Good writing is like a windowpane, according to George Orwell. It’s transparent, clear and unaffected. Which makes me think of my daughter at age 4, who said, “Dishes are kind of glass and hardness. This ice cream cone isn’t glass and hardness.” Mark my words, a good writer is someone who can describe the difference between an ice cream bowl and an ice cream cone as accurately as a four-year-old.
So why is it so hard to write well? We live in a world of words. You’d think it would be easy to pluck a few of them out of the ether and assemble them in some form on the printed page. Well, prepare to be amazed, because I’m about to reveal to you the essential secret of good writing, known until now only to certain holy men and newspaper bureau chiefs.
First let’s review what’s known about writing. Language existed long before writing. We’ve probably been talking for between 50,000 and 100,000 years, but archaeology suggests that the first writing emerged around 6,000 years ago.
Katie Harrow tells us in her web article, A brief guide to the history of the written word, that pictograms (pictures whose meaning is directly related to the image: a snake means a snake, for example) were first in use in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. These evolved into hieroglyphics when the meanings came to include verbs (image of an eye might now also mean “to see something”) and phonetics (the snake image could mean an “ess” sound).
It appears that over time, societies with a written language had an advantage over those without. Precisely. In fact, people today who have a facility with written language have an advantage over those without. Good writers tend to thrive in professional circles, garner the attention of classmates, and occasionally even gain wealth and fame. And that’s because: Good writing is like good conversation, only with a longer shelf life.
It’s the shelf life that gives good writing its influence. Whether in printed form, on the Web, or on the screen of an iPhone, good writing has a way of sticking, which is why it’s important to get it right.
So, what’s the secret? How to get it right? Ask any child. Good writing, like good conversation, is transparent; it’s brave and true; it speaks your message, not someone else’s. Sure, it’s risky, but a writer disrobed is one who can be counted on to give readers the real deal. And the real deal is what we’re seeking, isn’t it? In a world of words, readers know the difference between a bowl and a cone, and we celebrate those who can accurately describe it for us.
So, if you’re worried about the college English course you didn’t take or the 7th grade teacher who said you’d never be a good writer, fuggedaboutit. The essential truth about good writing is this: If you can think, you can write. Just promise to tell the truth and make it your own. You’ll be all right.