Writing Coach Insights: Going Deeper


I’ve always been a little bit uncomfortable answering the question “What is good writing?” Sure, it’s easy to cite technique: freshness of language, specific sensory detail, and the like. But, of course, it’s more than that. My first college writing teacher called this “plumbing the depths.” It’s something a little harder to define, one of those things you only know when you see it. As a writing teacher, however, it seems like my duty to attempt a definition, or, at the very least, to explore a little further.

So here goes:

Good writing goes to a place that’s deeper than our conventional and conditioned responses. First, it sets aside language from everyday conversation, the same way that theater puts human behavior up on a stage. You can see a blank, white page a kind of spotlight.

That done, good writing says something authentic; it’s not something that someone or the greater culture has told you to say. It’s not something you automatically know is going to garner approval. It’s not something you say because it’s customary or habitual. Something authentic comes from a deep, personal place, although the subject matter need not be particularly intimate. Using words as signposts, it points to what is beyond language or even thought. You know a piece of writing has done this when you feel an internal sense of “yes,” as if it were confirming of something you always knew but had never seen expressed quite so.

Because this universe wants variety, good writing is fresh, unique, a little risky. It uses the medium of language in a novel way—bending words to new uses, combining them in new ways, delighting in experiments with sound, rhythm, and flow. It is this newness, this authenticity that takes us, as readers, to that powerful, wordless place, that spiritual place. Why? Familiarity breeds blindness. Our brains ignore that which it has seen or heard over and over again. Those of you who have done professional proofreading know what I’m talking about—you have to un-learn the habituation that makes you ignore the extra period at the end of the sentence, or the repeated “the” somewhere in the middle. Similarly, the painting hanging in your living room may be lovely, but it likely no longer elicits the excitement you felt when you first hung it there. Therefore, what we need to get to this powerful, wordless place is the unfamiliar, the striking, the unusual.

The thing is, you can’t try to get to this wordless place. All you can do is learn good technique and then sit down and start hammering boards together. Don’t try to be a prophet; just do the work. Don’t sit down to write with the intention of going beyond words. In fact, you must be deeply connected to words, to the writing itself, in order to create something that transcends the page.

This paradox has been fascinating me lately: the way we, as physical beings, must go deeply into the physical in order to transcend into the spiritual. This is true of writing, as well as anything else. This is why art exists. But this experience is not just for artists. Anything done with a certain intensity and presence can do this, including washing the dishes or unclogging a drain or running or car racing or breathing.

So, writing is just another mode of conscious presence. You get into that mode by learning technique, by knowing it almost on the level of instinct—the punctuation, the sentence structure, the powerful verbs, the economy of language. You learn technique so that you can forget technique—and through this process, you become fully present in the act of writing.

And this is the process whereby you become a “good” writer. Really, your only goal is to be a damn good sign maker. You’re just learning to point more and more precisely in the direction of something bigger, the place that is no-place. You’re just recording a thought that leads to no-thought. Wasn’t it Einstein who said that genius is nothing more than keeping your finger steady and knowing where the party’s at? Okay, maybe not in quite those words…