Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business. Just don't call it a blog...



The definition of good writing

June 2014

The novelist and creative writing lecturer, Hanif Kureishi, caused a media flurry (which is like a media storm only it dies out sooner due to lack of hot air) earlier this year when he suggested that creative writing courses were a waste of time and it was impossible to teach non-writers how to write. I'm paraphrasing but that was the gist.

Was he right? I'll answer that question later but it begs another: how do you tell? Who decides whether a piece of writing is good or not?

You might think that's like asking how long is a piece of string, but you can measure string with a ruler or tape measure. How do you measure good writing? Certainly not by its length, though anyone who can spin a yarn past 100,000 words deserves at least some respect.

Creative writing lecturers might, in their classrooms, talk about structure and characterisation, plot development and scene description, but that's like saying you need brushes to paint a picture. It's true up to a point but it offers no guarantee of the end result and it ignores the significant and gifted minority who eschew such tools entirely because they can get right inside their readers' heads: Terry Pratchett didn't even bother with chapters and Iain M. Banks built worlds his readers could barely comprehend. Kureishi did point this out in his criticism, with admirably frank language that I won't repeat here.

An editor might traditionally ask of a novelist's work, "Does it have too many adjectives in it?" But if the target market is aspiring pseudo-intellectuals who want to feel clever (a rich seam) then a more appropriate question today might be, "Can you put some more adjectives in it?"

Good writing comes from experience, emotion, empathy and probably lots of other things beginning with 'e'. Like any other art form - music, sculpture, theatre - the judgement of quality is subjective. It has to be by definition, since we have no tool outside of the human mind by which to measure it. There is no gold standard of writing, no agreed measure of textual value, no SI unit of prose, because writing is still more art than science and will remain so until we've delved much further into the workings of the brain.

Which gives us our answer, unpalatable though it may be to some: good writing is writing that the target audience wants to read. Nothing more, nothing less. And it's just as true of business writing as it is of creative writing. Your business prose may be packed full of product information but if you get the tone wrong or misread the requirements of your target audience, it will languish on the page, unread, in all its structural perfection. You'll have ticked all the boxes but one: the most important one.

So be wary of judging the reading material of others. If you're peering down your nose at the paucity of vocabulary, or sneering at the use of a dozen complex words where three would suffice, you're missing the point. All you need to ask is: who is it for and are they reading it? If the answer to the second question is "yes" then it's good writing. Any other conclusion is born of the belief that one person's subjective opinion is more valid than another's, and can be safely ignored. You might not like the fact that a particular author uses low-brow terminology and poor sentence structure, but if he or she has sold several million books, you're the one who's wrong.

I know. It hurts.

But can good writing be taught? I think it can. Others have commented that good training can turn a bad writer into an average one or an average writer into a good one, but never a good writer into a great one. That's a defeatist attitude.

In most forms of art, talent can give someone a head-start but is only part of the story. A moderately capable piano player will, with good tuition and plenty of practice, out-perform a talented pianist who doesn't put in as much effort. Writing is no different. Writing can be taught, as long as the teacher knows what he or she is doing and the pupil is willing to learn.

Again, this is just as true of business writing. The hand-scribbled business plan I wrote for Ministry of Prose in September 2013 on the back of a petrol station receipt includes the words "Writing training??"

I'll be putting that part of the plan into effect later this year. If you'd like to know more, get in touch.

Alex Cruickshank is CEO and Chief Wordsmith at Ministry of Prose and likes to get inside people's heads.

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