9 Building Blocks of Good Writing [updated]

writing about the food at GS European Deli

The list below outlines nine generally recognized rules for good writing. Opinions may differ, but these are what I look for at Five Star Friday, my curated weekly roundup of better blog entries, and if you write with the intent of having other people read your work, these are good points to brush up on:

9 Building Blocks of Good Writing


1. Interesting ideas

A piece of writing must do more than adhere to the conventions of language and readability. It must also be interesting, which means that it has to do more, for example, than rehash other people's ideas or rely on snark as the force behind it. Originality is heart.

2. Proper use of spelling, punctuation, and grammar

There is leeway here, of course, but unless you are a grand master of the English language and its creative use, adopting alternate styles as an affectation, such as repetitive use of incomplete sentences, does not work well. Conventions of language are important for consistency, clarity, and coherency in any piece of writing, and they will lend authority to your voice.

3. Active voice over passive voice

There are times when passive voice is a valid choice within a piece of writing, but it can often be more awkward, vague, and unnecessarily wordy, which detracts from the story. Make active voice your habit, and use passive voice mindfully. Grammar Girl has a good write-up about it.

4. Sentence fluency

Sentences, for the most part, should flow well so that they can be read easily and with expression. A sentence that is difficult to read out loud needs work.

5. Effective organization

A piece of writing works best if its ideas are well-organized and flow organically from one to the next. Poor organization or jumping back and forth between ideas without following them through can affect a reader's ability to understand what you are trying to say.

6. Appropriate word use

Poor word choice robs a piece of clarity and coherency. If this is happening, you might have a thesaurus problem. Step away from the big words and keep it simple.

7. Length

Brevity is a good goal to keep in mind, because wordiness without purpose can lose readers, overcomplicate your idea, and lessen the impact of your point.

8. Voice

By voice, I do not mean grammar's active and passive voices, as mentioned above. Voice refers to the unique flavour of a writer's work. Voice is what allows a reader to sink into the experience of reading a particular author, and a well-seasoned voice will keep them coming back again and again. Just as with learning to talk, voice can only be developed by writing and writing and writing some more, so keep at it. Eventually you'll feel your voice coming through.

9. Editing

Editing is writing. If you're not editing your work, it is likely only a hopeful start and nothing more. It is during the editing process that you can work with the language to find the rhythm and meaning within a piece. You have the opportunity to grow your thoughts into beautiful, mature things, so take it, because remember: your thoughts are not so precious that they don't need work.

I ran this list by the Palinode this afternoon, and he warned me that it sounds like I'm telling people how to write. I replied, "I am!"

If you feel that the above rules don't matter, to quote the Palinode quoting some other guy, "your subjective opinion is not objectively correct."

There is, of course, leeway with each of these rules, because nothing is absolute. I will concede that some authors are masterful enough (see: ee cummings) that they can play with language successfully in ways others cannot, but 99.99% of the time, our layman attempts at bending the rules amount to little more than clumsy screwing around. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing, and it can be a very good thing when it stretches our understanding of the tool we work with, but if you're writing something that you would like an audience beyond yourself to understand and pass on to others, it's usually better to err on the side of coherency.

Is there anything you would add to this list? What would you change?