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 and poetry.
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 your audience, 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 highs and
lows, to erect an impressive architecture. But the capstone of it all
is this: the powerful writer should create prose that is new but true.
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.