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Evaluating Writing
March 12, 2008 - 7:08pm


Little Truths contest judge Steve Davenport is currently hunkered down with your entries—cogitating, masticating—and I strongly suggest we give him some privacy and time to finish. He says he’ll be ready to post winners here on Friday. In the meantime, here’s a bit on having aesthetic standards, about which I argue with him twice a month.


Most of us have known—or been—undergraduates who believed the evaluation of writing is a sham or trick because everything is mere taste. They’re wrong, in part because they aren’t yet proficient enough to discriminate. Put less delicately, they’re under-read, under-thought, and under-written—what one of my own undergraduate English professors meant when he called us “semi-literate.” As Emerson said, “The foolish have no range in their scale, but suppose every man is as every other man. What is not good they call the worst, and what is not hateful, they call the best.”

It hurts to hear that, but we’d never doubt the ability of an experienced horse trader to know nags from thoroughbreds, and we don’t begrudge chefs their judgments on whether the Béarnaise has emulsified. Most of us can’t do most things well, and we cross high bridges over large rivers by believing that engineers know their business.

Yet for some reason we still hold out hope that anyone can write, even without adequate preparation, and feel mistrust in our livers when someone judges our work. Blame some combo of old romantic notions about being a writer and the democracy of voice in the digital age. Besides: Credentials don’t always coincide with evaluative skill; writing is more complex than making a sauce; and a year before Herman Melville’s death, a New York paper wrote:

Mr. Melville is now an old man…. Forty-four years ago, when his most famous tale, Typee, appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. … And to-day? Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in this country laughed recently at my statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two city blocks. "Nonsense," said he. "Why, Melville is dead these many years!"

I’m not the judge for the Little Truths Contest, but if I were, I would first note the criteria, which are a sort of rubric or container: 75 words or less. Revelation, unmasking, new understanding. Clear, concise, vivid. Detail, image, sensory language, maybe even scenes. Alertness, quickening, focusing. The human. True and true.

Beyond the satisfactions of form, good prose is a mildly synesthetic experience for me. Think of the rat in Ratatouille as he tastes a rind of cheese, then a berry, then both together as colors swirl and pop in his mind. I constantly struggle to invent new metaphors to explain this experience to students, so they’ll know when they’re creating it. Literature, I say, can be like an orange—small, fragrant, perfect in its form—or it can be as loud and dirty as a bus that will run your ass down.

A piece of writing, as it lies on a desk, is only a thing, but it should be a mere thing in the same way a well-used knife is the mere remainder of the process of its smelting, forging, honing, and polishing. It’s also a sign of all the unseen things it’s already cut, and it should be lying there oiled and re-sharpened, waiting to do its work again.

Just for fun, I asked editors at several journals around the country to tell me what they think makes for good prose. Here’s what they had to say:

Michael Czyzniejewski, Editor-in-Chief, Mid-American Review:
Good literary prose removes the reader from reading and places her or him in the world the writer is depicting. Good writing does not seem like reading at all, but an actual, live experience.

Leah Browning, Editor, Apple Valley Review: A Journal of Contemporary Literature:
Language is just so much artful decoration if it doesn't have anything to back it up. I love a beautifully constructed sentence, but I also want to have a good story, an interesting conflict, something to hold my attention.

Dinty Moore, Editor, Brevity:
There is no wheel spinning at the beginning, while the author dances around her subject. She just plunges right in. And when the final word is reached—the essay or story stops. (Not that the author does any of this on the first draft. I'm talking about revision.)

Thom Didato, Editor, failbetter:

  1. somebody does something to someone;
  2. something happens to someone;
  3. nothing happens...but in a funny way;
  4. nothing happens...but in a thought-provoking way;
  5. shit happens...but fuck it, it's all subjective anyway .

Nina Bayer, Editor, Lunch Hour Stories Magazine:
Good literary prose, regardless of its genre or length, contains a story I can get lost in. When I have hundreds of submissions to read (like I have today), and I'm trying to quickly go through them and weed out the "not on your life" stories, I often will find one manuscript that sucks me in and won't let go. …it's not a "normal" or "typical" or "been told a hundred times" story (I can't tell you how many "boy meets girl in bar" stories I've received). It's exotic, or strange, or cultural in nature, and takes me to a place I've never been with a person I've never met but would like to. It moves me or thrills me or tears my heart out. "Publish me" is written all over it.

Gina Frangello, Executive Editor, Other Voices magazine/OV Books:
It seems to me that other than the basic necessities of clear, compelling writing and vivid characters, the thing that makes literature great is the ability of a piece to stand up to multiple readings and yield something nuanced and new each time, adding to the piece's complexity and pleasure. This could be called the absence of a "punch line," perhaps. Often a story is fun to read the first time through due to wondering what will "happen," but once a simple twist or surprise has been revealed at the end, the story loses its urgency and relevance. The best literature, by contrast, should be able to be returned to again and again, and the reader should always be able to savor the separate ingredients and experience something new.

To paraphrase the infamous statement about hard-core pornography by Supreme Court Justice Stewart, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know [good writing] when I see it ...." And, Rory, you know I am rarely wrong.


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