Recently, the editors of the Oakland Arts Review sat down and we discussed what good writing meant, to us at least. So, what is good writing? I’m not going to sit here and pretend to know what the answer to that questions is because I think it varies from person to person. What I think is good writing might not be what your waiter thinks is good writing to what your neighbor thinks is good writing. Your professors might not even agree on the exact definition of good writing. If you asked ten different people what good writing is, I bet you’d get ten different answers. But I think therein lies the magical quality in writing, that everyone can find beauty and solace and power in it.
However, if your goal is to get published, I’m sure that’s not what you want to hear. You’re probably thinking, “Great, so all I have do is hope that whatever editor is reading my work happens to think it is good?” Yeah, kind. But there are certain things you can do to increase the likelihood that an editor will love your work, things that will get your work noticed out of the hundreds of other pieces that fly across the desks of editors. Things that will make them pause on your work when they had already flippantly passed along the last twenty pieces they read. Recently, the editors of the Oakland Arts Review sat down and we discussed what good writing meant, to us at least.
There are a few things that might seem obvious, but I’m going to touch on them anyway. The easiest thing you can do to make sure your piece isn’t immediately dismissed is PROOFREAD. If you send in a piece with grammatical mistakes, typos, and incorrect formatting it sends the message that you don’t care about your work. And if you don’t care, then why should we?
Another obvious but important point: strong writing is crucial. Strong writing doesn’t just tell a story but paints a picture with words without smothering us with unneeded flowery language. Do this with strong imagery that is not only powerful but concise and aware of its place in the story; that is to say, make sure your images aren’t getting in the way of what your story is trying to say. So what can you do to take your strong writing and turn it into a story that people will want to read? Because it doesn’t do you any good if your writing is strong but your story is lackluster.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give is to not be afraid. Something all of the editors have in common is that they are looking for something different, something new and fresh that will make them pause for a moment. Write a story in second person. Try playing around with structure: throw a plot twist in the middle of your story or take the ending of your story and stick it in the front.
Or write something unique, tell a story that hasn’t had a voice until now. Write about the struggles of women or people of color or people in the LGBTQ community and what their lives are like. Write about people in blue collar jobs who have a history of being portrayed poorly in literature. Write about love, but not in the romantic or familial way that literature is saturated with. Can you even remember that last time you read anything about love in friendship? No, probably not.
Or write about something that everyone is familiar with, but often shies away from. Write about an elderly woman losing her memories to dementia or a daughter watching her mother slowly waste away from Parkinson’s. Write about death and the messy, ugly grief it leaves behind. Write about mental illness and the way it changes those who suffer from it and those around them.
Does that mean that if a piece doesn’t have these things, it’s not good? No, but these are just a few things that will make a piece stand out amongst the others. I’m sure there are a thousand more ideas that we didn’t think of and if you can find those things, tap into something unique and spill it onto the page, do it. We want a story that is going to cause us to pause, to give us something deep to think about even after the story is done. We want to still be thinking about your story three days later when we’re washing dishes or ignoring homework, wondering how you turned something that seemed mundane into something fantastical. Or wondering how we didn’t know about the small, everyday struggles of immigrants before.
So don’t be afraid to write what you want to write, to tell a story that needs to be told, no matter how intimidating it might seem. Don’t shy away from the extraordinary and settle for the mundane.
Write what you love, make it unique – that’s what makes good writing.