Experiences in school leave some people with the impression that good writing simply means writing that contains no bad mistakes – that is, no errors of grammar, punctuation, or spelling. In fact, good writing is much more than just correct writing. It’s writing that responds to the interests and needs of our readers.
Briefly, here are the basic characteristics of good, effective writing:
- Good writing has a clearly defined purpose.
- It makes a clear point.
- It supports that point with specific information.
- The information is clearly connected and arranged.
- The words are appropriate, and the sentences are clear, concise, emphatic, and correct.
Good writing is the result of much practice and hard work. This fact should encourage you: it means that the ability to write well is not a gift that some people are born with, not a privilege extended to only a few. If you’re willing to work, you can improve your writing.
One of the most lucid and sensible answers to this question appeared a few years ago in–of all places–a position statement on the teaching of grammar in American schools. Published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the report is blessedly free of educational cant. Here’s how it begins:
Grammar is important because it is the language that makes it possible for us to talk about language. Grammar names the types of words and word groups that make up sentences not only in English but in any language. As human beings, we can put sentences together even as children–we can all do grammar. But to be able to talk about how sentences are built, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences–that is knowing about grammar. And knowing about grammar offers a window into the human mind and into our amazingly complex mental capacity.
People associate grammar with errors and correctness. But knowing about grammar also helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise. Grammar can be part of literature discussions, when we and our students closely read the sentences in poetry and stories. Knowing about grammar means finding out that all languages and all dialects follow grammatical patterns.
Grammar is a subject too complex to be summarized here. Poor grammar may do nothing worse than irritating your readers. Sometimes, however, poor grammar can make your writing confusing or impossible to understand.
Be careful with spelling, and especially with homonyms (words which sound the same but are spelled differently). You may have correctly spelled a word that you didn’t mean to use. “Joe is a little horse” is a very different statement from “Joe is a little hoarse.”
Incorrect punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence. “My brother’s money” belongs to my brother, but “my brothers’ money” belongs to my brothers. A misplaced comma can turn one modifier into two different modifiers. “He arrived for his appointment, late yesterday afternoon,” suggests that he arrived on time for an appointment in the late afternoon. “He arrived for his appointment late, yesterday afternoon,” suggests that he was late for his appointment.
Failure to understand the parts of speech can also cause confusion. If, instead of “I feel bad,” you write, “I feel badly,” it sounds as if you are not very good at feeling.