The Basic Characteristics of Effective Writing

Why Good Grammar Alone Does Not Make a Good Writer

Woman writing on paper in front of laptop

skynesher/Getty Images

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. However, good writing is much more than just correct writing. Good writing responds to the interests and needs of its intended audience and at the same time, reflects the writer's personality and individuality (the author's voice). Good writing is often as much the result of practice and hard work as it is talent. You may be encouraged to know that the ability to write well is not necessarily a gift that some people are born with, nor a privilege extended to only a few. If you're willing to put in the effort, you can improve your writing.

Rules for Effective Academic & Professional Writing

When writing term papers or essays for school, or should you go on to a career as a professional writer—be it as a technical writer, journalist, copywriter, or speechwriter—if follow you these established rules for effective writing, you should be able to excel, or at least perform competently for any given assignment:

While having a grasp on proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation won't make you a good writer, these basics are more essential to academic and professional writing than most other genres (although advertising is often a curious hybrid of creative and non-fiction writing).

The trick to creating academic or professional writing that someone will actually want to read is to balance the aforementioned essentials with your own voice. Think of your writing, no matter how academic as your part in a conversation. Your job is to explain the information you're trying to convey in a way that's clear and easily understood. (Sometimes, it helps to imagine you're talking rather than writing.)

Good Creative Writing and Nonfiction: It's Subjective

Of course, if there were only one kind of writing, it would be easier to come up with an overarching set of conventions to define what good writing is, however, non-fiction alone encompasses a wide array of genres and formats and what works for one doesn't necessarily fly with another. Now, when you add poetry, fiction (in its myriad genres and subgenres), personal essays, playwriting, blogging, podcasting, and screenwriting (to name but a few) to the mix, it's almost impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all umbrella that covers what makes writing good—or bad.

One of the main reasons it's so hard to separate good writing from bad writing when it comes to disciplines such as fiction, poetry, or plays, is that the definition of what's "good" is often subjective, and that subjectivity is a matter of personal taste. People generally know what they like and what they don't like—but that doesn't necessarily mean the writing we don't like is "bad" writing.

Let's just choose one famous piece of literature as an example: Herman Melville's 1851 novel "Moby Dick," a cautionary allegory of obsession and revenge that pits man against nature. While there's no arguing that the novel is considered a classic of American literature and is filled with its fair share of fascinating characters, Melville's narrative clocks in at over 200,000 words and nearly 600 pages (depending on the edition). When you consider that the average novel runs between 60,000 and 90,000 words, in terms of length alone, Melville's tale of the whale is a whopper.

Unfortunately for many reading the book, the experience is much akin to being a sailor during a whaling-era sea voyage in which you went for days on end going through the routine, tedious, mundane, redundant tasks required to keep the ship going, with the exciting parts of the journey few and far between. Unless you're fascinated by page after page relating to all things whaling, reading "Moby Dick" can be a chore. Does that make it a "bad" book? Obviously not, it's just not a good book for everyone.

Famous Writers on Writing

Most professional writers—those gifted people who make writing look easy—will be the first ones to tell you that often it's not easy at all, nor is there a right way or wrong way to go about it:

"There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly: sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges."
—Ernest Hemingway
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
—Stephen King
"If I have anything to say to young writers, it's stop thinking of writing as art. Think of it as work. It's hard physical work. You keep saying, 'No, that's wrong, I can do it better.' "
—Paddy Chayefsky
"One is never happy. If a writer is too happy with his writing, something is wrong with him. A real writer always feels as if he hasn't done enough. This is the reason he has the ambition to rewrite, to publish things, and so on. The bad writers are very happy with what they do. They always seem surprised about how good they are. I would say that a real writer sees that he missed a lot of opportunities."
—Isaac Bashevis Singer
"Writing is just work—there's no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or type or write with your toes—it's still just work."
—Sinclair Lewis
"Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as writer."
–Ray Bradbury
"People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it."
–Harlan Ellison

As you can see, writing rarely comes easily to anyone—even the most accomplished writers. Don't lose heart. If you want to be a better writer, you're going to have to put in the work. Not everything you write is going to be great or even good, but the more you write the better your skills will become. Learning the basics and continuing to practice will help you gain confidence. Eventually, you'll not only be a better writer—you might actually enjoy writing. Just as a musician cannot deliver an inspired performance without first learning the rudiments of the craft and studying technique, once you've mastered the basics of writing, you'll be ready to let inspiration and imagination take you almost anywhere you wish to go.