Start now and you’ll be better in a couple years.