Does Good Writing Matter?

By Mark Nichol

The question in the headline for this post is the heading of an online survey I came across recently. I’ve reproduced the survey questions below and answered them based on my own opinions. Complete the survey yourself, and then compare your responses with mine.

1. Do you judge other people based on their writing?
Yes, and although I know that mitigating factors such as dyslexia and poor education exist, resulting in writing that inaccurately reflects a person’s intelligence or expertise, I naturally trust people more to provide valid, accurate information if they can express themselves well in writing.

2. What bothers you most about how others write?
The response choices are “grammar and punctuation (e.g., subject/verb agreement, misplaced commas),” “word use (e.g., they’re, their, there),” “long, difficult sentences,” “vague purpose,” and “poor logic.” This list, in my opinion, refers to errors in reverse order of significance. Faulty logic is the primary obstacle to effective expression, followed closely by vagueness of purpose. Rambling sentences are, by comparison, merely an annoyance, as are incorrect usage, grammar, and punctuation.

3. Have you seen an example of bad writing in the last week?
Yes — rarely a day goes by that I don’t see poor writing. And that’s not because I actively seek it out for the purposes of these posts; leisure or informative reading is often marred by clumsy prose.

4. Where did you see it?
The choices are “email,” “website,” “newspaper/magazine,” and “other.” My response is, all of the preceding. Isolated errors in print and online publications are endemic and almost impossible to avoid (I make mistakes myself, on occasion), but sustained poor writing is also ubiquitous.

5. Do you apply the same writing standards to social media?
Besides yes or no as response choices, the survey allows for making exceptions for Twitter and Facebook. I don’t use either product — or any social media besides email and this blog — but I do apply the same writing standards to any writing. I write informally when doing so is appropriate, but I never use text-speak or any other shortcuts, in social writing as well as in professional writing, though I forgive them in the off-the-clock writing of others.

6. Do you correct the writer when you see a mistake?
When I taught copyediting, students occasionally expressed their unease at sending emails to me because they were concerned that they would make an error. My gleeful responses to such correspondence were generally along the lines of, “Actually, you made four errors,” followed by details about each. I’ve done the same thing to a few unfortunate Daily Writing Tips readers as well, but I don’t send unsolicited corrections to anyone.

7. Why or why not?
During my editing career, I’ve been privy to many such messages. Often, someone will write something like “You made a mistake in such-and-such an article. Doesn’t anyone check your publication? You should hire me as a proofreader.”

I would never hire such a person, unless the message were charmingly tongue-in-cheek, because people who write those types of notes with a straight face, by doing so, demonstrate their lack of understanding about the editorial process: Despite the best efforts toward rigor and accuracy, even the best writers and editors occasionally make mistakes, and even the most careful production procedure can break down. That person’s presence is unlikely to fundamentally alter the vagaries of human endeavor.

8. What is your personal pet peeve?
I think the error that irks me more than any other is Gratuitous Capitalization of Words.

9. People often report “rules” that are not, in fact, rules. Also, rules do gradually change, and some people insist on rules that some authorities have relaxed. Which of the following rules do you still follow?
The choices are “Never begin a sentence with because,” “Never end a sentence with a preposition,” “Never split an infinitive,” and “The word they must always refer to a plural, never a single person or thing.”

The rule about because must distinguish between two usages: in an incomplete sentence (“Because I want to”), which is appropriate only in informal nonfiction and in dialogue, and in a complete sentence (“Because I want to go there, I’m saving money for a ticket”), which is unexceptionable. I discuss the first fallaciousness of the second and third proscriptions in this post, and I explain my qualified support for the singular they in this post.

10. Would you like to add a question to a future version of this survey? If so, what is it? Include the answer options.
My question is, “How do you determine what constitutes good writing?”

My response is that I study writing and editing resources and try to adhere to universal standards; I also choose between alternative precepts on the rare occasions when opinions differ, using my judgment — or, more rarely, I break the rules if doing so seems pertinent (or impertinent, as the case may be). I also observe and strive to emulate the habits of good writers.

Please include your own suggested question as a comment to this post.

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17 Responses to “Does Good Writing Matter?”

