Let’s do a little experiment, shall we? Using the above five words, I shall rearrange the title of this blog post. Your assignment is to tell me which of the following three alternatives is better than the original. Ready? Go!
- Subjective is NOT Writing Good.
- NOT Good Writing is Subjective
- Good is NOT Subjective Writing
Okay, time’s up! So which of these alternate titles is better than the one I have? Answer: NONE OF THEM.
The original title is objectively better.
If this is true — that there is a way to tell a well-written statement from a wrongly or poorly written one — then why do people argue that “Good writing is subjective”?
Well, you say, people have different tastes, what’s “good” to one is not to another. I understand. But does that mean all four of the above titles are equally good? Well, you say, a writer must be true to themselves, write the story of their heart despite the critics. Of course. But does “writing the story of your heart” justify using Pig Latin?
If good writing is subjective, then why are there books and seminars and courses and manuals on… how to write better? If good writing is subjective then there is no need to get better at it. In fact, “getting better” is completely relative.
So perhaps what we need is a little clarification:
First: There is a difference between good writing and good storytelling. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald one of his literary masters, adept at the art of myth-making. But in the preface to MacDonald’s Lilith, Lewis writes, “Few of his novels are good and none is very good.” Huh? You see, Lewis made a distinction between the craft of writing and the creation of Story. Stylistically, MacDonald was average. His expertise, however, was in telling stories. Likewise, you must make a distinction between the technical elements of writing and the essential story being told. “Good writing” may be either or both, but it can’t be neither.
Second: There’s a difference between your “taste” in something and the actual quality of the product. A good critic should be able to separate the two. Just because I don’t like liver does not mean liver can’t be expertly cooked. Similarly, I might not “like” a film, but that shouldn’t keep me from admitting it was well-made. Conversely, I can admit a film is poorly made, but still believe the story has merit. People who suggest that “Good writing is subjective” are usually referring to taste, not quality. For the moment they concede there IS a standard for quality writing, they undermine their argument. So you must make a distinction between “preference” and “precedence,” between “what you like” and “what is well-done.”
Third: There is a difference between writing for publication, and writing for personal fulfillment. Neither one is wrong. Both can be good. However, when writing for publication you must understand: Most publishers DO NOT think good writing is subjective. Just look at their Submission Guidelines. They expect a writer to grasp grammar, create interest, unfold plots, describe settings, build worlds, craft characters, summon emotion, and not use Pig Latin. Listen, if your goal is to simply get your memoir on paper, then by all means do it! In this case, however, your objective should not be to “write good.” Your objective should be to write. Nevertheless, the moment you want to publish that piece is the moment other “rules” come into play. Take it or leave it. So you must make a distinction between someone who is writing for their own personal growth or pleasure, as a hobbyist, and someone who is trying to get past the gatekeepers.
So can we agree that there is such a thing as “bad writing”? If we can, then we are well on our way to dismantling this fallacy. And the next time someone tries to argue that “Good writing is subjective,” just stand up and say “NOT Good Subjective Writing is!”
If they misunderstand you, you have made your point.