Posted in Writing, Writing craft

What makes writing great? The five “C’s”

You know it when you see it, but if someone were to ask you what makes a piece of writing great, what would you say? And not just in a single genre. In general, across all genres, what are the characteristics of great writing? Perhaps even more important to those of us who write is this question: How can I use an understanding of these characteristics to improve my own writing?

The question of great writing is often considered to be subjective. Many readers will suggest that it depends on the style. No, it really doesn’t. And just because you like a piece of writing, doesn’t mean it’s great. The reverse is also true. Just because you don’t particularly care for a piece of writing doesn’t make it bad writing. (I am really not a fan of Ernest Hemingway at all, for example, but I have to concede that the writing itself is pretty good!) The more I’ve thought about it and read what others more erudite than I am on the subject have to say about it, though, I can identify five features that are the hallmarks of truly great writing. And it occurs to me that if all of us who write focus our efforts on improving these aspects of our writing – regardless of whether we write medical nonfiction, romance, dystopian fantasy or anything in between – our writing is sure to improve.

Studying the characteristics of great writing can help you to become a great writer – or at least, a better one.

So here are my “Five C’s of Great Writing” …

  • Clear: Great writing is clear. Clear writing means that there is no misunderstanding between writer and reader. Some might say that it means the writing is “easy” to understand, but I think that’s too simplistic. Sometimes the writing is above someone’s reading level. That is hardly the fault of the writer. On the other hand, if the writer considers who might read a particular piece of writing, then readability is a component of clear writing. For example, way back at the beginning of my own writing career, I was a medical writer. Some of what I wrote was for health professionals (such as textbooks), other writing was for the lay public (such as women’s magazines). I might focus on the same content area, but my writing necessarily has to be at different levels if my audience is going to understand. This is a lesson I learned a long time ago!
  • Concrete: The use of concrete language in writing follows from (and could, arguably, be a part of) clear writing. This doesn’t mean that you can’t present abstractions, it only suggests that the words you choose and the style you employ to string them together, need to be precise and specific. Sometimes, new writers overdo the admonition to provide details. How many times have you read a piece by a newbie writer that describes a glass of wine as “ruby red cabernet sauvignon from the XYZ winery with the gold label”? Someone who teaches romance writing must have hammered this into the heads of romance writers because this kind of excessive verbiage is all over the place. Precision doesn’t mean that the reader needs every detail. Keep your research in the background! The bottom line is writing that isn’t concrete is overly vague and ambiguous when it should be precise and specific. It is this precision that begins to set your writing apart from the writing of others.
  • Correct: This is a big one these days. Since the advent of self-publishing, there seems to be an odious and increasing sentiment that writing correctly is unimportant. If you read a passage that is riddled with grammatical errors, typos, stylistic problems – this is assuredly not great writing, no matter how good the story idea is. Correct writing is tied to the number one “C” above: clear writing. Even something as simple as punctuation makes a huge different in the clarity of writing. Who doesn’t remember Lynne Truss’s terrific book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves? Or perhaps she could have said, “Eats shoots & leaves,” Or even “Eats shoots, & leaves.” Different punctuation, different meaning. My own personal downfall in the punctuation arena is my lack of commas. No breathing space! I’m working on it. Great writing is correct.
  • Creative: This seems to be a no-brainer. Great writing presents innovative ideas. It is often said that there are no new ideas. That’s nonsense. You better hope there are. Ask a scientist. If they had no new ideas, so many things in our lives would be very different. So, why would a creative individual like a writer accept that there are no new ideas? There are. And there are new ways of telling old stories. The uniqueness of the story and/or the voice in a book is a very important part of what makes it great.
  • Compelling: Great writing affects the reader. It makes the reader think, or laugh, or cry, or get so angry he or she tosses the book across the room. One of the things I’ve noticed as my own fiction writing has improved (at least I hope it has improved – just saying!), is that it seems to be more evocative. Recently, I’ve had readers say that they laughed and even cried a bit when they read my most recent novel. When they send me a note and say it “resonated” with them, that’s so much better, in my view, than simply saying they enjoyed it. I want to know how it affected them. That makes me feel terrific. But, and here’s the most important part from your perspective as a writer – if your own writing moves you to tears when you’re writing it, you will compel the reader to do so. If you don’t cry a little (or laugh, or get a bit angry) while you are writing, your readers won’t, either. It isn’t compelling enough.

Okay. I’ve said my piece. Now I have to get back to the new manuscript. But I’m going to think about these aspects of great writing, not necessarily as I write, but certainly as I edit. I’m not quite there on the new one, though! Happy writing.

BTW, if you haven’t read Lynne Truss’s book, maybe now’s the time!

Posted in Plagiarism, Writing, Writing Nonfiction

Self-plagiarism: A writer’s guide

Some years ago, I wrote a blog piece on self-plagiarism, a concept that seems to be largely unknown in circles of wannabe writers these days.

