27 Jun 2014

What is Bad Writing?

It seems somehow presumptuous of me to talk about bad writing. After all: how do I know I don’t write utter drivel?

Well, I must believe that I don’t. I must, just as surely as the singer on the stage believes the audience will rise into applause—and not snicker acerbic commentary. Such is the way of all artists: only in belief (whether false or otherwise) can we gain the ability to improve.

See? I’m getting heavy all ready.

On a lighter note, I don’t believe bad writing is as common as some like to pretend. Too much the critics whinge: ‘Oh, this is vampire crap like the rest of them; this is so badly written—I cringe at the repetition!’ and so on ad nauseam.

Well, people tend to exaggerate trends to suit their opinions and biases. Also, even some ‘bad’ writing is actually pretty okay if you look at it objectively. But we’ll get onto that.

What Started This?

Well, a number of different things really. (I mean, is life ever so simple?)

I suppose the single event was reading a book—Faefever, by Karen Marie Moning, to name and shame—and thinking: this is well written; and it has great characters; and the story is fantastic; but, somehow, it’s done something wrong.

Upon thinking as to why it was doing something wrong, I came to the conclusion that the story was no longer being told for the story’s sake; it was instead an aimless game of emotional manipulation maintained to maintain the flow of cash.

(‘Uh oh, Alex, you really have to stop with all this word play; it’s doing mi head in!’ Tut-tut, darling. This is a writer’s blog, remember?)

Now, this post shall not be a critique of Mrs Moning’s work. I’m above that.

No, I am merely using Faefever as an example; my post will be aimed generally, at all genres. It cannot fully determine bad writing, for I lack the experience and—if we’re honest with ourselves here—books are unique: some will be good and some will be bad because of factors not easily quantified—including, unfortunately, our experiences and biases.

However, I shall try to ascertain what I think are the main factors that make bad writing, and indeed a bad book.

For reference, here is my Goodreads review of Faefever. It’s not all negative, I promise!

The (Primary) Features of Bad Writing

I’m going to start by repeating that this isn’t a complete list; and that some of it is down to opinion. But of course, you already figured that out, didn’t you?

Repetition

This is probably the one most often mentioned by the critics. Typically, the line goes like this: ‘If I hear the word shiver or tingle one more time, I swear I’ll vomit all over the damn book and then throw it out the window [into the hands of a willing fan, of course].’

There is a certain amount of truth in this. A repetition of words is the classic sign of no creativity—which should be distinguished from no imagination because creativity is imagination applied in such a way as to create a work of art.

There is no such thing as an unimaginative writer, by the way. Anyone who can create a work of fiction must, by definition, have some imagination; otherwise, they would simply be unable to create a single character, scene or plot element.

But back to the point. The repetition of words shows either poor mastery of language, or editing sloppiness. More often both. Let’s face it: you can clean up prose using the help of a thesaurus.

But let’s also accept another fact: the English language (and indeed all other languages) has limitations. There are times when there simply aren’t enough synonyms of ‘gaze’ (for example) to adequately remove repetition. And remember—a language’s words are not merely facsimiles of other words dressed up in new phonology; every word in a language should carry its own, unique image. Merely replacing words with appropriate synonyms does not always create the intended effect.

The critics among you may be doubting this. Surely, you think, one can alter and modify the writing as to allow for less repetition?

Well, this leads me onto my next point.

Words versus Content

I am of the belief that words—as beautiful as they may be—should never take precedence over the story.

Every time you rephrase a phrase (boy, I’m really getting into the world play thing today) you—and pay attention now—expose yourself to the risk of losing something.

A story clumsily told is still usually better than a bad story well told.

(Ouch, that must have been a killer tongue twister. Perchance all this talk of bad writing has made me unwittingly do some of it...)

Anyway, the point is: if you write something turgid and flowery without any real substance behind it, we will not like you. I speak of the real readers here—the people who buy the books en masse—and not the pseudo-intellectual critics who don’t really enjoy what they do.

Turgour

This one will be kept brief. A turgid story will neither roll off the tongue, nor be pleasant to read. Turgour gets in the way of things; it does not decorate the story anymore than it does the corpse.

Eclectic Writing

Let us take a brief foray into Hypothetical Writer’s Land.

NOOB WRITER: ‘Hey, I know what I’ll do: I’ll use Hemingway’s parataxis to create really powerful, frightening landscapes; I’ll use Mr Stargazer’s wit and humour to lighten things up a little; I’ll use long, flowery speech; and tight, succinct slam speech; and I’ll use lots of punctuation, and very little punctuation.’

