Get Your Chops Back: Good Writing and Bad

How do we learn to distinguish good writing from bad? 

In today’s popular culture and business world, we often hear and find evidence that the average adult spends little time reading. A CQ Researcher report of Feb. 22, 2008 titled “Reading Crisis?” showed that “only 31 percent of college graduates were proficient in reading prose in 2003, a 23 percent decline since 1992. Among students in graduate programs or holding advanced degrees, the drop in proficiency was 20 percent.”

It’s hard to find time to read and write, and people who neither read nor write have more time to work and play – arguably the primary values of our age. But do we ignore reading and writing to our detriment? They are developmental skills. They require practice. They are skills that atrophy quickly if unused regularly. We lose our chops when the books collect dust. Writing, in particular, is hard work, and most of us don’t suffer from graphomania, while reading material foreign to our everyday vocabulary and experience seems arcane and frustrating. Add to this our desire for instant gratification and we find ourselves living in a community of non-readers.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations has reported that of the top 100 magazines by circulation in the U.S. today, most are hobby, entertainment, or popular culture, special interest magazines. Only two in the top 100, The New Yorker and National Geographic, might be considered to have a general interest purpose combined with writing that will get your reading chops back. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with popular magazines, but to point out that the reading experience of the average adult in our communities is anemic, and the reading deficit results in a writing void, and an inability to distinguish good writing from bad.

But what is good writing? If by good writing we mean writing that achieves its purpose, almost any writing might be considered good. But reading material that exploits and panders to the tastes of an audience captive in a comfort zone gets us nowhere. An excellent B movie is one only an ardent B movie fan can appreciate. But is an academic article, blind peer reviewed then buried in a journal with a circulation of 300 (and most of those from institutions) any different? Writing that achieves a purpose that is too narrow is like a plant that is grown in a pot. It can be lovely, but its growth will be stunted.