What Makes Bad Writing?

June 29, 2016 § 22 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 K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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§ 22 Responses to What Makes Bad Writing?

  • Lyn says:

    really inspirative article!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      We are people who think seriously about writing in all its forms; we are people who have spent a long time on our craft; we are people who have sought out teachers and books and read with an eye for what moves us.

      • I won’t dispute that, but I won’t put down or be judgmental on who writes badly or correctly. Every author has his style, gone are the days only Journalists claimed the power to write, we dont need a background check is what I mean. I understand where you are coming from, but I am just seeing the flip-side too .

  • Erica Herd says:

    Right on the money.

  • […] via What Makes Bad Writing? — BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog […]

  • This hit the mark for me this morning: “they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.” Thanks, I needed that:)

  • Ken Dowell says:

    I have often experienced bad writers whose books were published and sold when it involves a person who is well-know for something other than writing. Two that come to mind right away are books by John Waters and David Mamet.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      So true 🙂 I haven’t read Waters, and it’s been awhile since I read Mamet, but “famous enough to publish anything they want” is another category of excuse writer, for sure!

  • Joanne says:

    Love this: 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.

  • josephsilver says:

    I’ve always considered literature to be subjective, and it has to be if you think about it. No amount of people can convince me that some winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction deserve it. In one case in particular I would rather read the ingredients on a shampoo bottle. That would be an opinion rooted firmly in the minority. I, on the other hand, am happy to burn the midnight oil reading books by authors with as much celebrity as me.

    It’s horses for courses, as my old ma used to say.

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  • […] “We’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. . . Continue Reading […]

  • Excellent post. I think “bad writing” is often “beginning writing” and with good constructive feedback and some dedicated learning it can improve. Not easy seeing that first baby ripped to shreds, but whoever said writing is easy! This is one of the reasons I highly recommend writers’ critique groups for the first few books, at least. 🙂

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog, as the author indicates, is for fiction or non-fiction writers…

  • dandanhansen says:

    With my new novel out, i wonder how bad my writing is. I never ask friends what they think to avoid all the excuses you bring up.

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