The Two Types of Bad Writing

There are two kinds of bad writing in this world. One of them is relatively harmless and while we often complain about seeing it in print, it’s excusable when the story being told is good enough. The other, fortunately, is rarely if ever seen in print.

There is bad writing that is transparent. It is unremarkable, and generally, after a page or two, it sort of dissolves into the background and you don’t really notice it anymore and you can get on with enjoying the story.

This is the kind of writing seen in books like Twilight, or The DaVinci Code, or, some would argue, the Harry Potter series. The writing itself isn’t going to win any awards, but the stories are enjoyable, and so millions of people buy the books.

Then there’s the other kind of bad writing. This is the kind of writing that pulls us out of the story being told on an alarmingly frequent basis. The words often do not say what the writer intended them to say, which only serves to confuse the reader. These are the books that, thankfully, rarely get published, but are often seen on various writing critique sites.

The problem lies in the fact that many of these writers are delusional, for lack of a better word. They get critiques that tell them their writing just isn’t up to snuff. Except then they look at all the other “bad”, published writers out there and claim that the writing doesn’t really matter, that those writers are “bad” and they’ve sold a gajillion copies of their books.

They don’t understand that their own writing isn’t just bad. It’s incomprehensible. It’s confusing. It’s getting in the way of telling the story. These writers need to get back to the basics of good sentence structure and saying what they mean. I’d rather see a whole string of adverbs that say exactly what the writer meant to say than a single, supposedly-strong verb that makes no sense in the context in which it’s used. Nine times out of ten, the “bad” writer in this case just doesn’t have the experience and skills they need to be a “good” writer. They don’t write enough and they probably don’t read enough. There’s nothing stopping them from being a good writer other than practice.

“Bad” published writers can tell a story. Their writing might be better categorized as “unremarkable” instead of bad. It’s not good, but it just sort of gets out of the way and tells the story. The other kind of bad writing is remarkable, but not in a good way.

As far as a way to fix this, I think it’s really a two-fold problem. First, the writers themselves need help to improve. I have one piece of advice, applicable to virtually all writers, but particularly to new writers: write how you talk. Now, I don’t mean that literally. I mean that you should write in a style similar to the way you speak. If you’re an academic and use lots of twenty-five cent words in your normal, everyday speech, then by all means, use the same in your writing. You can probably pull it off, as long as it also works for your subject matter and POV (in other words, don’t use those big words if you narrator is five).

If you speak more like a “normal” (ie, not academic) person in your day-to-day life, then write that way. Too often, really bad writing is bad because it’s trying too hard. New writers think they need to be more “literary” if they want to be taken seriously, and they whip out their thesaurus and start using as many big, pretentious-sounding words as they can find. Or they start strictly adhering to the rules of grammar to the point their paranormal-romance novel from the POV of an uneducated heroine reads like a textbook. A really, really boring textbook with no personality at all.

So again: write like you speak.

The other problem comes in the way we, as writers, talk about the work of others. We sit back and talk about how horrible the writing of Meyers, Brown, Rowling, et al, is and how there are so many other, better, more deserving writers who aren’t published (us among them, of course). But the truth is, those writers aren’t really bad, per se (sorry, my two years of high school Latin seem to be rearing their ugly heads in this post), they’re just not great. The sentence-level (and sometimes paragraph-level) writing isn’t where their strengths lay. Instead, they focus on telling a story that appeals strongly to their target reader. Twilight is like crack for tween and teen girls. The Harry Potter books are the same for 10-12 year olds. The fact that they also appeal to a lot of people outside their target demographic is just butter.

But what happens is that these really bad writers, the ones who can barely string together a comprehensible scene, let alone a novel-length work, see us complaining about these writers who are incredibly successful and how awful their writing is, and then they think that the same applies to them. They don’t understand that there’s a difference between mediocre-but-transparent writing and writing that gets in its own way and stops the reader from enjoying the story.

As far as how to fix that problem, I’m really not sure. Writers are unlikely to ever stop disparaging other writers, especially the uber-successful ones. So does that mean we have to be even harsher on the new, unpublished, bad writers? Do we need to keep reiterating how bad they actually are until we’ve crushed their spirits and ground them to a pulp? Probably not (at least not to most of them, there are a few I can think of that might benefit from that kind of treatment). None of us are perfect writers, and destroying someone else’s dreams doesn’t do anything to help ourselves or the other person.

So I honestly don’t know how we can get it across to these writers that they need to get back to the basics and learn how to write in a way that best tells the story they want to tell. I guess just keep offering helpful advice, keep telling them to read published authors in their genre, keep encouraging them to keep learning and improving. It’s all we can do, really.

I’m thankful to the people who did that for me when I first started seriously writing fiction. I learned a ton, and have continuously improved (I hope) since then. It’s important that we point out the good and the bad. It’s tempting, when we see a new writer with promise but who needs some substantial help, to just encourage them and sugar-coat the bad. I don’t think that helps anyone. We need to be honest with each other about what works and what doesn’t, but in a helpful and constructive manner. When reviewing work, I almost always try to offer helpful suggestions when I point out a weakness. I’m not telling someone that’s how they have to do it, just offering a different approach that might get them thinking in a new direction.

What do you think? Do we, as (mostly-unpublished) writers, have any right to critique the work of others? Or should we just keep our mouths shut, move on if it doesn’t interest us, or support it if it does?

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2 thoughts on “The Two Types of Bad Writing

  1. I’m here because I just wrote a post about this and was feeling dirty. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the only writer dealing with this topic (badly or otherwise). I worry about the spirit-crushing. I teach writing structure and I always impart to my students how important it is to critique in a positive, questioning way rather than a “here’s how you fix it” approach.

    And yet, I struggle with those writers who don’t seem to improve no matter the advice and I worry that by being kind I’m leading them down the wrong path. YIKES! This is a slippery slope (if you’ll forgive the cliche) I’m not sure I’m prepared to throw salt on just yet.

    • It’s a fine line between helpful and soul-crushing. I think it also depends on why someone wants to write. If they’re writing to seek publication, then I think being too kind isn’t the best approach. But if they’re writing just for their own personal pleasure, then I think it’s unnecessary to be too harsh with a critique. The issue, of course, is when the person who was only writing for their own personal fulfillment decides that since everyone just loves their writing so much, they’re going to seek publication. So yeah, it’s definitely a slippery slope.

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