As a writer, I highly recommend Ann Handley’s Nine Qualities of Good Writing. As an editor, I can’t resist the urge to distill writing advice even more. Whether it’s a limerick or a novel or a State of the Union address, all writing needs these overlapping, interwoven qualities:
Clear: Above all else, you must make sense. Even science fiction and fantasy require internal logic and consistency to maintain the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. The key to clarity is flow; your plot, in fiction and narrative nonfiction, or your argument, in persuasive writing, has to unfold coherently, building from one event or point to the next. You can mess around with chronology for dramatic purposes (the movie Memento unfolds in two directions at once), as long as the reader can follow.
Concise: Michaelangelo was asked how he could sculpt a magnificent, lifelike form out of a slab of marble. He replied, “I simply chip away the parts that don’t look like David.” This is a helpful way to think about concision. If brevity were the only concern, then haikus and Six Word Stories would be the highest forms of literature. Being concise is about reducing your draft to the number of words it requires to get your point across, and no more. (Michaelangelo’s David, it’s worth noting, is 17 feet tall.) Every chapter, every paragraph, every line, should expound on your premise or advance your plot. Any that don’t should be chiseled out.
Compelling: Relevant details and strong words are the difference between typing and writing. Details that add color and texture engage readers. Your word choices enhance the effect; “write like you talk” is the worst advice I’ve ever heard, because most of us use too many words with too little variety. Early in my journalism career, an editor pointed out that our competition wasn’t just the other newspaper in town. It was everything that vies for people’s precious free time — national news media, entertainment, sports — and they will bail from your article in a heartbeat if they feel you’re wasting their time. Life is too short for words that don’t engage you on some level.