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Casual Fridays: What makes a good writer, and what motivates them?

We received an astonishing number of responses to last week’s Casual Fridays study, which claimed to be able to identify what makes a good writer in just a few minutes.

Of course, I wasn’t actually very confident that a brief survey could actually identify the factors that make a good writer. But I did have a hunch that there were certain traits that were more likely to be associated with good writing.

Was there a trick to the study?
Some respondents had a hunch that writing wasn’t the only thing we were interested in. You were right — we were also studying a completely unrelated phenomenon — more on that later.

But we did want to know about your writing as well, so let’s start with that. The study asked a few questions about writing ability: how much writing you do for work/study, how easy writing comes to you, whether you’ve been published, and so on. Then there was a surprise writing test: 3 minutes to write as much as you can on any topic, to be judged for coherence but not content. Finally, a few more questions.

This week’s study asked more of our readers than we usually do, so we expected that we wouldn’t get as many responses as usual. We were wrong about that: over 1,400 responded to the survey, and over 800 wrote an essay response. The average response length was 133 words — quite impressive for a three-minute time limit!

Many of the essays were skeptical that any human would actually read them, but I read every single one. I wanted to get a rough sense of the quality of the essays, so I assigned each a “grade.” To get an A, you had to be coherent for the entire essay, and not switch topics. Just writing complete sentences and only switching topics once or twice earned a B. A semi-random string of sentences earned a C. Incoherent drivel got a D, or in rare cases, an F. These were converted to a 4-point grade scale (where A=4 and F=0). This graph shows the distribution of grades:

writign1.jpg

As you can see, B was by far the most common grade, with very few Ds and Fs. There were some great little stories, including several I wish the writers had had time to finish. Lots about babies and cats. But did the questions we asked shed any light on what makes a good writer?

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