  • Sarah H

    Can you judge ethnic background based on writing?
    I believe you can. In some countries, particularly Asian countries, formal English is the language of instruction. Those who graduate from this system are often well grounded in grammar rules and sentence structure and avoid slang and less structured writing. Their writing and speech uses words we have long discarded but which are perfectly accurate. Those who are from less developed countries (with the exception of the elite class) may have learned their English from non-native speakers. It is likely that their written and spoken English will be less structured, and there will be some imaginative new words used. These words may be a variation of a word they have heard but are unclear of the meaning, or a made-up word composed of their native language and English. Grammar rules are different from language to language; some have verbs first, whilst English tends to put nouns first. Some languages, French, Spanish, and Arabic as examples, have genders for words, leaving some struggle to assign the proper article to our genderless language. Understanding the writer’s origins often leads to insights into the writing.

  • William S Stokes

    Good morning!
    In response to today’s column, #3: we see – and mark – errors in writing found in our Leesburg (FL) Daily Commercial: errors in spelling tense, syntax and just plain too-much-of-a-hurry.

    And yes, I’ve offered my freelancing self as a proofreader, with clips showing proof of need. No response, of course.

    Our other daily subscription, the Orlando (FL) Sentinel, is far more careful in its editing, but the Daily Commecial is our comic relief. The crosswords are easier, but the comics are fairly well duplicated.

    I am now enjoying a modest success in national consumer niche publications, having exhausted the local “style” magazines due to failures, buyouts, etc.

    I recently brought a feature editor’s typos to her attention directly and received a scathing letter from her managing editor to the effect I should write to HIM directly. But I note, from perusing the monthly (freebie glossy magazine off a rack) that she currently is more correct in her use of English. Mission accomplished, I guess.

    WSS, Lady Lake, FL 32159.

  • Ivan Broes

    I have fought my dyslexic handicap to frame myself, and have seen that good readers are those people who can see beyond the flaws of writing, while other character seeking flaws have the need to elevate their own insecurity … it is easier to criticize a work, than be creative!

  • Carrie

    Mark,

    Will you marry me? I’d like to kiss your face! Thank you for the daily tips. I tell my friends you’re my grammar soulmate. That’s what I like to believe anyway! I’m kidding!!!! I agree 100% with your answers to the survey. I hope I gave you a little chuckle today, at least. Have a good one!

    Carrie

  • Dick Dennis

    Fresh Eyes
    You know as well as I, Mark, that if you want to eliminate typos and error-prone grammar, you have to put your copy down after completing it . . . and look at it again the next day. We are all guilty of writing typos because of our impatience.

    So, when I offer my services as a proofreader or copy editor (I have never offered it to you or your site), I offer to do it for someone who is impatient . . . and for someone who fancies him/herself a writer. Trouble is, those kind of writers don’t know they are error-prone writers, so it is indeed futile to offer your services. Be well.

  • Mrs. Yeltatzie

    I find my writing is full of errors when the light of the Daily Writing Tips exposes them. My main problem is that I expect people to be able to read my mind, if not my writing. Is that asking too much?

    I was reading the above post and I admit I do not understand the answer to the first question.

    “Yes, and although I know that mitigating factors such as dyslexia and poor education exist, resulting in writing that inaccurately reflects a person’s intelligence or expertise, I naturally trust people more to provide valid, accurate information if they can express themselves well in writing.”

    It seems that this sentence may qualify for a long, rambling sentence. It also could be that I have such a short attention span I can hold the sentence together in a way that forms a clear thought in my wee brain.

    Do you think you conveyed your answer clearly?

  • Katherine

    Great post. I love reading your take on writing and other people’s use of it. I too cannot help but mentally edit things when I come across spelling mistakes or blatantly poor grammar. I suppose it enforces my belief that good writing DOES make a difference.

    (Sorry for the capitalization, but I wanted the emphasis and I had to poke a little)

  • JT

    I have always been a stickler for good writing, although I haven’t read much in my lifetime. I’ve read about five books, ever, but I can recall being irratated whenever I came across blatant errors in text books. The casual mistakes I can forgive, but professionally published works I cannot.

  • Obed Berdella

    Quite interesting!
    Of course it matters. If we’re middle or well educated persons, and write includding some mistakes that correspond to a lower level, it’s a shame, but we can and should better this condition. That’s the reason why this post was created for, wasn’t it?

  • BV Sekoto

    I am deeply impressed by these articles. Certainly, good writing does cut the cheese; consider benefits of writing impressive business proposals, e-books, business reports, etc. Wow!!