It seemed important at that time because I was still teaching full-time at a university, and a former student contacted me to ask for advice. She had been taught over and over again while she was student about the perils of plagiarism. According to how she told it, now that she was out in the work world, she was routinely asked to do what she believed to be plagiarizing. I wondered whether or not she was really defining plagiarism accurately, or perhaps there was a different crime that needed consideration. It turned out that it was a situation more akin to “self-plagiarism.”

Just to back up a bit: I was an accidental academic. I never intended to have a 26-year career that took me all the way up the academic ladder to full Professor. I was hired part-time while I was still mostly a writer as an instructor assigned to teach news and feature writing to undergraduates in a corporate communication program. Part of my mantra at the time – and one that continues in my world even today – is this: Recycle your research.

I have always held the belief that you never know when you’ll be able to re-package material for a different audience, in a different genre, with a different purpose. Why reinvent the wheel each time for each project? Is this plagiarism? Self-plagiarism? Does it even matter? In a word, yes. But let’s start with the basics.

Oxford University provides one of the most unambiguous definitions of plagiarism in general. This is what they say:

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional.”

https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/plagiarism?wssl=1

Note the essential characteristic of plagiarism:

  • It is presenting as if it were your own, work created by someone else.
  • It might be with or without their consent. (If you have consent, you have to say so.)
  • You fail to acknowledge the work as not your own.
  • It might come from published work, but it could also be from unpublished work. It is still not yours.
  • It doesn’t matter if the work is in print or electronic form.
  • Even if you do it unknowingly, it’s still plagiarism.

So, you, the writer, look at this and say, “I never do this. I would never do this.” Then you turn around and recycle a piece you wrote on a blog somewhere and provide it to another blogger who believes it’s original. Or you lift a passage you particularly like from one of your books and put it into a new book.

“Well, I wrote it,” you say. That doesn’t matter. If the blog (or the reader) expects previously unpublished work, if you provide previously published material without telling them, you are still plagiarising. It’s just that this kind of plagiarism is self-plagiarism.

Dr. Ben Mudrak, writing in American Journal Experts Scholar, defines self-plagiarism this way:

“…any attempt to take any of your own previously published text, papers, or research results and make it appear brand new…”[1]

So, does this mean that my mantra about recycling your research to use in new and fresh ways, results in self-plagiarism? Not exactly, but it could.

To avoid self-plagiarism on my part, here’s what I said on that original blog post all those years ago:

“… strictly speaking, self-plagiarism is different from plagiarism by definition. Self-plagiarism in practice means passing off your own previous work as if it were new and original to the situation. So, if we accept this as the definition of self-plagiarism, then we have to accept that when new and original work is expected, it is not okay to use what you’ve written previously…[this] doesn’t preclude you from reusing your research. And ethically, I believe that this is where that black line has to be drawn...

Reusing research that you’ve used before – even using your own writing as a reference – seems to be completely acceptable. However, writing what is supposed to be – and is understood by your readers to be – an original piece (whether it’s for a magazine, a newspaper, a blog, an academic journal or a book) without referencing material that was actually written previously is in my view lying. You are essentially passing it off as original when it clearly isn’t…”

These days, writers who are trying to make a name for themselves look for opportunities to write for online magazines, book blogs or other kinds of platforms. It’s tempting to try to use the same piece for a variety of platforms, but it does constitute self-plagiarism unless you acknowledge its provenance.

Worse still, though, is the practice of newbie writers reusing old passages from their previously self-published work as if it were something new and fresh. Traditional publishers are likely to find these transgressions. Self-published authors have no third-party plagiarism checker. But beware. Readers these days are likely to find you out anyway…and tell the rest of the world in a review. You might want to avoid that.

And it’s just wrong, anyway.


[1] B. Mudrak. Self-Plagiarism: How to Define it and Why You Should Avoid It. AJE Scholar. https://www.aje.com/arc/self-plagiarism-how-to-define-it-and-why-to-avoid-it/

Posted in Writing, Writing books

Six Common Mistakes New Writers Make

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Every writer make mistakes. New writers don’t have a monopoly on mistakes but they do make rookie mistakes. Here’s what I wrote on the Moonlight Press blog recently:

Moonlight Press

Albert Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” If you’re a new writer, you’ll inevitably make mistakes. We all make mistakes – especially when we’re embarking on a new path. Writing is no different.

Over the past thirty years, we’ve learned a lot about writing and publishing – both from a creative perspective and from a business one. Here are our unofficial observations about the most common mistakes new writers make.

  • Self-publishing or shopping a first (or even second) draft. As a new writer, you might think that your writing is just fine the way you put it onto the page or computer screen. It isn’t. Believing in the infallibility of a first draft is the hallmark of an inexperienced writer. The more experienced you get, the better your writing gets. And the better your writing gets, the more…

View original post 545 more words