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What Makes a Text Good?

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

There is no such thing as an objectively “good” text. But, teaching often requires you to make assessments on the success of a text that a student has produced. What it really boils down to for me, is this question: does the text do what the writer wants it to? Texts can be made with the goal of making people feel a certain way, or making the reader see something from a new angle, or both, or neither, or so much more. When I teach creative writing, my goal is to help students write in such a way that their texts convey the things that they wish them to convey.

Now, I will make the separation, that what I write here is about texts that are meant for other people to read. Texts that fall under more private categories, such as diaries and therapeutic writing, are more about having an emotional outlet. Therefore what is conveyed by the end result may not be at all relevant to the writer. They may not even want the text to be “useful” or “good”. It’s perfectly okay to write for the fun of it.

But, to get back to texts that have more outward goals. When a writer knowingly uses, for example, a simplistic or even clumsy rhyme scene to convey something (perhaps the wonder of childhood, or the exhausted, muddled desperation of an individual unable to fall asleep), some might call that text “intentionally bad”. While there is a lot of utility in phrasing it that way, I don’t find the term wholly accurate. No way of writing is inherently bad if it fits the purpose it’s used for. Mimicking and replicating the cliches and “mistakes” new writers often fall into can be very useful, narratively.

Even then, a text isn’t necessarily “bad” even if it’s unintentionally riddled with things that might bore or exasperate the experienced reader. There’s probably a lot of room for improvement, true, but that’s not a terrible thing at all. In all the fictional texts that I’ve read, I’ve never found one that didn’t have praiseworthy things in it, at least when the person who wrote it wanted to write it. At that point I find it important to highlight those praiseworthy bits, and give out possible solutions and techniques to enhance the text. I often do this by posing questions first, such as: “What sort of feeling do you want this scene to have?”, “What is the motivation behind this character acting this way?”, and “Is this repetition here meant to work perhaps as emphasis or is it a left over from the writing process?” Based on the answers given, I try to offer, but not mandate, possible changes to the text. The more the writer is able to make active decisions about their text, the more likely they are to create a text that does what they want.

So if for some reason you wish to know whether I’d find your text “good”: try to consider these questions: Does the text accomplish the goals set to it? Or in other words, does authorial intent get fulfilled to a reasonable extent? There are too many readers in this world for a text to make the intended impact on every individual. But, does most of the text come through as the author intended for the vast majority of readers?

Writing is a skill just like sewing or laying down tiles. Receiving constructive criticism is great for advancing any skill. An important thing is to realise that improvement comes with practice. You’ll never actually be done or ready, so you should try to have a great time along the way.


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