Whenever you draft a post in WordPress, it’s pitched against a set of criteria devised by a company named Yoast, which tells you how “good” your writing is. By that, I mean it analyses your post, primarily, for readability and SEO. Icons appear on the right-hand side of the screen, and next to each icon – a simple emoji, shaded red, orange, grey or green – is a brief explanation of what’s “good”, “bad”, or merely “okay” about your post, relating to different elements of writing. These elements include the use of passive voice, transition words and subheadings, as well as comments about paragraph length and the variety of sentence types.
More often than not, my initial drafts score quite poorly against the Yoast criteria. For one thing, I don’t use subheadings. Also, I tend to write a lot of long sentences, while the percentage of sentences written in the passive voice is usually way too high—something, I have to say, which surprises and disappoints me. Nobody likes to be told their writing is weak – least of all writers – and I like to think I know my stuff when it comes to grammar. I taught English as a foreign language for several years, and for that your knowledge of passive voice, subjunctive mood, and the difference between the present perfect simple and present perfect continuous needs to be airtight. Nowadays, I teach writing skills to primary school children, which is a bit less technical, but nevertheless forces me to focus on the fundamentals on a daily basis. Besides, even at this level we get into some pretty lengthy discussions about paragraph breaks and the use of semi-colons, let me tell you…
Why does any of this matter? The short answer is, it doesn’t. Writing for the internet, and the criteria by which such writing is judged, is, in many ways, the antithesis of everything for which creativity and true art stands. Not that I’m claiming these blog posts to be artistic in any way, but I would like to think they contain some good writing, and good writing doesn’t come down to a set of stats—or at least, it shouldn’t. This begs the question, then: what is “good” writing? There are, of course, as many answers to this question as there are “good” writers, and of course one person’s idea of “good writing” may differ wildly from the next. Elle Nash, with whom I’ve been working on a few pieces of fiction recently, describes good writing as having a “feel”. I agree with this, but here’s the thing: Elle is also an excellent editor, and knows her grammatical onions better than most.
Whatever your definition of good writing might be, I bet any time you’ve read something you consider to be “good”, it contained strong, well composed, grammatically sound sentences. And even if it didn’t, nine times out of ten, those writers who flout the rules of grammar, and mess around with style, syntax, and sentence structure, do so deliberately. In order to get away with breaking the rules, you gotta know ‘em first, right?
In this sense, the readability and SEO analysis can serve a purpose. We all have our blind spots—the words, structures, and sentence patterns on which we rely too heavily. And whether you’re writing for the internet or trying to compose a portal story about Jimmy the jaguar, you still need to make sure your sentences deliver, so it often pays to look at your writing on a clinical level. In my own pursuit of turning those sad red faces into smiley green ones, I find myself looking carefully at each sentence and deciding whether or not I’m happy with it, and how – if at all – I can improve it. Sometimes I can’t, and I sometimes I just can’t be bothered. Not every sentence needs to be perfect. Sometimes, though, using a different transition word does make it better, while the overuse of the passive voice is a sign of weak writing, and any sentences you can put into the active voice will immediately pack a harder punch as a result.
Going back to the subject of teaching kids to write, there are plenty of folk out there – including a number of published writers – who love to say things like, “I’ve never heard of a fronted adverbial, or an expanded noun phrase, and I’ve managed just fine. Why do these kids need to know?” While I accept that these terms are, for the most part, ridiculous, government-devised labels, I’d also argue that using such devices can help children – and adults – improve their writing. More importantly, you might not know your arse from your elbow when it comes to grammar, dear celebrity-turned-children’s author, but I guarantee your editor does, and without an editor your book would be even worse than it already is.
But I digress. In fact, I forget what my original point was. Oh, yeah. I suppose what I’m saying is, by all means, pour forth your thoughts in a burst of unchecked creativity and publish it on your website as one big paragraph, ignoring the stats about how many of your sentences contain more than twenty words. But, as I tell the kids in my class, at some point, you’ve gotta read what you’ve written and make sure doesn’t feel like sifting through a plate of regurgitated pizza, trying to find all the unchewed olives…
Man, they love that metaphor.