What are the causes of good writing?

What are the causes of good writing?

For a time in the 2000s, I worked as an in-house editor and writing consultant at a school of nursing, where I wrote grant proposals, edited research articles, and provided writing resources for people who didn’t train to become writers, but whose professional advancement depended on it. “Accidental writers,” I called them.

While there, I was exposed to a paradigm of health care called “health promotion,” which (because I have a metaphorical mind) has influenced my thinking about good writing. Everything I’m going to say here also applies to good visual design, good presentations, good social media outreach, and other kinds of communicating.

Health promotion emerged among public health professionals in the 1980s as an alternative to the medical model of health care. The medical model, which works on individual bodies, seeks to prevent or eradicate disease, and in modern times, it’s improved or extended hundreds of millions of lives. Yet it’s actually quite limited when it comes to improving health. The health promotion model, meanwhile, which works on bodies as well as social contexts, environments, and social networks, seeks to promote the causes of good health, which is bigger than the absence of disease.


What is good writing?

Good writing, I realized, is a lot like good health.

1. Health, like writing, is a process, not a product. Being healthy is part of an entire lifestyle, part of where you live, what you eat, and your access to health care and support. Good writing is a feature of how individuals and organizations work, not just the specific pieces of writing they produce.

2. Good writing isn’t simply the absence of bad writing, in the same way that health isn’t simply the absence of disease. We’ve all seen perfectly competent, grammatical essays that do nothing to the pulse or the soul. We’ve also seen disheveled, ragged pieces of writing that hammer themselves into the heart.

Good writing isn’t “in” the texts that we ask people to look at, just like health isn’t “in” healthy bodies. Health promotion research talks about how to make people living with a chronic, incurable condition like cancer or diabetes “healthy” within the context of their disease.

3. The causes of good writing are a lot like the causes of good health. Sure, you focus on individual texts, as well as individual bodies, but you also have to make sure they grow in healthy contexts. Think of it this way: good writing is a symptom of organizations where good writing happens, just like healthy bodies are a symptom of healthy environments.


How can you promote good writing?

So what are the ways that organizations – companies, schools, communities, non-profits – can promote good writing?

1. You have to give support to all of your writers at every level, not because they deserve it or need it, but because they’re writers. Support can take many forms: you pay for seminars, you make reference books and resources available, you provide time for formal classes. Encourage groups that are focused on work-related writing to meet and discuss what they’re working on. Provide access to professional support – editors, teachers, consultants – that isn’t stigmatized or considered remedial. In my perfect world, every company would hire a communications process manager to oversee all these functions, someone who knows the specifics of the workplace as well as the challenges involved in writing in that industry.

2. You should make sure that everyone has the opportunity to learn a semi-technical vocabulary for discussing, critiquing, and improving writing. You give people access to that vocabulary by hiring consultants to teach it. I’ve found that some accidental writers often shy away from commenting on others’ writing because they don’t know what to say; I’ve also found that other accidental writers often feel crippled by unfair criticism that seems too personal. A semi-technical vocabulary allows people to share expertise and insights without verging into opinions or personal statements that may be counterproductive.

3. If you really want to promote good writing, you should assess the full range of written genres that your organization produces, from annual reports to memos to tweets, whether it’s informal or formal, internal or external. You should have a conversation about the communication goals for all of those genres, and you should decide which person (or team) should have final say about the content and style that they take. New members should get explicit training in those genres, being shown examples that people in the organization agree are good and others that everyone agrees are bad.

4. You should organize writing work flow in an effective way so that a) deadlines are met, b) good writers aren’t overburdened (because they’re doing all the work), c) weaker writers aren’t abandoned (because they don’t know what they’re doing), and d) new employees understand the expectations for those genres. There’s a tendency to outsource pieces of writing to proofers or editors who don’t always know the industry or firm they’re working in, so they can’t contribute to the process, only to the product. In some organizations, there’s also a tendency for leaders to step in and muck up good writing (we could call this topsourcing) in fly-by sessions.

5. You have to respect writing as a goal-oriented process, which means that you have to commit to understanding the parts of the process that help them. This goes back to all the above points. To promote process, you have to provide support for all writers in all genres. When everyone has a shared vocabulary for the process itself, the process works better. The process is improved when everyone knows what they’re responsible for, when work tasks go to the right places, and most importantly, when everyone recognizes that the process is working the right way.

The more that you pay close attention to the writing that people do, the more you can be frustrated and puzzled that things don’t get better. You have to define “good writing” in a way that creates a framework for doing more, not less, and talking more about what you’re doing. People may be accidental writers, but good writing is no accident (and neither is good health).


Michael Erard is a linguist and author that works with fassforward consulting group. For the last five years, he’s worked as a senior researcher for the FrameWorks Institute, designing and testing explanatory metaphors for science translation and social issue reframing. He is also a contributor to the New York Times, Wired, Science, Slate, The New Republic and The Atlantic. You can follow him on twitter @michaelerard.

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