Whenever people talk about “good writing” they are invariably talking about what I think of as “micro writing.” That is, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, the quotes pulled out by reviewers to show what a good—or, sometimes, bad—writer the author is. This is largely because the well-turned phrase or the elegant paragraph is where readers are most likely to notice what the writer is doing. And after all, everyone, if only in conversation, has at some point tried to say exactly what they mean. So satisfying when we succeed, so elusive and frustrating when we don’t. As I wrote a year ago in this space, beautiful writing, compelling writing, or good writing, if you must, is about accuracy, not cleverness. That is, how well we are able to identify precisely what we mean to say, as opposed to something very much like it.
Or to put it another way: Imagine what you are trying say as a target. If your target were, say anger, just anger in the broadest sense, you would have painted yourself a very large bull’s eye. This is often where writers begin. On the other hand, if the target were not merely anger but jealousy, the target will have gotten slightly smaller. If the target were jealousy mixed with regret and tinged with self-loathing . . . now we need a very steady hand.
The important thing to remember about these targets is that no one really gets to say whether we hit the mark but us, the ones who painted the target in the first place. Only we know what we are trying to say, and only we know when we have said it. As I have improved my accuracy, my pleasure has come in giving myself a smaller and smaller target at which to aim. I do this not out of some athletic desire to scale the highest and furthest mountain, but because in narrowing the focus of my expression, life, a thing of infinite and varied precision, reveals itself more fully to me.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.