Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Answer: The great windmill that most writers in all languages all over the world tilt at, as their life's quest.
The major Australian novelist, Christina Stead, once joked about the academic definition of some writing as having 'high literary quality'. In 1972 correspondence with the long-time editor of the journal, Meanjin, Clem Christesen, who had asked her for a short story to publish, she quipped,
'I don't know about the "high literary quality" you mention; high literary quality is in the eye of the beholder. (Though you're a good beholder.) Perhaps, though, later on, I'll have a chunk of prose with h.l.q. But more at the moment I cannot do.'
So who can believe in high literary quality? When might any of us attain it? One thing is sure ... if we do there'll still be vociferous debate about whether we have, and rarely will such success be recognised in cash recompense for the hours of labour expended.
Members of Sydney School of Arts & Humanities' writing meetups tried their hands and minds at pinning down writing 'goodness'. The first in our list is definitely the most succinct:
Good writing is good reading.
Writing is a form of communication, and the main point of communication is to convey a message. For successful communication to take place, the intended message needs to be understood. So, it seems to me that good writing is writing that is easy to understand.
Our next writer dispensed with the mechanical or technological apparatus that might be used:
The only tool a writer has at his/her disposal is choosing words, putting words on a page that will connect with a reader. Words that it's hoped will stir something in readers to allow them entry into another world of experience and of being.
Good writing can take you to Mars or the depths of the ocean, the pits of human misery and the heights of happiness.
Not judgemental (even though this statement itself is judgemental!) it allows readers to form their own opinions based on characters' actions and dialogue.
This is true of both documentary and fiction. Good writing reflects truth and can lift us out of negativity and self doubt. Good writing has its own rhythms, like good music. And its own motifs.
As Georges Simenon showed in the detective series Maigret, good writing is about using simple words and simple concepts, not showing off with big words and florid phrases.
Text: Christine Williams; Roger Guinery; Jim Piotrowsky; Ros Lawson.
Christina Stead's letter to Christesen was written from her home in London 12 December 1972.
This SSOA writers' blog is made possible by grant assistance from the City of Sydney.