ALEX STARGAZER: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please don’t follow the above example. Firstly, it is impossible; and secondly, you will get utter codswallop.’

Thus concludes our brief, hypothetical scenario. Did you learn your lesson?

Punctuation, Punctuation, Punctuation

Whenever this topic springs up, I am reminded of Adam Smith’s (a famous economist, for the ignorant among you) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

You can already tell where this is going, can’t you?

Those of you who study the 18th century will know quite well the annoying trend to use unnecessarily long and flowery language—but Mr Smith takes it to an extreme:

Among civilized and thriving nations, on the contrary, though a great number of people do not labour at all, many of whom consume the produce of ten times, frequently of a hundred times, more labour than the greater part of those who work; yet the produce of the whole labour of the society is so great, that all are often abundantly supplied; and a workman, even of the lowest and poorest order, if he is frugal and industrious, may enjoy a greater share of the necessaries and conveniencies of life than it is possible for any savage to acquire.

And believe me, that’s not even the worst this guy came up with.

(Of course, the more sagacious among you will have observed that Mr Smith makes multiple bad writing mistakes—especially among the turgour part. For this section, however, we shall focus on the punctuation.)

Mr Smith’s book could have been half the size that it was, and not have missed any important content. But the above passage shows a problem specifically related to punctuation—firstly, it is that of overusing the comma; and secondly, it is that of lacking in variety. There are neither dashes, semi-colons or colons in that paragraph: all of which would have made it more manageable.

(Along with some full stops, paragraphing and word snipping, of course.)

So if your sentences and paragraphs have an over-abundance of punctuation—as mine will soon have now—please take into account: the fact that such writing is difficult for the reader to digest; that such writing is no longer viewed so well even by the self-appointed critics; that you will (almost undoubtedly) lose sales; and that—even in the face of seemingly eloquent prose—you will sound like an idiot: and not of the funny kind.

Pretentiousness

It’s hard thing to define, is pretentiousness. It’s such a long word, even, that many don’t even know what it means!

(Hint: it’s what makes you sound like an uppity-tightety f*, to put it in the teenage lexis.)

My take on it is—if it makes you sound supercilious, smarter than you really are, or arrogant as hell; it’s pretentiousness.

In writing, it typically manifests itself through the use of unnecessarily specific and complex vocabulary; it is also, usually, accompanied by weasel words—‘some claim; others believe, wrongly’—and by numerous asinine statements such as: ‘I am smarter than any of you, so you cannot disagree with me.’

The label isn’t always correctly assigned, mind you. Sometimes prose genuinely works better when using more complex words than others. Sometimes the impression of pretentiousness is deliberately used for effect; and sometimes, it is just the writer’s style.

Still, it is something best avoided.

Misappropriation of Register, and Other Miscellaneous Things

If any of you recall your English classes, you will know about ‘register’, otherwise known as ‘formality level’.

I won’t bore you with all of the various levels of register (there are many; you speak differently to your mother, for example, than you do your boss).

What you should know is that language belonging to the situationally incorrect register can destroy the believability of fiction prose, making it sound artificial and silly.

Example—a teenage boy is talking to his mother:

MOTHER: ‘Charlie, what do you want on your toast?’

SPOILED TEENAGE BRAT (CHARLIE): ‘Why mother, I believe I would like one with caviar; another with pate of olives; and another served with creamy, luxurious English butter.’

Obviously, you’d have a hard enough time convincing an audience that the above is really happening (and that is part of what fiction is supposed to do, though that’s a different matter).

Then again, register can be used to reveal the character’s personality. In this case, it shows that Charlie is a spoiled brat.

Register can also be used to reveal the subtle changes in two character’s relationship. A loss of formality is a common feature of friendship, for example.

Basically: register is a powerful tool that any writer must master, otherwise your writing will sound totally off.

Conclusion

At nigh 2000 words, this has turned out to be a lengthy post. I would write about what makes a book bad, but that would swell this to many thousand of words, which is faux pas among the blogger circles. It will, therefore, be relegated to a later post.

For that can of worms, stay following.

To conclude this post: writing is multi-faceted and has a strong degree of subjectivity. However, if your writing sounds pretentious; somehow off; or difficult to read; or perhaps a little repetitive—you know the cause. Hopefully, this will have identified those major areas of fault.

Let’s hope I take my own advice to heart now, and get to finishing the edits for my novel.

The weather has turned cloudy once more, so I shall have plenty of time to write. Bear with me. Updates shall be posted to the Information Centre page.

Okay. I guess that’s it. If I haven’t bored you totally (apologies if I have), please take a look around on my now substantial blog. And remember: more is coming!

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