What is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing?

According to renowned writers - and ChatGPT

What is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing?
I was thinking about this question recently, as I was pondering what makes writing good or… not so good. (Alas, the sensitive soul in me has a hard time calling anyone’s writing inherently ‘bad’). I recall a conversation I had last year with a writer friend; she is signed to a traditional publishing house and had a couple of books in the works, including one particularly close to her heart. She said something along the lines of: “Ah, I just don’t want it to be bad you know.” She went on to say that you could tell when a piece of writing was bad, and also that her Dad was very honest about what he thought about her writing. (i.e. if it was bad, he’d let her know about it - and that she’d want to know, too. Hmm. Part of me thought that being in and around the literary world, you can’t help but compare yourself to everyone else. To a large degree, writing is subjective and so two people could read the same article or book and one might think “Wow, that was amazing!”, and the other “That was terrible… Really bad”. The same piece of writing, two completely opposing views. Hmmm. And yet, most of can re-collect a piece of writing or a book we’ve read that’s just been… not good. So all this got me to thinking… What makes writing “good” or “bad”?! I typed that exact query into Google and ChatGPT* to see what it brought up. (*the novelty will soon wear off, but every now and again I find myself typing in things to ChatGPT and seeing what weird and wonderful answers it gives). ChatGPT rattled off things like ‘clarity and coherence’, ‘structure and organisation’, ‘audience awareness’. Okay, makes sense… I was keen to look a bit further under the surface, though, and I found an article sharing quotes from 10 writers and editors on what they considered the differences between good and bad writers. This brought up some more interesting stuff - "You know what, it is so funny. A good writer will always find it very hard to fill a single page. A bad writer will always find it easy." - Aubrey Kalitera "A bad writer is a writer who always says more than he thinks. A good writer — and here we must be careful if we wish to arrive at any real insight — is a writer who does not say more than he thinks." - Walter Benjamin “The difference between a good and a bad writer is shown by the order of his words as much as by the selection of them." - Marcus Tullius Cicero "Competent writers always examine what they have put down. Better-than-competent writers — good writers — examine their effects before they put them down: They think that way all the time. Bad writers never examine anything." - Clive James And so on… Again, fair enough. These are all valid opinions on good vs bad writing. Indeed, they are exactly that; opinions, albeit by folks with some sort of reputation. So, really, it seems that there really is no clearcut definition of good and bad writing after all. A little disappointingly, I find myself back at square one and none the wise. But if I were to take something out of all this, it would be as follows:
  • Wherever you are as a writer currently, you have the potential to ‘learn the craft’ and be better
  • If there was a set formula for ‘good writing’, we would continue to see the same style of writing again and again, and that would be pretty boring (arguably, this can’t be avoided; X publisher will publish X number of authors, who will each have a certain editor, and so forth)
  • The way to truly be a “good writer” is to find your writing voice. This is an ongoing journey that happens by the process of writing. It can be difficult to notice, but this is one of the advantages of writing to a blog with any sort of regularity. You’ll notice your writing style change over time. If you don’t publish your writing anywhere, just know that by engaging with the practice of writing, you will only develop your writing voice.
If a teacher or someone in a writing group has been critical of your writing, remember that this is one person’s opinion. I’ve read more books than I can count, and I’m yet to find a book with a perfect set of reviews. There are always one or two that are less supportive, sometimes even downright admonishing of what they’ve just read. Aspire to be the best writer you can be, read books about writing, let yourself take writing classes, but don’t get too obsessed with what’s “good” and what’s “bad” writing. If you over-think it, you’ll cut out your own unique, original writing voice. It’s that which would be a bad shame. A terrible shame. I know it’s easier said than done, but as writers it’s important for us to simply show up and write. Rather than focus on how “good” or “bad” your writing might be, let yourself focus on the process and practice that comes with putting words on paper or screen. It’s called a writing ‘practice’ for a reason, after all. In the meantime, ChatGPT also assured me that it won’t kill creativity(!): ”While AI can assist and augment the creative process, it is ultimately up to the individual to harness their imagination, unique perspectives, and personal experiences to create truly original and meaningful work. AI is a tool to support creativity, but the responsibility for cultivating and nurturing it lies with the human creators themselves.” Interestingly, I think this can also be applied to the question of good vs bad writing. i.e. What’s more important is to focus on “just our own imagination, unique perspectives, and personal experiences”. An encouraging thought from a robot!