4 Marks of Good Writing

9781599639024_5inch_300dpiHow can you tell if a piece of writing is strong? Whether you’re editing for a publishing company, working as a freelancer, or self-editing, correctly assessing the quality of the work is imperative. In this excerpt from The Editor’s Companion, Steve Dunham discusses four marks of good writing and how you can recognize them in every piece you review.

1. Good Content

Communication, even in writing, requires two people. Every time a writer begins putting words together for publication, one fact should always be foremost: The writing is (at least partly) for the benefit of someone else. Even if a writer begins without a specific audience clearly in mind, the goal of communication remains. The writing must achieve a link between author and reader.

The editor, too, must always remember the reader. Both writer and reader may benefit from written communication, but editing is done primarily to benefit the reader, to smooth the process of communication.

The content of any piece of writing ultimately must be of personal interest to the reader. From news headlines to novels, from apartment leases to the Bible, every piece of writing attracts readers by providing something that concerns individual people.

An editor faces the task of taking a piece of writing and heightening its relevance to those individuals who constitute the publisher’s readers or market.

2. Focus

Each sentence, says editor Margaret Palm, should convey one idea. So should each paragraph and each chapter, with the ideas becoming more general as the writer progresses up the scale. This sort of cohesion does not limit the number of ideas a writer is able to communicate; rather, it organizes them. Focusing on one idea at a time makes for clear, direct communication. It does not leave the reader guessing where the writing is headed. It does not distract the reader with digression. Instead it takes a general idea as the subject of a chapter, develops an aspect of that idea in each paragraph, and provides details in every sentence. Focused writing, like a focused photograph, presents information clearly.

The classic style of newswriting, with the “most important” facts at the top, followed by less and less important facts in descending order is called the inverted pyramid. Inverted pyramid leads begin with who, what, when, where, why, and how, all in a few sentences.

Those five Ws of journalism also provide a guide for both writers and editors of nonfiction. In a news story, the writer must tell the reader who, what, when, where, and why—preferably in the first paragraph. Although not all nonfiction needs to be as compact as news writing, the editor must be sure that the basic facts are communicated.

Even in fiction, the five Ws need to be addressed somewhere in the story, although depending on the genre—mystery, for example—key parts of the story may be withheld until the end.

3. Precise Language1

The writer’s biggest job is that of combining words—and often numbers and graphics—to share ideas. Organizing the material and choosing precisely the right words require more effort than just writing down what is in the writer’s head. The knowledgeable writer possesses information or ideas that the reader does not. To make that information accessible, the writer must use words that the reader understands (or explain any that the reader does not). The writer must choose which information to include and must decide what is superfluous or would burden the reader. Appendices, footnotes, and bibliographies are all communication tools. So are abbreviations. They help the reader understand what the writer has to say.

The editor’s job is to help the writer communicate with the reader, and just about all of us—including editors—need some help with our writing. Sometimes we have a little trouble saying what we mean. Editors do make sure the commas are in the right place. (It does make a difference: My favorite comma error was in an ad in the church bulletin for a supper hosted by the youth group; it read, “Don’t cook Mom!”) Editors also do a lot more, ensuring good content, focus, precise language, and good grammar.

Editors are on guard for much more than missing commas, however. Writers might, for example, get a little repetitive: “The analysis phase of the project consisted of analysis,” stated one report I read. A job ad required “program related experience in related areas”—one of those “necessary conditions that must be met.”

“Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!” as Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking-Glass.

The reader’s time is worth something, too. Let’s not waste it by stating the obvious. If our work is read voluntarily, we will lose readers if we waste their time. Often, though, we may be editing a piece of writing that people are obligated to read, and we owe it to them to communicate simply and clearly.

In The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells, the Monkey-man— a monkey that Doctor Moreau had been trying to turn into a human—“was for ever jabbering … the most arrant nonsense” and “had a fantastic trick of coining new words. He had an idea … that to gabble about names that meant nothing was the proper use of speech. He called it ‘Big Thinks’ … He thought nothing of what was plain and comprehensible.”

