Good Writing

If my writing philosophy can be summed up with one phrase, it would be: Good writing moves forward, and poor writing jumps forward and back. What this means, in a nutshell, is that strong writing is so smooth and efficient that the reader never has to refer backward in a sentence or paragraph to fish for meaning. It is free of needlessly complex construction, awkwardly appended clauses, and halting rhythm. Instead, each word, sentence, and paragraph builds upon the last, advancing the reader’s eye ever forward.

The following paragraph is an excellent example of my conception of strong writing. It doesn’t waste words, it is exquisitely constructed, and its meaning is unarguably clear. It comes, appropriately enough, from a piece in the current issue of GOOD magazine:

Dams kill fish. They keep species like salmon, shad, alewife, and sturgeon from returning to spawning grounds upstream. They trap sediment and silt in the gravel riverbeds, slow down currents, raise river temperatures, and change the mix of gases in the water. Before the Edwards [dam], as many as 100,000 Atlantic salmon surged upriver past Augusta each year. By the 1990s, salmon in the Kennebec numbered a few dozen.

Reading this is a pleasure. The writing is so good that the actual words and punctuation marks get out of the way, leaving me to concentrate on their meaning. The first sentence contains only three words, but its purpose can’t be questioned and it has the impact of an arrow.

This, friends, is what we should all strive for when we sit down to a keyboard.

(In future posts I’ll present more instructive writing examples, both strong and weak.)

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