What's the Secret of Good Writing?

Writers on Writing

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"Writing is just work," novelist Sinclair Lewis once said. "There's no secret. If you dictate or use a pen or type or write with your toes — it's still just work."

Maybe so. Yet there must be a secret to good writing — the kind of writing we enjoy, remember, learn from, and try to imitate. While countless writers have been willing to reveal that secret, only rarely do they seem to agree on what it is.

Here are 10 of those not-so-secret revelations about good writing.

  1. The secret of all good writing is sound judgment. ... Get the facts in clear perspective and the words will follow naturally. (Horace, Ars Poetica, or The Epistle to the Pisones, 18 BC)
  2. The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new way or a new thing in an old way. (Attributed to Richard Harding Davis)
  3. The secret of good writing is not in the choice of words; it is in the use of words, their combinations, their contrasts, their harmony or opposition, their order of succession, the spirit that animates them. (John Burroughs, Field and Study, Houghton Mifflin, 1919)
  4. For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style. (Ben Jonson, Timber, or Discoveries, 1640)
  5. The great secret of writing well is to know thoroughly what one writes about, and not to be affected. (Alexander Pope, quoted by editor A.W. Ward in The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope, 1873)
  6. To fit the powers of thinking and the turn of language to the subject, so as to bring out a clear conclusion that shall hit the point in question, and nothing else, is the true criterion of writing. (Thomas Paine, review of Abbé Raynal's "Revolution of America," quoted by Moncure Daniel Conway in The Writings of Thomas Paine, 1894)
  7. The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what--these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. (William Zinsser, On Writing Well, Collins, 2006)
  8. Remember gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson's advice that the secret of good writing lies in good notes. What's on the walls? What kind of windows are there? Who's talking? What are they saying? (Quoted by Julia Cameron in The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, Tarcher, 1998)
  9. The best writing is rewriting. (attributed to E.B. White)
  10. [Robert] Southey constantly insisted upon the doctrine, consoling for some authors, that the secret of good writing is to be concise, clear, and pointed, and not to think about your style at all. (Quoted by Leslie Stephens in Studies of a Biographer, Vol. IV, 1907)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What's the Secret of Good Writing?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-secret-of-good-writing-1689270. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What's the Secret of Good Writing? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-secret-of-good-writing-1689270 Nordquist, Richard. "What's the Secret of Good Writing?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-secret-of-good-writing-1689270 (accessed December 3, 2022).