What Makes Bad Writing?

June 29, 2016 § 19 Comments


635860977597358197-1003640765_writers-block-vintageWe’ve all read a bad book. Most of us have read a bad published book; many of us have read a bad manuscript, perhaps a friend-of-a-friend’s, that we were obligated to read to the bitter end. And then tell the author something noncommittal and encouraging.

You just don’t know what you did there!

You make it all seem so spontaneous on the page…

You…literature…wow.

Truly bad writing–rather than slickly-crafted airport thrillers, or blandly-told stories that somehow tap into the zeitgeist to sell millions–is, Toby Litt writes in the Guardian, “a love poem addressed by the self to the self.”

Litt discusses “excuse writers”:

Bad writers bulwark themselves against a confrontation with their own badness by reference to other writers with whom they feel they share certain defence-worthy characteristics. They form defensive admirations: “If Updike can get away with these kind of half-page descriptions of women’s breasts, I can too” or “If Virginia Woolf is a bit woozy on spatiality, on putting things down concretely, I’ll just let things float free”. If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way.

While Litt focuses on fiction, his discussion of the personal story is particularly true for bad nonfiction writers.

Often, the bad writer will feel that they have a particular story they want to tell. It may be a story passed on to them by their grandmother or it may be something that happened to them when they were younger. Until they’ve told this particular story, they feel they can’t move on. But because the material is so close to them they can’t mess around with it enough to learn how writing works. And, ultimately, they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.

But wait–memoirists are supposed to be truthful, right? Isn’t that the whole point?

Absolutely. And also, no. The point is to cover the facts honestly, but by using structure, voice, style and craft to make the reading compelling to a stranger. To be able to answer the eternal memoir question, So what?

What separates good writers from bad is the learned ability to analyze their own work and the desire to make it better. The willingness to accept that it isn’t enough to have a powerful story. But we already know this, and we think it every time someone at a party says, “I have a great idea! You should write it and we’ll split the profits!”

We know an idea isn’t enough, that even a story isn’t enough. We know it’s about craft plus compelling story plus the will to shape the story into something considered, focused, interesting and beautiful. And along the way, a lot of messing around to learn how writing works, and how we can make it work better every time.

Read Toby Litt’s piece here.

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Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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