is much that can be said about good writing, but we'll try to keep
it simple, melting down to a liquid bead the fine metal of prose
First, there is a writer's audience, and most writers are wise to consider
him or her. The
physician writing an article for JAMA makes certain assumptions about
what her readers expect from her work, and she tailors her prose accordingly.
In great measure, audience dictates both content and style—and
as a rule, the more dramatically one departs from the expectations of
one's audience, the more captivating and persuasive one's material must
Years ago, a student (at the time, Harpeth Hall's senior class president)
came by my room to ask me to vet a speech she had written to launch the
school year. As I was reading it, I realized that the student was breaking
fairly dramatically from the conventions of the opening day event by
writing not so much an address as a chant. Had the chant been sophomoric
or merely audacious, I would have advised her against delivering it,
but it so effectively combined the comic and the cool, the cheeky and
the chill, that I urged her to give it a go. What I didn't expect was
for the student to deliver the piece accompanied by a classmate on bongo
drums. That unexpected addition and the speaker's own well-timed phrasing
made the chant all the more impressive. Her audience—students and
teachers alike—loved it.
In a vaguely similar vein, students sometimes ask questions like, "Is
it okay to use contractions .... or end with prepositions ... or use "I"?" and
my answer is generally the same: consider the expectations of
and if you depart from those expectations, do so smashingly.
As readers, we assume that a writer will have a clear command
of grammar and syntax. We also assume a certain facility
with style. Particularly
for prose that is meant to both illuminate and entertain, we expect the
writer to bring drama to her work, to create symphonic
to erect a simple but impressive organizational architecture.
But the capstone of it all is this: the powerful writer should create work
that is new
Flannery O'Connor said that good writing entails the accurate naming
of the things of God. Although Miss O'Connor's assertion implicitly challenges
the writer to capture God's majesty, it also emphasizes two transformative
qualities in good writing: splendor and accuracy. Effective writing should,
paradoxically, startle us by giving the reader a fresh characterization
of the familiar. The trick is to get at the essence of one's
subject in a way that is at once honest and original.
Throughout these web pages and in class, we will look at examples of
fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, that do just that. As we read
others' material and write our own, let's look for—and in turn
make—writing that is new but true.