Editor’s Note: The following piece, by the late, great Herman Holtz, is part of our collection of “classics”–articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.
Most of us probably have some notion of what is good writing and what is poor writing, and probably most of us measure or judge writing by different standards we believe to be appropriate as measures of quality. The truth is, however, that quality is an elusive characteristic and is not the same for all kinds of writing. I have read what some think to be great prose, and I have sometimes found it wanting rather badly. But that may have been because I didn’t like the genre–some science fiction does not please me at all, for example–and never found what I thought to be great writing in that field, although I am not at all sure why I feel that way. On the other hand, my own work (and my own success) has tended to be primarily in how-to writing, and I have rather sharp opinions about writing quality on how-to subjects.
Research versus Writing Quality
Over the years, especially working as an editor and, later, as a manager, I have often observed a certain phenomenon occurring in manuscript drafts. The manuscript starts well as a free-flowing, clear text, but then suddenly turns turgid and generally vague. It seems, in such cases, as though the writer does very well in dealing with the general information on the subject, but runs into trouble when it is time to get down to the details. This may come across as poor writing, at first, but it is really not poor writing as much as it is the result of poor research. It reflects a less than adequate understanding of the subject: The writer has not mastered the subject before trying to explain it to a reader.
A Diagnosis and its Test
Oddly enough, you will probably have trouble persuading that writer to believe your diagnosis of the problem. It is characteristic for a writer accused of not knowing the subject well enough to assure you that he or she knows the subject to great extent.
I tested my diagnosis and solved the problem by requiring the writer to leave the manuscript with me, go back to research of the subject for a day or two, and then write the piece from scratch again. The result was usually a highly satisfying improvement in the manuscript. Not only did this test cope with the problem successfully, but it also was a great object lesson for the writer, who never forgot the lesson learned.
As the writer, you must learn how to gauge the adequacy of your own how-to research. It isn’t always easy to determine when you have mastered the subject well enough to write knowledgeably and authoritatively about it. I test myself by self-editing my work every morning as the first chore of my workday. If whatever I am writing requires two weeks of my time to complete, I have edited the early portions of the manuscript many times before I have finished. I have had many opportunities to see the manuscript with almost the objectivity of a stranger. That is many opportunities to find vagueness where I ought to find specific details.
Yes, we all have the capacity for fooling ourselves, for believing what we know is not really true; however, it is possible to train yourself to examine your own writing with an objective eye. Become suspicious the moment the technical level of your manuscript appears to be declining. Go back to your research and see what it is that is lacking in your knowledge of the subject.
Great writing due to great research
All writing requires research, and how-to writing requires the most thorough and detailed research. The harsh truth is that the quality of your writing of such material can never be better than quality of the research you do on the subject. It takes great research to write a great how-to; all the writing skill in the world cannot make up for a lack of necessary information. But you must learn to measure the adequacy of your research by measuring the adequacy of your knowledge. Think of research in terms of quality, as you think of writing. That is, research can be poor, mediocre, or great, and it takes great research to turn out a great how-to material.