Friday, April 19, 2013

Quality in Writing

Quality n. 1. (degree of) excellence. 2. characteristic, something that is special in a person or thing.

I've worked in the field of Quality for over thirty years. I've been responsible for the quality of valves used in the oil industry, the quality of cans and tubes used for dispensing medicine and the quality of advertising media. The most important job I've had, and my area of specialty, is in the quality of work performed on ships of the U.S. Navy. It's the subject I know best, the job I've held longest and the one that really matters to me.

When I watch a ship we've worked on sail away, all the equipment operating, all the sailors safe and confident in their ability to perform, I derive a deep sense of satisfaction. It's important to me to have a job that matters. So, when it comes to the Quality of the written word, I take inordinate pride in both my own writing and the writing of others. Most of my writing is policy, most of my reading is fiction. Somewhere in between I decided to marry the two and now I spend all my free time trying to become a Quality Writer.

We writers are a funny bunch. We can tear apart a sentence, paragraph, or novel until nothing remains but the shred of meaning that fomented it's creation. We can toss up grammar, punctuation, syntax and plot errors that no one else would think about. And we are our own worst critics - in both the best and worst ways. We recognize Quality, whether we can define it or not. We demand it in others, fight for it in ourselves and cringe at it's absence in both.

Quality in writing is, minimally, the accuracy of the use of those rules we learned in school. Every sentence needs a subject. Semi-colons must have a complete, relatable sentence on either side. Dangling participles will condemn you to hell. And we break many of those rules willingly.

Sometimes we break these rules for "effect;" to convey a mood, pacing or other nuance to the reader. Sometimes we break them without intent, because in the heat of the moment we don't pause to think about the structure of our writing (raises hand guiltily on both counts). Regardless of the violation, do these violations constitute Poor Quality?

I don't believe they do, and here's why: true Quality lies not in the accuracy of the written word. True, if you have enough errors in all of the rules, you will frustrate and lose your reader. If you have significant violations, either in quantity or severity, your writing will lose impact. But if you have reasonably accurate adherance and follow basic principles of plot, pacing, character development and subject, you can have high quality writing concurrent with grammatical error.

And that's the key: Quality writing is about the amalgamation of the words, sentences, punctuation and placement. It's the difficult to describe element that grabs the reader by the gut, makes them care about the subject of the story and keeps them turning the pages. It's the ability to relate to the people or the circumstance that you are writing about. Good writers of all genres may be grammatically accurate, providing "Quality" manuscripts. Great writers, truly Quality writers have developed sufficient style and dialogue skills, world-creating description and compelling plot-lines that allow them to break some of these rules and bend others to keep us moving to the end, leaving us wanting more.

Quality, then, is less a definitive degree of accuracy and more a managing of the intangible elements of our art. It's in the margins, in the nuance and subtext, and in the heart of the writer and the reader.

Go forth, ye writers, and create great Quality of written word!

“Raise your quality standards as high as you can live with, avoid wasting your time on routine problems, and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this, because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward.”
Edsger W. Dijkstra

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