What Makes a Good Writer

by frankbeswick

There is no magic to good or great writing, but there is much hard work.

I think that everyone who writes for Wizzley would love to be a great writer, and we have among us some really good ones.But none of us is perfect, for there is always some way in which our articles could have been better. In this article I want to reflect on what good writing involves, and it seems that there is no magic dust that we can sprinkle to make our writing better.Good writing is not an achievement reserved for an elite, for it is in the reach of most people.

Photo courtesy of Juulijs

Some Examples

The Catholic Herald recently published a book review of Dictator Literature by Daniel Kalder, which spoke of "..the tedium and horror of dictators' prose. The review by Ed West speaks of Lenin's aggressively tedious prose that was full of hatred and bitterness. West points out that Stalin fared a little better, having some natural talent, but that Mussolini was a goodish journalist, but no fiction writer. But it also claims that Mussolini was an obsessive anti-theist, firing rhetorical firecrackers at a series of straw men, which shows that is work did not rise above the level of mere propaganda. The book reserves its most critical language for the arch-monster Hitler,   whose combination of an ignorant mind and a monstrous ego gave us the appallingly bad Mein Kampf, the work of one too arrogant to acquire either literary skill or wisdom. 

What can we learn from Dictator Literature? Kalder wants to map the devastating wastelands of the human spirit while exploring the terrible things that happen when you put writers in charge. While there is some truth in the concern that no single occupation group can be trusted with ultimate power,mention of Czechoslovakia's president Vaclav Havel is a useful counter-example to Kalder's pessimistic claim, for Havel was a writer who turned into a successful and respected president. But the devastating wastelands of the human spirit that were expressed as these dictators' policies were the source of these dictators' turgid and generally unattractive writings.writing. Ugly policies came from ugly ideas, which were reflected in ugly prose, but the reality was  worse than the literature. Mein Kampf  was bad, but it would be worse to meet the SS in the flesh; and having once met a man who had seen and listened to Hitler, I was assured that it was not a pleasant experience, which led the man to get away as fast possible. 

The key idea is that what we write is the expression of our minds. It is our individuality in words. We express ourselves in what we write. So the first step in good writing is that we should begin with our own minds, cultivating them and being determined to improve them. Without cultivation of the inner life of the mind no one can be a good writer, and it is a lifelong process.  Within our own minds we must endeavour to realize the True, the Good and the Beautiful good qualities that these tyrants did not  make real in their lives, quite the opposite in fact. 

All writers must strive to express in words the great trinity of values: the True, the Good and the Beautiful. We might do this in a simple way by writing about interesting recipes,but we might be profound in our analysis of the gospels, but as long as we realize through our writing in some limited way these three values we are on the right path, for we are giving readers' sparkles from the sun of truth, goodness and beauty.   

 Catholic Herald July 26th 2018,Ed West. 

Nourishing Your Mind

Nourishing the mind comes via reading and reflection.When we read we absorb the author's ideas and language, and we are subtly, sometimes substantially changed by what we have read.  But reading needs to be accompanied by thinking, for there is no point in reading unless we think about what we have read. This active engagement with the written word requires digesting what we have encountered during our reading. We also need to have read in the genre and subject  in which we are writing, and there is no point, for example, in trying to write a novel unless one reads novels. I recall once visiting a second hand bookshop to buy a book on religion. A customer there had a stack of paperback novels and the very pleased owner asked him did he read a lot. The customer answered, " I write novels. I am reading these for ideas." This reminds me of John Rowe Townsend, who wrote the children' story, The Islanders. To do the research for his novel he  read seventy books on islands, before focusing on the ideas from two. 

Writers need strong interests that fill their minds and about which they think. Note that I write on a limited range of subjects [religion, walking, gardening and occasionally politics] for these are what I think most about. You will never find me writing about fashion or golf, to subjects in which I am totally disinterested. When Veronica came to Wizzley I advised her to find a specialist niche, which she has done.  

