Quality writing is not subjectve

This is a short sequel expanding on the question of why writing workshops fail (but why you still need one).

So how do we end up in this situation, with groups of unskilled writers gathered together in workshops kicking the crap out of each others emotions to no useful purpose? Well it’s one of many destructive outcomes from the most pervasive myth in writing (and in many creative activities), the myth that quality is subjective.

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NO NO NO NO NO. NO. Buying in to the idea of quality as subjective is the very best way to completely disempower yourself as a writer. The quality of writing is as objective as anything else in this realm of existence. Choosing a Mercedes over a Chrysler may be subjective. But the layers of engineering, from the metallurgy employed to make the basic materials, up to the aerodynamics of the body, are entirely and demonstrably objective.

If you can’t write a decent sentence, you can’t write. Full stop. If you can’t carry a single idea from one end of a paragraph to another, your writing quickly loses meaning. If you don’t understand the dramatic structure you are working with, you don’t have a story. The end. Writing is as technically demanding, and requires the same breadth of technical knowledge, as law, engineering or medicine. And when you think through the influence that written language exerts over our culture and society, it’s every bit as essential.

If you’re scoffing at that suggestion, it’s because you have internalised the idea that writing and the quality of writing are subjective. Imagine if you wanted to be a lawyer, but instead of learning the law, every time you lost a case you just excused yourself by saying “Bah!  It’s all subjective!” You would be disbarred! And yet thousands upon thousands of people are drawn towards the profession of writing, only to crash on to rocky shoreline of quality. You can’t really get good at writing (or anything else for that matter) until you acknowledge that you CAN get good at it. And you can’t even begin that process until you recognise that being good at writing, like being good at anything, is far from a subjective matter.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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