The idea that “Good guys write best” is not a pitch for a higher morality in the content of one’s writing. It’s a call for more effective writing by applying some practical “good guy” principles. Simply put, good guys and gals produce quality writing or editing with liberal doses of the good guy ingredients: humility, generosity, conscientious energy, persistence, reliability, courtesy, sympathy, empathy, honesty, etc.
Undoubtedly some “bad guys” write well, usually by applying—in their writing, anyway—some “good guy” principles, such as hard work. Admittedly, some bad guys have great talent, not all good guys write best, and many can’t write their way out of a paper bag. But then not all good guys put their principles into their writing practice.
Applying “good guy” principles to writing and editing would seem essential. Yet in books, magazines, seminars, classes, and newsletters, these practices typically gain little or no mention by authors, editors, publishers, writing teachers, or critics. Really! Whether it’s some kind of universal reality or not, being a good guy, or gal, seems a good policy to follow. And here’s the good part—by drawing on one’s better self, almost anyone can become a better writer or editor.
Aside from the curious and wondrous talents of certain creative neurotics, womanizers, alcoholics, druggies, blue meanies, despicables, and the like—an extremely large percentage of whom burn out early or, as likely, never get started—the clear application of good guy principles no doubt significantly improves the quality of one’s writing and editing. Thus the best writing or expression typically comes not from the egocentric, the racist, the over-powering bully, the manipulator, the trickster, the arrogant, the hot-shot, or the show-off. Nor does the best writing—despite age-old claims for neurosis, misery, and alienation as essential artistic ingredients—typically spring from the lone outsider or the self-destructive misfit.
Far more likely, the best writing comes from those good guy writers and editors who simply are genuine, reasonable, fair-minded, courteous, attentive, down-to-earth, straight-forward, caring, and responsive. In short, from those who are both easier to understand and far more credible—those who, in the widest sense of human bondage, communicate on the same wavelength where the other mortals hang out.
Good guys, including experienced professionals, may have genuine confidence, yet don’t readily perceive themselves as world class talents. Hardly stuck on themselves, they are able to grow, learn from others, and ultimately have much to say for themselves. Good guys are more likely to give the manuscript another read; or the book another draft. The good guy doesn’t merely waste time rereading his or her copy while immensely enjoying one’s own words of wisdom.
Rather the good guy courteously gives full attention and seriously ponders, edits, polishes, and rewrites. And if the work isn’t up to par, the good guy doesn’t feel right about inflicting it upon a paying or busy reader. Nor does a good guy editor feel right about inflicting less than polished work upon the reader.
Most fine writers and editors are great readers. Hardly a “know it all,” the good guy pays full attention. Good guys better identify with, better understand, and better connect with the reader too—not least because he or she genuinely feels things. Just as an actor draws on inner resources, the good guy draws on deeper resources to convey thoughts and emotions with more genuine, credible impact.
Good guys are not only fully aware of their own intended communication, but make a serious effort to relate to others in a language and style others can understand. Good guys, typically well aware of others, can readily put themselves into others’ shoes.
Significantly, all through the writing process, the good guy retains a more persistent sense of the actual reader even though, as distinct from conversation, the reader isn’t immediately present to respond and signal likes and dislikes, understandings, and confusions.
Undoubtedly the finest writing typically flows from those with high sensitivity to others—especially the reader! Thus, not so egocentric as to focus only on what they’re writing, good guys don’t easily lose sight of the reader. Good listeners are better able to recognize—even while writing or editing—when the reader is getting bored and needs more excitement… is distracted and needs a sharper focus… is tapping one’s toes because it’s taking too long to get to the point… or is offended by insensitive writing.
Who knows better than the persistent, attentive listener when the reader suddenly grows skeptical and the writing needs shoring up… when the reader need not hear the same thing over and over again… doesn’t catch on because the sentence is too complex with too many pieces to juggle and grasp… when the reader has waded through too much description… needs more suspense or conflict… is getting lost and needs a signpost… or, not least, is truly getting “the goods” and wants—not a selfish helping, but a generous helping. Who knows?—the good guy!
If the writing isn’t honest, odds are it isn’t credible—no matter how long-winded. A less than solid bargain, it somehow rings hollow. With good guys, one’s word is good, the copy isn’t overblown hype, doesn’t seek a bigger response than the story warrants, and the reader need not put his guard up.
Good guys don’t worry much about fame and fortune. And they don’t so much worry about people stealing their ideas, as they worry about having ideas worth stealing. They worry about producing something of real value, and they’re always working at it and often trying to make it better.
Admittedly an Adolph Hitler can appeal to millions; yet Hitler’s arrogant Third Reich lasted not a thousand years, as planned, but was brought low in a dozen. To produce admirable, lasting literature, more likely requires the behavioral qualities of the less arrogant good guy.
Does your writing or editing meet the good guy test? It’s not enough even if you recognize these qualities in yourself. Be the best guy you can be, the best writer or editor you can be, and put these principles into practice. There’s a good guy’s chance you’ll come up with some fine writing or editing.
Ron Kenner, editor of RKEdit, is a former Metro staff writer for “The Los Angeles Times,” was Supervisor of Publications for a multinational corporation, a newspaper editor and “deskman” (copy editor), and has authored, co-authored, and edited a number of published books and publications. His firm, RKEdit, provides professional editing and writing services and editorial consulting. Visit Kenner’s Web site at www.rkedit.com.