Nourishing our minds means acknowledging our errors and correcting them. Sometimes we can identify the  errors ourselves, but at other times we need to be told by others. For example, when I was twenty two my college tutor criticized my writing style. I took aboard what he said and sought advice on how to improve it. I  hope that I have succeeded, well considering that this happened  forty six  years ago, if there has been no improvement in all that time I have problems. But we can and should be critical when we read our own work. We always have to be aware of typographical errors, but often the computer shows  these to us, but not always. Sometimes we can miss our own errors in speech or writing, so we need to be careful.  Doctor Johnson advised that we should never be satisfied with our own work and that if we feel content about a piece we should rip it up. I cannot recall where he said this, and it probably is an overstatement, but there is a kernel of truth hidden therein that self-satisfaction is the enemy of improvement as a writer.  

An Art Form.

Each of us has his or her own favoured form of artistic expression. Mine for sure is not the visual arts,for I am a poor visual artist.  But for me my art form is the written word, thus when I write I want my words to flow as well as possible. All writers should attempt to make their work a thing of beauty. If  someone tells me that beauty is subjective I will say "That's fine, but I will produce what satisfies me and hope that others like it."   

The aesthetic sensibility of a good writer involves a sensitivity to language,even to the details. This means that words should be carefully selected to create the maximum literary value.Just as great painters attended to the visual details of their work, so the verbal/literary details require just as much attention.    

I think it important that writers should be perfectionists. If we look over our work and find an error, we should endeavour to amend it. Being satisfied with errors in writing, however small, is not the mark of a good writer.  I have just gone over the first section of this article and made three improvements which I missed on earlier re-readings. That's the trouble , it is easy to miss your own errors. 

Of critical  importance to a writer is to be true to your beliefs. It is no coincidence that in Animal Farm Orwell shows that even less significant than the dishonest propagandist Squealer who lies for the dictator Napoleon another pig Minimus [Latin for the very least] the dishonest writer who produces false accounts  of Napoleon's excellence, also appears. For Orwell writing was a sacred task. Maximising the True, the Good and the Beautiful, even in accounts of small daily matters,  is essential to the writer's art

Updated: 07/25/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/06/2024

I do not know, but I hope that they had fun.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/06/2024

Thank you!

It's interesting that the audience and the delivery enter into it.

It makes me think of Brian May and Stephen Hawking doing all that publishing that made astronomy and cosmology less professional-jargoned and more household-worded.

(Might Dr. Hawking and Dr. May as six-year-olds have put space-fighter leadership ahead of classroom pencil-monitoring ;-D?)

frankbeswick on 03/06/2024

Very similar, but strangely academic skiĺs alone are not enough. You need a feel for what readers will enjoy and a feel for beautiful language.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/05/2024

Thank you!

A doctorate in religious education and a position as lecturer involve a lot of mentoring, publishing -- "publish or perish" among Unitedstatesian four-year-, four-year-plus university staff -- and teaching on the western side of the Atlantic pond.

Is that the same east-pond-ward?

frankbeswick on 05/06/2023


DerdriuMarriner on 05/05/2023

A doctorate in Religious Education merits a respected professorship in private and public colleges and universities on this, western-pond side.

What would have been the occupational range for you as Religious Education Ph.D.-holder? And which opportunity would you have chosen?

frankbeswick on 10/01/2019

My Ph.D would have been in Religious Education.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/30/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practical information, the product lines and the nourishingly beautiful, good, true tips.
It's interesting that you bring up Vaclav Havel, a fine writer whom President Kennedy perhaps would have been pleased to see heading the presidency of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and then of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). President Kennedy once suggested a finer world with poets as presidents and in politics.
What would your Ph.D. have been in?

frankbeswick on 11/29/2018

When I was twenty two my tutor told me that my style was wooden, so I worked on it. In my late twenties I began to venture into publication, with no success. So at 32 I decided to develop my mind by doing a master's degree. Only afterwards did I reject my tutor's willingness to put me forward for a Ph.D because I knew that it was time for me to write. Writing has been a long road requiring much commitment, but giving me great happiness. As I grow older [ I am sixty eight ] there are two sides of my life that I will never let retirement sweep away: writing and gardening.

dustytoes on 11/29/2018

Having begun blogging about 10 years ago, it is where I first began writing anything, and it was pretty bad. I have improved over the years, but I am still lacking in writing skills. It's not my favorite thing to do, but I do want to get better at it. Frank, you are an excellent writer! I always enjoy reading your articles. I've also begun reading novels recently and I do agree that reading is important for expanding ideas and skills. Writing on my piddly blogs is one way I practice.

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