What makes good writing?
In Spring 2016, I was an Editorial Intern at GRANTA Magazine for two months. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the world of publishing, and to develop some crucial editorial skills. I long-listed books for an international award, edited pieces, copy-edited, proof-read, poured over the archive, found images to accompany pieces, made my way through the slush pile and jostled with social media accounts.
One the key questions provoking me during this time was, what makes good writing? Is it something you can spot, instinctively? When I read a short story submission, I usually knew from the first page, perhaps even the first paragraph, whether this was a good piece or not. Yes, it has to do with an engaging plot, intriguing characters, a polished style, unique features, but there’s something more. There’s a flavour that you can’t put your finger on. It’s that magic element that makes you keep reading, even though you’ve finished writing the reader’s report on the book. It’s that secret ingredient that makes you sit up a little and read faster even though you’re falling asleep.
When in doubt over whether to decline a submission or pass it on, one of the editorial assistants told me to ask myself: does it make you orgasm? If you’re having an orgasm, and you have to ask yourself because you’re not sure—am I having an orgasm?—then no, you’re not. If you have to ask, if you have to think about it, it’s a no. And of course, she was right: it’s the same in writing; particularly when you’re reading a lot of submissions. If you have to ask yourself: is this good? Then, no, it’s probably not.
Since completing my internship, I’m back to writing my doctoral thesis. The slow, isolating task of piecing together multi-stranded ideas on music and temporality, pouring over evidence and literature, and somehow making it all make sense as a coherent whole, an 80,000-100,000 word thesis. I’ve been trying to approach my own writing with a similar approach that I had to the slush pile or editing a piece for publication: does this introduction, this page, this chapter have that magic element? Is it good? If not, why not; what can you change and is it salvageable?
What do you think makes good writing? Is it something that can be worked on, or is it a magic talent that can’t be taught?