Writers can commit Big Thinks by using imprecise language or misusing words entirely. Some writers may impress themselves by using big words they don’t understand. Utilize may sound more impressive than use (but has a specific meaning of its own: to find a use for). Comprise is not the same as compose (it means “be made up of,” as in “New York City comprises five boroughs”); a nation-state isn’t merely a sovereign country (it’s the country of a single nationality); coalesce isn’t transitive (things coalesce, people don’t coalesce things). Emulate means “do at least as well as,” but imitate, the word that is more likely appropriate, doesn’t sound nearly as impressive. Respective is often used where it is not needed, as in “The adjutant generals report to their respective governors”—well, of course they report to their own governors. Writing to impress oneself or others is what editor Dave Fessenden called “the curse of Babel.” He pointed out that people built the Tower of Babel to make a name for themselves and ended up with their language confounded—a result still obtained by vain and pompous writers, he said.

Editors must be alert to misused words. Words Into Type has an excellent twenty-three-page list of “Words Likely to Be Misused or Confused”; The Elements of Style has a similar list, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has usage notes for many entries.

In his book Doublespeak,2 William Lutz described another way of misusing big words: “gobbledygook or bureaucratese … a matter of piling on words, of overwhelming the audience” or “inflated language that is designed to make the ordinary seem extraordinary.” That language is meant to impress, and specifically to deceive, the reader.

Aside from writers who deceive themselves, readers are usually the victims of misused words. As William Safire wrote in his book In Love with Norma Loquendi,3 “Meanings can be assigned to words to suit the speaker, corrupting communication and derailing intelligent discourse.”

For example, one job description stated, “Demonstrates technical achievement at the highest Government and corporate levels.” In plain English, what does that mean? It sounds as if the job applicant must have been president, chief justice, or speaker of the house. Such overblown prose corrupts communication and derails intelligent discourse, to borrow Safire’s wording.

When writing and editing, let our first concern be the reader. Let’s not try to impress anyone, least of all ourselves. Instead of engaging in Big Thinks, let’s pursue the goal of “plain and comprehensible” communication.

4. Good Grammar4

“I don’t care about grammar,” a writer told me when he brought his article in for editing.

In fact it seemed that the writer, like many others, didn’t care about a lot of things.

“This merger does not seems to posse any intimate security risks to the United States” was one statement in the article. I called out the posse of language deputies; we changed posse to pose and fixed dozens more errors, grammar and otherwise. We had to query the author to find out what intimate was supposed to be (he’d meant to use immediate).

Unfortunately this writer was not alone. Not in making mistakes—we all make those—but in not caring. George Orwell cited two common faults in English writing: “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”5

If a writer doesn’t care about grammar, the writer at least should care about the reader. If you have something worth saying, then care about communicating it.

The editor, who is assisting communication between writer and reader, must scrutinize every piece of writing that is intended for publication and, to the greatest extent possible, make the text conform to the marks of good writing.

Author Stephen Coonts, in a July 2001 interview with Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute,6 discussed the editing of his books (the Naval Institute Press published his first novel, Flight of the Intruder).

Proceedings: How were you treated, editorially, at the Naval Institute Press, compared to your subsequent publishers?

Coonts: The Naval Institute is unique, because it probably publishes more first-time writers—not so much first-time novelists, but first-time writers—than any other publishing house I know. So for me it was a great place to learn how to write by working with the editors and to learn how to get a manuscript up to what is called “commercial quality.”

Subsequently, I went to Doubleday, where they have a line editor who looks at the manuscript and puts in some commas and takes some out. How you wrote it is the way it’s going to be in the book. It’s tough for most beginning writers to get their prose ready to be published. It was a really great educational experience at the Naval Institute. I worked with a great editor, and I learned a lot.

Proceedings: So you’d say you were edited more at the Naval Institute Press?

Coonts: Yes. They edited the living hell out of the book. I think they overedited some of the passages. In some cases they improved it; in some cases they made it worse. Looking back, I don’t think they had much faith that I knew what the story I was telling was all about. On the other hand, the folks I worked with knew their English, and what a sentence was, and how the prose had to come together. On balance, it was a great learning experience for me.

As Coonts pointed out, editors make mistakes, too. Sometimes we attempt to improve clarity and end up muddying the water instead. Worse, we sometimes accidentally change the correct meaning to something incorrect. “One of my greatest dreads as a copy editor is that I will change something to make it wrong,” wrote copy editor Laura Moyer in her Red Pen blog.7 “Changing things on the proof is risky, as it raises the possibility of introducing an error while attempting to correct an existing one,” she wrote in another blog entry.8 Editing for focus, precision, and grammar are essential and less hazardous than editing for content, which requires some knowledge of the subject matter.

