Most of us recognize good writing when we see it, but we don't often interrupt our sheer delight in a passage to analyze it. We don't ask what it was that made that particular group of words stand out. We simply move on, anxious to read more of "the good stuff." The same sort of thing happens with bad writing, although our responses are more varied. Sometimes we just nod off over a book or article because it is not interesting enough to keep our minds alert. Other times, we put the book down and forget we were trying to read it. This is the time of year when teachers at every level are reading term papers and final exam essays. When the writing is really bad, we shake our heads in despair, and slap a C- on the paper. And once again, we move on in search of something better, without taking the time to figure out exactly what it was that elicited our sighs.
The process of writing is so complicated -- and so different for each writer -- that I've been struggling with how to describe the difference between good and bad writing. This morning, help arrived in the shape of an e-mail from a colleague who is deep into grading at the moment. She simply passed along a paragraph that summed up the distinction:
[Full credit for the paragraph goes first to Gary Provost, who was quoted in Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark. And secondary credit goes to a blog post written last year by Rob McDougall.]
This is one of those ideas that I want to write on a rock: "The ear demands variety."