That’s the thing people ask me when I tell them I’m studying Creative Writing. Heck, that’s what people ask Arts kids all the time. After all, writing is “subjective.” Just because someone didn’t like your story, doesn’t mean it’s bad. But of course, we then run into a problem: how do we “grade” these stories, in an academic setting? Or, how do we decide what to publish, in a professional setting?
During my first year of undergrad, I took an immensely helpful creative writing course that shed some light on this question. Now, of course, everyone has their own standards (as we can see by the polarizing effect of books like Twilight), so I will try to tread carefully in this post.
I don’t think there is such thing as “good” and “bad” writing. However, I do think there’s such a thing as “good” and “better” writing. The first thing I noticed when I showed my first piece of university writing to a TA, was that she used the words “strong” and “weak” instead of “good” and “bad.” As in: “this sentence is strong” not “this sentence is good.” In other words, there’s not a “wrong” way to say something, but there are good ways and better ways. A very simple example:
I feel on top of the world today.
Better: I have such a heightened mood today, it’s like I ran 80 stories up a skyscraper and had enough breath left over to scream at the top: “I LOVE YOU, WORLD!”
The first sentence isn’t wrong. It gets the point across: you’re happy. But it’s a cliche, and it’s not specific. I know you’re happy, so what? A thousand other people are in a similar mood right now; what makes me want to pay attention to your happiness especially? The second sentence, though, provides a unique perspective. Not only does it relay to me the fact that you’re ecstatic, it tells me the degree of your ectactic-ness, plus it shows little bit of your quirky character. Hence, the first sentence is good, and the second sentence is better. (Of course, how good this sentence is is debatable, seeing as I made it up in 10 seconds and never went back).
The person most instrumental in judging your work as good or better will be your reader. Hey, some readers like cliches, and readers will be readers. But in general, I think there is a sort of minimal “standard” people can live by. Simply by sitting down with your piece and asking yourself: “is this really what I want to say? Have I addressed the point adequately?” should make your piece better.
And slowing down and mulling things over will make a huge difference. I’ve been in workshop situations where someone (from another faculty obviously taking creative writing for the arts credit or whatever) turned in something they word-vomitted 2a.m. the night before. If you don’t work hard on something, if you don’t care about it, it shows.
So I guess my parting advice is: work hard. Don’t necessarily pursue academia’s definition of A+, but do pursue your definition of excellence. Then again, whose to say I have the right to give advice?
What is your definition of “good writing”? Would love to hear everyone’s thoughts.