Notes from Crew Quarters: What Is Good Writing?
This Tuesday, Passages North will reopen for submissions! In honor of the wonderful stories, poems, and everything in between that we are going to be reading, we asked our crew the following question: How do you know good writing when you see it?
Matt Weinkam, Managing Editor
The sentences. Some people call this voice, some call it style, others think of it as music or sound, but it’s all the same thing—control. You can usually tell within the first few lines whether or not a writer is crafting something unique because the sentences have a particular cadence, a certain electric charge. Of course the writer has to take you somewhere—craft alone can’t carry the day—but the “combinational agility of words,” as Barthelme said, “makes art possible.”
Jacque Boucher, Spoken Word Poetry
Good writing is like a powerful key change in a song. It makes the hairs on my arms prickle and gives me split-second nervous butterfly guts. Sometimes, when someone just gets it so right, it hits with this explosive joy. It's not so much about knowing it when I see it, but knowing it when I feel it.
Jen Howard, Editor-in-Chief
A strong story start actually makes me want to stop reading. I don't know if that's a move to delay the pleasure of what's to come or fear that the rest of the story won't hold up, but it's a good sign when I click away from the submission on my screen for a moment to pause before heading back in.
Amy Hansen, Associate Poetry Editor
I'm not good at forming opinions about writing while I'm reading or even shortly after finishing. It takes me awhile. But I know for sure I read a good poem when thinking about it overrides whatever list of worries I was repeating to myself before I remembered it.
John LaPine, Associate Nonfiction Editor
Good writing makes me breathe in a little faster than usual; it can really take me by surprise sometimes. It evokes a voiceless "wow" from my lips, makes my eyes widen. It probably makes my pupils dilate (because the eyes do that when they see something they like). It's something I've never seen before, or maybe I have seen it before but this time the author leaves their wet imprint in the wax of my mind.
Ethan Brightbill, Associate Fiction Editor
On one hand, good writing doesn't place aesthetics over function. A story may include a particularly beautiful sentence, but if it stands out too much and distracts from the rest of the work, it lessens the quality of the story as a whole. Writing that goes beyond good to great, however, turns that rule on its head. Every sentence may be distractingly beautiful to the point that the reader wants to linger on each word, yet because function is maintained and quality is consistent, this becomes a boon rather than a nuisance.
Jason Teal, Associate Poetry Editor
A vision: First my eyes tear up, then blood runs down the bridge of my ruined nose. Why am I crying? A series of syllables strung together has wrought havoc on my ontological, sapien function. The vision takes many forms: a Corgi using a treadmill made for dogs, Crash Bandicoot's level-end twerking, but in all these appearances I have been in the presence of a piece of writing so specific and subtextually ripened it becomes easy to disregard its artifice.
Robin McCarthy, Managing Editor
Sometimes, when the acoustics and syntax are spot in, we find ourselves reading a prose submission aloud in an editorial meeting. That's a pretty good indicator that we're dealing with some pretty fantastic word-smithing. Alternatively, I have a high appreciation for when the words disappear, when I forget I'm reading at all, because it feels as though the page is just presenting me with compelling ideas or images, and the author is the furthest thing from my mind. Either way, there's usually some sort of physical "I can't stand this any longer" reaction, which sounds bad but is really good. But you should ask Tim. I think Tim's bar is that if it's good, it usually makes him need to pee.