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Review of  What Is Good Writing?

Reviewer: Donna Patricia Bain Butler
Book Title: What Is Good Writing?
Book Author: Geoffrey Huck
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 27.2097

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Reviews Editor: Robert Arthur Cote


Geoffrey J. Huck’s book, “What Is Good Writing”, explains why reading is key to good writing and questions whether standard composition programs really teach students to become better writers. The researcher claims that without a definition of good writing, we cannot know how to teach or assess writing in school or at university. Part I offers an historical background and cognitive approach to good writing. Part II focuses on why good writing can be defined as fluent writing, fluency being a matter of competence rather than performance. Huck shows that everyone in education―composition-studies and rhetoric communities in particular―has a great deal to learn from cognitive scientists about what competence in writing is and how it is achieved. Part III deals with the relation between form and content and how the cognitive approach, “... in particular Relevance theory, is applicable to artistic as well as to the more functional genres of writing” (p. xv).

In Chapters 1 and 2, “Historical Background and A Cognitive Approach to Good Writing” respectively, Huck points out that “good writing has shifted over the years from the work of the classic authors to rule-following to scores on indirect tests to categorization via rubric... accompanied by the deliberate walling off of school and university students from professional writers” (p. 19). The author suggests that “evaluating fluency in writing should not be much different from evaluating fluency in speaking,” and that “gaining facility with patterns that occur in written language through avid independent reading” makes a difference for developing writers (p. 31). Key factors are exposure and motivation.

In Chapter 3, “Constructional Fluency”, Huck introduces Construction Grammar, a construction being “learned pairing of a particular linguistic pattern with its meaning and function in discourse” (p. 48). He refers to writing conventions as constructional combinations that cannot be learned as prescriptivist rules or taught without awareness of how language is a system with “massively interconnected” parts (p. 52). He says a person becomes fluent by learning how “various constructions combine through exposure to their usage in various contexts” (p. 61). With more exposure and more contexts, not conscious rule-following, a person’s understanding of the construction deepens and the writer develops.

Chapters 4-6 are entitled “Pragmatic, Narrative, and Graphemic Fluency” respectively. Here Huck presents aspects of Relevance Theory consistent with Constructionist Theory, the former being “an inferential model [that] does not assume that communication is simply a process of encoding and decoding” but rather “a complex of intention and inference” (p. 97). Developing writers need to be aware of literary conversations and motivated enough “to join a discourse that a person learns (intuitively) how to participate in” (p. 98). Therefore, in addition to competence in handling grammatical constructions, or what he calls “constructional fluency”, Huck says developing writers need principles governing use of structural patterns in writing or “pragmatic fluency”. For Huck, storytelling is a kind of pragmatic fluency he calls “narrative fluency”, one that presents a threefold narrative problem for writers once they have a topic dealing with relevant information, a plan for presentation, and sustained focus. In addition to aforementioned pragmatic and constructional aspects of language competence, consistency with graphemic conventions such as spelling and punctuation are important, according to Huck, because they aid the reader in processing the material read. This competence he labels graphemic fluency. Huck closes the section by using the term language teacher instead of writing teacher, underscoring why we all need to be clear about what is systemic and what is arbitrary with and for students. The difference between British and American spelling and punctuation, he warns, cannot be taken as “proxies for overall literacy and fluency in language” (p. 130). Students, teachers, and policy makers at all levels need to consider student writer fluency.

In Chapters 7-9, more aspects of good writing are presented. Chapter names are “Figurative Language; Surprise, Repetition, and Complexity; and Verbal Art and Craft” respectively. Manipulation of figures like metaphor, for example, constitutes a feature of good writing “where fluency requires sensitivity to relevance in context” (p. 139). Through close reading of literary text and application of Relevance Theory, Huck explains quality in writing by fluent writers with acknowledgement that literary art, or literature, is more than superfluency. “To become fluent,” he says, “one only has to exploit that natural capacity” to communicate and participate in discourse (p. 156). Huck’s prescription is to read more widely.


This book offers an accessible, coherent theory of written language that demands more than cursory reading for the average reader. The author’s conception of good writing as a display of fluency emerges from Relevance Theory which, for Huck, is explanatory, not descriptive or taxonomic. The author uses empirical research to answer a very broad question relevant to those with a strong interest in writing and how it is learned.The author succeeds in answering the question in his title by identifying aspects of language relevant to writing competence, or fluency. He uses these terms synonymously, intending to suggest a level of mental development and display of written language typical of other fluent writers.

The source of many of our students’ writing problems, Huck argues, is “lack of appropriate input through reading and the motivation and curiosity to acquire it” (p. xiii). Like Krashen, Huck believes that self-motivated reading, or learning from (comprehensible) input, “is the key to the development of skill in writing and language achievement in general” (p. xiv). Similar to Krashen, however, Huck does not account for automatization of consciously learned (declarative) knowledge as procedural knowledge. Although Huck agrees that highly accomplished teachers can use effective strategies (or conscious, goal directed actions) to improve students’ writing, he seems to be on the other side of the fence when it comes to the value of informed, explicit instruction and information awareness for students.

From an applied linguistics perspective, Huck’s conventional use of terms like literacy, general fluency (competence) in writing, and culture of writing may raise red flags for trained professionals working intensively with heterogeneous groups of people operating in more than one language and for whom the native speaker is not idealized. When Huck suggests a concept of native writer similar to native speaker, for example, he may be reinforcing the native speaker fallacy that already exists in the minds of many students, teachers and others in U.S. universities and law schools where mandatory writing courses are typically taught by untrained native speakers and where non-native speakers may be seen as remedial or in need of academic support.

In sum, the author might reconsider his linguist conception of native speaker status for fluent writers if he expects to positively influence the fields of composition, rhetoric, and legal writing in the United States. Accuracy may be just as important as fluency for some developing writers and even more important for some working professionals. Although we probably all agree that fluency in writing “can never be achieved by taking a few courses in writing at the secondary, university, and postgraduate level”, there is no question that we all can gain declarative linguistic knowledge by carefully considering what Huck says about writing competence, or fluency, in this book.
Donna Bain Butler is a Fulbright Specialist in Applied Linguistics/TEFL. She was appointed to American University’s Washington College of Law after working in the AU English Language Institute and assessing oral language proficiency with the U.S. Dept. of Justice (FBI). Donna holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Education and Culture from the University of Maryland College Park. She co-authors writing strategies research and has recently published a monograph (2015), Developing International EFL/ESL Scholarly Writers. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780190212957
Pages: 232
Prices: U.S. $ 74.00