Good Question: What is a “good” writer, anyway?


Would you PLEASE help me? My mother is a former English major and is very traditional when it comes to punctuation and grammar.

When she reads things I have written, she is mortified. She thinks that my tone is too casual (I’m running a business and trying to attract customers) and that my grammar makes me sound like an idiot.

We have had more than one nasty fight and misunderstanding, especially when it comes to my use of commas.

Is there a trick you use for when and where to use commas, or something I can say to her that might put her mind at ease?

— Meg


I think you (and everybody else reading this) know that this question isn’t really about “commas.”

It’s not really about punctuation or grammar at all.

I think the question you’re really asking is:

What is a “good” writer, anyway?

And secondarily:

How can I convince my mom that I am one?

I can’t really help you with the second question, because the truth is, your style of writing may NEVER resonate with your mom.

But that doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer.

And here’s why:

The whole “point” of writing is to inspire your reader to FEEL, KNOW or DO something. (Sometimes, all three.)

If you’re writing an erotic novel, you want your reader to FEEL turned on, titillated and excited.

If you’re writing a guidebook to help folks set up a simple website on a budget, you want your reader to KNOW how to, well, set up a simple website on a budget.

If you’re writing a passionate speech about how women are not paid equally and fairly for their work, you want your reader to DO something about that problem. Like hold a round-table discussion with their employer. Or call up a local government leader and demand progressive action.

If your readers are FEELING, KNOWING and DOING what you want them to FEEL, KNOW and DO, then … congratulations! YOU are a good writer.

It’s as simple as that.

Now, if your spelling is so atrocious that it’s impossible for your reader to grasp what they’re supposed to be feeling, knowing and doing … that’s a problem.

If you write in long, rambling whirlwinds that lack focus and purpose and trail off to nowhere-land … that’s a problem.

If you use words incorrectly because you don’t know their definitions … that’s a problem.

But if you insert an extra comma here or there to indicate a “pause” or a conversational “breath” … or if you make certain words appear in all CAPS for extra emphasis … or if you start sentences with the word “And…” because it just feels right … even though it’s not technically grammatically correct … in my opinion?

That is not a problem.

If those stylistic choices make it EASIER for your reader to FEEL, KNOW and DO what you want them to FEEL, KNOW and DO, then they are not “mistakes.” They are a GOOD thing.

So go forth, Meg, and write the way that you naturally think and speak.

Write from the hut — heart and gut — extra commas and all.

As long as you are getting the kind of RESPONSE that you want and feel UNDERSTOOD — it’s all GOOD.

It’s your INTENT that shines through.

I’m sure that, in time, even your momma will see that, too.

No, matter, how, many, commas, you, use.

Moms are awesome and are usually right about everything. But not always. If your mom is still fussing and fretting about your “casual” use of language, tell her to watch THIS.

P Do YOU have any little writing “quirks” that drive certain people crazy? What do you say to yourself when faced with criticism?