What Makes Writing Good?

Sarah McMahon
4 min readJul 31, 2022

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

I was flying from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, MN. From Minneapolis, Mike and I would rent a car and drive over an hour home to the farm I grew up on. I’ve been flying a lot lately, not sleeping enough, packing and unpacking and re-packing my bags, and sleeping in a lot of strange beds. Airports get more annoying each time I’m in them. Don’t people know to have their ID’s out? Why can’t they put their bags in the overhead bin and sit down already? On a recent flight to Denver, someone around me kept farting. I hoped it was a baby the row ahead of me, but I feared it was the man next to me. At any rate, I breathed into my sweater the duration of the flight.

On the flight to Minneapolis, I read through some of David Sedaris’ work in the New Yorker. Then I went to the Poetry Foundation website and read through a few recent poems-of-the-day. I recently read The Tender Bar and I’m currently reading The Dog Stars. I’ve enjoyed reading all of these things, but in between the good things, I’ve also started (and stopped) reading a handful of bad. One notable read that I didn’t enjoy was a book of poetry I bought in San Francisco. It was so nebulous as to be absolutely indecipherable, and I’m someone who studies/reads/writes poetry. If no one can understand it, what’s the goddamned point? I wondered.

What makes writing good might be somewhat subjective sure, but we all know when something is good don’t we? What is that? I wanted to understand, and after spending lots of time considering the question, I arrived at the following:

Good Writing is Understandable

It is not the job of a writer to make the world more complicated than it already is. Good writing should clarify something or illuminate a subject in a new and interesting way. It should not, like the book of poetry from San Francisco, make the world a more confusing place. Each time I’ve written about a new subject in any capacity (for work or for fun), I spend a considerable amount of time learning about what I need to write about. Know what you need to say and then say it in the most clear way possible (this applies to fiction as well).

Good Writing is Unique

Sarah McMahon

Blogger | Poet | Freelancer | Ultra Runner IG: @mcmountain email: sarahrose.writer@gmail.com