Furthermore, overconfidence can lead to wrongly second-guessing an author’s meaning. An editing error in Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War by William M. Fowler, Jr.,9 led to a cure that was worse than whatever the supposed illness was: “Galena was far smaller than New Ironsides, 738 tons versus 3,486; her topsail schooner rig and exaggerated tumble made her home immediately recognizable.” When I read that, I suspected that it should have read, “… her exaggerated tumblehome made her immediately recognizable”—tumblehome being the inward curving of a ship’s sides as they rise (some ships, anyway). Galena indeed was immediately recognizable because of her exaggerated tumblehome (see the photo). Evidently the nautical term tumblehome was unknown to the editor, who rearranged the sentence into immediately recognizable words (the author confirmed that this was an editing error but added, “Alas, I read proofs”).

An extreme example of second-guessing the meaning was a reference to a story in the Atlanta Constitution headlined “Mock Bioterror Attack Spooks Some in Denver.” Someone citing it decided it was a mistake and, in a footnote, changed it to read, “Mock Bioterror Attack Some Spooks in Denver.”

Both the word tumblehome and the Atlanta Constitution headline were verifiable with a little research. Second-guessing the meaning (rather than looking it up to verify it) is one hazard for editors.

Arthur Plotnik, author of The Elements of Editing, noted another: Editors “must stop short of a self-styled purism and allow for some variety of expression.”10 All editing requires care to ensure that the writing communicates better than it did in its original form.

Plotnik posed ten questions for editors to critically examine their own work:11 Has the editor

  1. “weighed every phrase and sentence … to determine whether the author’s meaning” was preserved?
  2. “measured every revision … against the advantages of the author’s original”?
  3. “pondered the effectiveness of every phrase”?
  4. “studied every possible area of numerical, factual, or judgmental error”?
  5. searched “for typos and transpositions, especially in” parts that were “retyped or reorganized,” and “edited and proofread” the portions altered by the editor?
  6. “groveled in the details of the footnotes, tables, and appendices”?
  7. “cast a legal eye upon every quoted phrase, defamatory comment, trade name, allegation, and attribution”?
  8. “stepped back to consider the impact of the whole as well as the parts”?
  9. “provided all the editorial embellishments to the text—title, subtitle, subhead, author notes, sidebars …”?
  10. “cleared every significant revision and addition with the author?”—if that “is the policy of the publication.”

As Plotnik’s list indicates, editors must be certain that they are actually improving the author’s writing. Overconfidence comes all too easily, and we need to handle the author’s creation with care.

This article was excerpted from The Editor’s Companion by Steve Dunham. Filled with advice and techniques for honing your editing skills, this book provides the tools you need to pursue high quality in editing, writing and publishing—every piece, every time.



  1. Portions of this section appeared in Precision for Writers and Editors, September 1999; “Writing for Everybody,” Precision for Writers and Editors, spring 2001; “Better Writing: Stating the Obvious,” Transmissions, June–July 2001; and “Big Thinks” and “Word Abuse,” Precision for Writers and Editors, Autumn 2001; all copyright Analytic Services Inc. and are used with permission.
  2. William Lutz, Doublespeak (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).
  3. William Safire, In Love with Norma Loquendi (New York: Random House, 1994).
  4. Portions of this section appeared in Precision for Writers and Editors, September 1999, copyright Analytic Services Inc., and are used with permission.
  5. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”
  6. Fred L. Schultz, “Interview: Stephen Coonts,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 127, no. 7, July 2001, p. 68.
  7. Laura Moyer, “Rock. Copy Editor. Hard Place,” Red Pen blog, Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star, June 7, 2011.
  8. Laura Moyer, “Lie/Lay. I Had to Tackle This Sometime,” Red Pen blog, Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star, Aug. 2, 2011.
  9. William M. Fowler, Jr., Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).
  10. Arthur Plotnik, The Elements of Editing, p. 3.
  11. Arthur Plotnik, The Elements of Editing, pp. 35–36.

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6 thoughts on “4 Marks of Good Writing

  1. EvilPRman

    Thanks for the wonderful reminders on the fine-tuned differences in those definitions (comprise, emulate, etc.)
    However, as variations on the original meanings flourish, once-incorrect meanings become accepted and eventually “correct, too.” (It’s that “too” that starts word wars.)

    BTW, my favorite word misuse was a manager who unfailingly said, “I’ll keep you appraised.”
    Good to know, boss. I’ll stay on my toes!