All good dogs go to heaven. Is this good writing? Or is it a cliché, overused and … well, over? If you’re a dog lover, you might pause to consider the question. Surely, your childhood dog Sparky is in heaven. At least that’s what your parents told you. Or did Sparky go to live on a farm in the country?
Cliché or no, ontological query or not, “All good dogs go to heaven” isn’t a bad way to start a web article, or internal memo, or a letter to your mother. And here’s why. It’s unexpected, quirky, and makes your reader sit up and say, “What?.” It joggles your reader out of the expectation of another lifeless and predictable piece of writing.
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting you begin all (or any) future writing projects with this phrase, but it’s a reminder that we can, and must, step away from the norm, and develop our own good writing voice. Your voice should have identity, personality and maybe some pizzazz. If your voice has a color, it shouldn’t be beige!
If you write for a conservative political magazine, your good writing voice might be Kennebunkport Green; a gardener may write with the cool grey hue of Garden Spigot; a travel writer may use a brush soaked in Nairobi Dusk. (Yes, those are actual colors from real paint manufacturers!) The point is that it’s too easy to use hackneyed phrases from other people’s writing instead of developing our own good writing style. We must add richness to our writing – texture, color, and a splash of sparkling water.
For instance, this statement, “In today’s economy, people are unlikely to make discretionary purchases,” could be freshened up and replaced with “For the first time in decades, Americans have reluctantly accepted the constraints of a household budget.” The second option introduces a specific feature of middle class life, the household budget, which gives the reader something to bite into. The fact that Americans have “reluctantly” accepted the constraint lets us know that they aren’t cheerful about it, and the observation that it’s the first time in decades underscores the fact that Americans have been riding a profitable economic wave for a very long time. Isn’t this an improvement over the first statement?
Or how about this one? “Americans have always loved their cars” could be replaced with, “Since the early 20th century, American’s have had a love affair with the automobile.” The term “love affair” makes most people sit up and pay attention. And an affair that’s lasted a hundred years? It’s worth mentioning. If you’re the one who mentions it, you’ve just produced some good writing.
Good writing is so much more than proper grammar and punctuation. Good writing has spunk. It is brave and strong. It breaks the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil in two, for once giving the reader solid facts and fresh perspective. I started this article with a cliché; I’ll end with one too – and a mis-quote at that: In the land of weary readers, the good writer is king.