  • Mary Mencin

    Good writing matters because it has the power to teach the reader the logic of thought processes so lacking in today’s educational culture. Good writing is a natural extension of the innate intellegence of the human mind.

  • dragonwielder

    I suppose the question I’d add would be a follow-up to #9:
    “How do you view changing or relaxed language rules?”

    Possible multiple choice answers could be along the lines of “I view them positively” (meaning, I have no problem with the rules being changed or relaxed), “neutral”, “negatively”, “undecided”, “I’m okay with some rules changing but not others”.

    My answer to the question is that in general, I like changing/relaxed language rules – especially singular “they”. This is probably from my time studying linguistics in undergrad, where I learned about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism and various rules that reflect those practices. Many of the rules people argue about are prescriptivist and often related to style, so for those I say figure out your preference and be consistent – but know that those rules may not necessarily reflect how English works.

    (American writers – please excuse my punctuation choices! Sometimes I find it’s easier for me to follow British punctuation style while typing.)

  • Dale A. Wood

    I believe that the failure to advise people against glaring errors in grammar, spelling, etc., or getting nasty answers in response to that, falls under the same heading as this:

    You notice that someone’s house is on fire.
    You knock on the door, and you tell the person who opens the door, “Your house is on fire.”
    Then you get the immediate response, “Listen, you S.O.B., when I want your help, I will ask for it.”
    —————————————————————–
    To me, it is clear that the answer in either case should be,
    “Thank you for letting me know, and I will do something about it immediately!”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I am glad to read today that nobody so far has complained about my attitude that notably poor writing, and the toleration of it, is a symptom of the collapse of our whole civilization.

    I am convinced that good writing and good speech are both things that “glue” everything together in our civilization. Lacking that, we might as well be cavemen and cavewomen.

    I understand that there are millions of people who do not see it this way at all, and they do not give a hoot about clear communication.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In case you are interested, please see how many arrant errors you can find in this two-sentence blurb that I copied from the Internet this morning:

    “So you know, the time between us shooting a new pictorial, and it being published has seriously diminished. I’m guessing you’ll get to see this set in it’s entirety in May.”

    Hint: There are severe problems in the use of participles and in the use of the pronoun “it”. There are other significant errors, too.

    These might not lead to the collapse of our entire civilization, but when you multiply them by 100,000, they do lead us in that direction.
    D.A.W.

  • D. Willett

    My personal peeve, I find it everywhere, in newspapers, mags, movies, books, in the news, TV, – literally everywhere:

    “Oh my, he has broken his leg.”
    “Look, she has shattered her arm.”
    “The poor child. He has broken his shoulder.”

    When in fact, the truth is none of that is true. It is just as easy to write, or say it correctly:

    “On my, his leg has been broken.”
    “look, her arm has been shattered.”
    “The poor child. His shoulder has been broken.”

    How in the world can anyone injure themselves the way they are written or reported to have?

    Why have people gotten so lazy about this?

  • Marc Mitchell

    I have an absolute passion for English grammar, spelling, punctuation and, in particular, its abuse by people who ought to know better.

    I must confess that I , too, judge people by the way they write and I’m not really sure that it’s right to blame the writer because it seems, these days, that the ‘correctness’ of English is no longer considered important by the majority of people. I could ramble on with this subject for hours but I’ll restrict my anecdotal milestones to this example of those for whom simple but obvious incompetence is unforgivable …

    Some years ago, I regularly bought a world famous HEALTH magazine for MEN and found it excellent reading and great entertainment. However, one issue, in particular, made my blood boil and it was because the main banner emblazoned on the front cover was ‘WHY WOMEN LIVE LONGER THAN US’. If I were listening to the general chatter in my local pub (I’m British), I wouldn’t have been surprised but the abuse of our language in such a slovenly, lazy and disrespectful way by journalists who, let’s make no mistake, use the English language as the tool of their trade on a continual basis, saddened me more than I can say. What’s more, there was plenty of room to write it correctly by using the words ‘WE DO’.

    I wrote a letter to the magazine (the only time in my life) to remind them all that it is upon them whom we English junkies depend to set an example to the rest of the world and to express my utter disgust in both the journalist and the editorial staff, all of whom must have read this banner countless times.

    I got no reply. Nor did I ever buy the magazine again.

    Power to this website; it is a Godsend!

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