Good Writing “A Matter of Opinion”?

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A reader asks what we think of the comment:

In many ways, good writing is a matter of opinion.

It’s not a question that has an easy answer.

Opinion is a slippery word.

So is good.

Some opinions are founded on facts, knowledge, and experience. Others are based on nothing better than whimsy, rebellion or ignorance.

I had a tenth-grade student who objected when I tried to get her to stop using “me” as the subject of a sentence. I suppose she felt that correct usage was “a matter of opinion.”

As for good writing, what exactly is meant by that?

Every piece of writing has a purpose. How well the writing achieves its purpose is what determines whether the writing is “good” or not.

Ever since Reynolds Tobacco defied correct usage with its slogan “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should” in the Fifties, non-standard English has become a hook on which to hang advertising messages aimed at young people who like to think of themselves as “cool” and defiant of convention.

Apple’s “Think Different!” is ungrammatical, but it succeeds as an advertising slogan. Is it “good writing? The advertising and accounting departments probably think it is.

What good writing is depends upon purpose and intended audience.

Unless there is some artistic or commercial reason for breaking the rules of standard usage, good writing is grammatically correct.

I wouldn’t fault a mystery writer or a blogger for exercising a more colloquial style than what I’d expect to find in a biography or a book about stamp collecting.

Flowers for Algernon, which takes the character Charlie from semi-literacy to educated writing and back again, is good writing which breaks the rules of standard English for artistic effect.

A news story riddled with misplaced modifiers and poor word choices– even if the reader can figure out what the story is about–is not good writing, not even if the writer has a degree in journalism.

Good writers produce good writing. A good writer knows the rules of the language and never breaks them unintentionally.

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24 thoughts on “Good Writing “A Matter of Opinion”?”

  1. What then are we to do with respected online publications with sub-par writing? How much complaining will we have to do before they do something about it?

  2. I’ve kind of been exploring this on my blog for the last few days–about following the rules or NOT–and how do you know when it’s a good idea. Because that’s exactly the POINT. Good writing isn’t necessarily “correct” writing, but being able to identify why, how, when it works requires experience or a good “ear.” You can get that by lots of reading and listening, but it’s not something you can really TEACH. And it’s something that can go really badly if you get it wrong (grin).

  3. Tarah,
    You do what good parents and teachers do when their charges don’t seem to be listening–you hang in there and say it again and again even when you feel that your efforts are futile. You do it because it’s important.

    Whenever you observe incorrect usage you write a brief, polite note pointing it out. You don’t ridicule or insult. You just say something like “I noticed such and such an error in such and such an article. I’m sure it was inadvertent since according to such and such a rule, it should be such and such. Hope this helps. Yours truly…”

    Intelligent writers and editors will appreciate your help. Dummies won’t. You just keep on keeping on!

  4. I was just thinking this when reading some poetry. I read what I felt was a trite, overdone poem, and then found out it was from a poet laureate! 🙁

  5. Hi Maeve

    Thank you for your advice. This is what I try to do, though I always wonder if (whether?) people appreciate it.

    And perhaps you could do an article on choosing between ‘if’ and ‘whether’? I’d really appreciate that.


  6. Tarah,
    Consider it done.

    Btw, yesterday I emailed a note to TNT regarding a slogan that is driving me bananas:

    “More Movie
    Less Commercials”

  7. LOL

    I’m sure whoever gets your email will wonder why it peeves you so much! 😉

    Thanks a mill for this excellent blog; it’s helped me SO very much.

  8. Hi!
    I find that with the ease of publishing, especially on Internet, good and correct writing are being forgotten those days. Some articles I have seen are barely readable, but they are published, out there for anyone to read. They say that the best way to learn to write properly is to read a lot. I don’t think it holds true anymore. Kind of scary when you think about it.

  9. Perhaps you should elucidate why the Winston slogan defied correct usage. The incorrect usage of that time is commonly accepted now, so much so that many of us might not be able to find the error in the original statement.

    Here is a good look at it from an ad-man’s standpoint, complete with a photo of Winston’s response in the form of magazine ad.

  10. I’m the reader that asked this question. Thank you for answering it!

    I agree that you can take some creative liberties with writing, but only if you really know what you’re doing.

    I don’t think there is ever a time where misplaced modifiers and confusing punctuation can be called good writing. This is what someone was trying to tell me, as an excuse for their incredibly poor writing.

    Thank you for your blog. Great stuff! 🙂

  11. Precise Edit’s motto is, “Good Writing Always Matters.” We here at Precise Edit also believe that grammatical mistakes matter, and can be used as tools and examples. If not for mistakes, how does one learn to write well?

  12. Blake,
    Thanks for the link.

    As you point out, the rule broken by the Winston ad is probably unknown to the majority of the American population by now.

    Like is a preposition. It is followed by a noun or pronoun:
    A cigarette tastes like burnt garbage.

    As is a conjunction. It is followed by a clause:
    The man was arrested as he was suspected of arson.
    As the world turns, so goes the hour glass.

  13. LJ,
    You’re very welcome. Yours was an excellent question, one every writer needs to keep asking.

    I really appreciate readers’ questions. They fuel the most useful posts.

  14. As we say: Good writers write well. In this way, the definition of “good writer” is “those who write well.” Defining “writing well” is more difficult, but I absolutely agree that good writing is writing that 1) communicates clearly and 2) accomplishes an inticipated purpose. Writing that is unclear and does not follow the expected and functional (i.e., useful) conventions cannot do either of these.

    With that said, not all writing has to follow conventions accurately–as suggested by the previous paragraph, purpose is very important. By this, I suggest that how we write a friendly note to our friends may have different requirements than how we write to business colleagues, for example, much like we alter our speech patterns according to our audience. Different recipient groups (i.e., audiences) have different expectations, different understandings, different lingo and jargon, and different abilities to understand what a person writes.

    In every case, though, clarity and attention to the purpose are essential, and these are often dependent upon how well the writer follows the conventions (e.g., grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling) of writing.

  15. Hi Maeve

    What to do when there are millions of errors on one of my favourite sites? I love reading the site for its information, but the mistakes make my eyes bleed.

  16. Flipper,
    As of July 21, there are no more days until the short story contest deadline.

    The deadline was midnight, July 20.

    Hope you got yours in.

  17. its a useful article……i do appreciate it…..friend today on saying of my boss i wrote a requisition for replacement of mat lying beside the office of my boss ….i wrote….

    Respectfull submitted that a mat lying beside the office of consultant-1( my boss) for the purpose of wiping feet is in shabby condition. you are, therefore, humbly requested to direct the official concerned to replace the aforesaid mat with a new one at the earliest….my boss said this requistion didnt make sense? can any one tell where i was wrong at? waiting for reply…

  18. Too wordy. Requisition are supposed to be clear and to the point. Your requisition reads more like a novel from the 19th century

  19. maeve thank you so much for the mail you have sent me….i am grateful to you…..actually english is not my native tongue that is why i face problems while writing or speaking…….anyways thanks one again….May God bless you…

  20. yea val you are absolutely right…..friend if you are supposed to write this requistion …how will you write it? please reply..

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