Over the past few years, I’ve gotten some questions about what makes a good essay.
Good writing first and foremost is not about style or polish. I think that’s the biggest disconnect for many people whose office environments are overwhelmingly focused on polish and style that it messes with their notion of what is deemed “good writing.” When asked to write outside a corporate context, it can be completely disorienting — right becomes left, up becomes down.
What makes good writing?
The most important quality is CLARITY. Unless you’re writing a diary for your eyes only, you write to be understood. Your main thesis, opinion, and intentions have to be absolutely crystal clear to a reader. Oftentimes, it’s scraping away all the double-speak, buzzwords and cliche phrases learned over the years in an office. When in doubt, use the simpler word because it’s likely closer to the heart (which is what an essay with a subjective voice is all about – you are writing in the first person after all).
Another important quality is SPECIFICITY. Without being specific about what you’re talking about, you can’t be precise in your insight. And if you’re not precise, what you say has no substance, leaving no impact on a reader. Oftentimes, stripping all the shit away from one’s writing into plain English can really reveal what you *really* know because you can’t hide behind language.
ECONOMY is also paramount. Even award winning novelists (or their editors at least) strive for this. You cut out as much fat as possible – both the words and the content. The more succinct, the greater the impact.
And the last one for writing from a subjective viewpoint (first person narrative) is SINCERITY. Tonally, it’s got to sound like a real person, not a robotic PR release. Aim for a lack of formality without being casual.
Your essays may not sound like the stylized writing you are used to at work, but believe me it will be miles better than the overwhelming majority of shit you’ll see in powerpoint presentations, website copy and business correspondence. Corporate speak makes it harder to separate the clueless, incompetent, and spineless from the knowledgeable, talented and ethical – that’s why it can be an invaluable “cover your ass” dialect in a bureaucracy.
One last thing. All of this doesn’t mean that style is irrelevant. Highly stylized writing can certainly be fun to read especially in the hands of a talented writer with keen insight, but only if such writing is clear, specific, concise and sincere. In the context of b-school essays however, it’s unnecessary and distracting. That’s the underlying problem with language used in many office environments – it’s a highly stylized form without the clarity, specificity, economy or sincerity one will see in truly good writing.