What Separates Good Writing From Bad Writing?

Originally Published on Contently.com on January 19, 2018 By Shane Snow

The other day, I was struck by a quote I read in a blog post about vulnerability from author and Wharton professor Adam Grant: “Good communicators make themselves look smart. Great communicators make their audiences feel smart.”

Grant’s words reminded me of the time I discovered, to my horror, that I write at an 8th grade reading level. This discovery led me to study the reading level of great writers (and also not-so-great ones). Turns out the most popular authors tend to write at a lower reading level than the typical person in her or his field.

I came to the conclusion that this kind of writing is popular because, as my favorite journalism school professor put it, “Great writing speeds you along.” If you don’t have to look up words or think too hard about what you’re reading, you turn pages faster and enjoy them more—even if you can read more advanced prose.

But Grant’s quote also gave me pause. It added another dimension to my theory about good writing. There’s also a lot of really crappy, unenjoyable work written at lower reading levels. So what makes the difference?

I think it’s this:

good writing diagram

The worst writing makes you feel dumb and is hard to get through. In this scenario, you’re either in way over your head or the author doesn’t know his audience.

Writing that’s overly simplistic or patronizing is slightly more palatable. These words may make you say, “Ugh,” but at least they don’t waste too much of your time.

Then comes writing that makes us smarter, better people, even if reading it is difficult. Most of the textbooks I remember from college read this way. Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was this way for me. (Though, admittedly, I’m not an economist, so it may have been easier for his core audience to understand.)

Even the few notable exceptions I can think of, like David Foster Wallace, whose beautiful prose is extraordinarily tedious, tend to fit into the above diagram. Wallace’s work is rewarding if you get through it. But if I had a dollar for every person who I knew who still had Infinite Jest on their nightstand with a bookmark stuck on page 10…

So how do you make your audience feel smart? Teach them something new. But do it in an enjoyable way.

But when you look at writing that makes its way around the world—articles that go viral and books that break out—you’ll notice that they simultaneously make you feel smart and energized. They’re not a chore. I’m thinking about every Malcolm Gladwell (8th grade reading level!) book that gives me 25 things to talk about at the bar. I think about Sheryl Sandberg’s books and New York Times op-eds (7.5 grade), which make me see the world differently and feel hungry for more. I think about Jon Ronson (6.5) and J.K. Rowling (5.5) for the same reason. And I think about Ezra Klein’s and Nate Silver’s journalism, which breaks down difficult material into enlightening insights and charts.

The best kids books also fit into the top-right quadrant of the diagram. (Hello, Dr. Seuss!) Books that are easy to read while helping kids learn are extraordinarily satisfying. It’s no surprise they’re popular.

This system is why I’m convinced The Da Vinci Code has sold 80 million copies, despite its criticism. The author has been mocked by other (perhaps jealous) writers for his simplistic prose and use of cliches, but guess what? He’s easy to read. And his puzzles and twists make us feel smart when we guess them right ahead of time.

Whether these popular writers think about it or not, they understand Grant’s point: Communication should be about the audience, not us.

No audience wants to work harder than necessary. And nobody wants to feel stupid. Audiences won’t care how smart you are if you make them feel dumb. Yet so often we think it’s our job to do just that. So we use big words. We make things complicated. And then we curb our potential reach. As Grant said in his post, “It’s not about you. It’s about them.”

So how do you make your audience feel smart? Teach them something new. But do it in an enjoyable way.

One of my favorite examples of how to do this comes from my buddy Tim Urban, who writes the popular blog WaitButWhy. He scoffs at conventional wisdom about short attention spans, choosing to publish 10,000-word blog posts about topics like how artificial intelligence works, Cryonic freezing, and uploading our brains to computers. This is intense stuff, but he has millions of loyal readers. That’s because he explains these difficult topics using a mix of humor, clear analogies, and hand-drawn comics that make understanding them simpler. (And, big surprise, he usually writes at below an 8th grade reading level.) You finish his posts feeling like you know something new and complex without having to work that hard.

It’s like beating a tricky level on a video game on the first try. No one cares how smart the video game designer is. We just care if we love the game.