Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
Want to become a better writer? Learn from bad writing: how to spot it, how to fix it and how to prevent the disease from happening in the first place.
Note: All writers, including myself, tend to go overboard at times. As a reformed journalist who now writes speeches, blog posts and novels, I will happily say that I’ve committed every possible writing sin at one time or another–and no, this is not meant to make anyone recycle their Underwood and switch to pottery.
So as a public service, here are the Six Horsemen of the Writepocalypse:
1) The Ivory Tower of Pretentious Poppycock
This comes from never learning that out in the real world, nobody wants to read blog posts, novels or screenplays written in the same dense style of term papers about dialectical materialism.
How to spot it: There is never a short, simple sentence, not when long, insanely complicated ones will do. Pretentious Poppycock will have sentences flavored with giant German words that are too intellectually sophisticated to be translated into English, though schadenfreude has appeared in low-brow venues such as Newsweek often enough to lose all its previous cachet.
Writers of Pretentious Poppycock are actually offended if the masses (a) buy, (b) read or (c) dare to enjoy their work, because that means (d) it is not dense and sophisticated enough and (e) they have therefore failed via mainstream success and must (f) become an elusive recluse working on a new, six-volume masterpiece that will take 26 years to complete.
2) The Gonzo Kool-Aid Acid Trip
There are subspecies of gonzo, entirely dependent upon which substance the writer employs to destroy his liver: gallons of whiskey, blunts the size of telephone poles or some kind of toxic toad sweat they picked up in Brazil.
The whiskey types tend to go hyper-macho. Their sentences are shorter than Hemingway, because Hemingway was a wussbag nancypants who only watched bullfights. Get in there. Kill a bull, with your bare hands.
This trap is a particular danger for newspaper reporters who decide to write novels.
Another form of gonzo writing happily bounces around through time, since chronological order is for squares — or goes ironic hipster with a 500-page book, written all in haiku, about a retired accountant who makes sculptures out of lint from the dryer.
While the style of writing is completely different than the Ivory Tower of Pretentious Poppycock, gonzos are also typically unhappy if too many of the masses buy, understand or like their work, because that means they sold out and not enough fans took up their suggestion to “steal this book,” though the money does allow them to pay steady rent and purchase a higher class of bourbon and psychedelics.
However, a taste of success will also remove the last remains of internal censors from a gonzo of any stripe.
3) The Purple Prose of Cairo
This is gonzo writing without the drugs, Loony Tunes Lit-rah-Ture, performance art with ink. It’s passages chock full of modifiers or throwing words around the canvas of Word like Jackson Pollack chucking paint on the floor.
Tell me if you’d pay money to read more of this:
Next to barber.
Next to barber bury.
Next to barber bury china.
Next to barber bury china glass.
Next to barber china and glass.
Next to barber and china.
Whether you’re a reader, English Lit professor or a mom wondering if your teenager is alright upstairs, this sort of text is makes you buy something else at Barnes and Noble, scribble a big fat F with a red marker or google “therapist” on your iPhone.
It’s bad, right? Incoherent, and I didn’t make this up or pick a bad section of something that gets better. The whole poem is like this. But no, this is Gertrude Stein, so it is magical and amazing and you’re just too low-brow and uneducated to understand how brilliant that bit of word wizardry truly is.
4) Dear Diary
Everything is in the first person: blog posts, poetry, newspaper stories, memoirs, novels, screenplays.
It all goes through the filter of me-me-me.
The Series of Tubes has enabled this to reach epic, world-wide proportions. In the bad old days, being a writer meant slaving away at a newspaper, writing novels that didn’t sell until you died and became famous or writing in an actual diary that you locked up and hide in the sock drawer so your brother Steven, the snoopy creep, couldn’t read it and tell his idiot friends at school.
Now every writer is required by law to have a blog, be on Twitter and live on Facebook, so it’s quote possible to spend 20 percent of your day writing a masterpiece and 80 percent of your time at the keyboard documenting every tragedy, insult and triumph.
Dear Diary can be mundane, giving you daily updates about the type of sandwich they’re eating (PB & J today, then some laundry!). It can be full of humblebrag name-dropping nonsense. Or it can be one giant Pity Party.
If Dear Diary writes a screenplay or novel, the hero is a barely disguised doppleganger, except younger, taller, better looking and richer.
You also find this in bad mysteries about often written in the first person. Here’s a great first line from a 2013 entry to the Bulwer-Lytton contest for truly wretched first lines: “This was a very easy mystery for me to solve, so I never considered putting it in a story until I was telling some friends about it, and I realized the average person, such as yourself, has trouble figuring it out, although it is really laughably simple.” — Thor F. Carden, Madison, TN
The most epic Dear Diary moment in fiction I can remember is an entire chapter of a Clive Cussler novel where his hero, Dirk Pitt, has a classic car race with a car collector and Dirk-Pitt clone named … Clive Cussler.
5) The Never-Ending Lecture
This style of writing has an agenda and woe unto those who ignore it. It beats you over the head with a literary sledgehammer, damning you for not understanding how right the writer is, and how wrong the world is for not seeing it the first 593 times they explained it.
Lectures don’t even attempt to be subtle. Every bit of prose and dialogue is on the nose and characters are made of the thinnest cardboard.
Combined with the Ivory Tower, the Never-Ending Lecture may spend 235,000 words on the history of natural gas industry in Paraguay and the lessons to be learned about America’s telecom monopolies.
Matched up the Purple Prose of Cairo, a Lecture may give birth to THE FOUNTAINHEAD and another novel, ATLAS SHRUGGED, that contains a speech that goes on for sixty pages. Yes, not six pages, sixty. (Note: Was that too easy? Yes, yes it was.)
6) The Grammar Nazi
This is the polar opposite, and mortal enemy, of both Gonzo and Loony Tunes Lit-rah-ture.
Each sentence is absolutely fine in terms of usage. There are no dangling modifiers or split infinitives — and nothing ever, ever ends in a preposition.
Text written in the Grammar Nazi style devotes all of its energies into being technically correct, but at the price of having no soul, no life, no heart. And you are bored out of your gourd, even if YOU HAVE NO GOURD AT ALL.
How to fix and prevent this nonsense
Despite the incredible variety in this list — and you could probably come up with six more types — there’s a common thread to all bad writing.
That thread is this: the writer treats the audience with indifference, if not arrogance and contempt. It’s all about doing things their specific way. Readers who want to enjoy or understand their work, and complain about it being difficult, dense, narcissistic or weird — well, clearly all those readers are the problem, not the writer.
You can avoid all six of these bad kinds of writing by remembering the First Rule of Rhetoric, which is three simple words: “Know your audience.”
The audience isn’t you. Never is and never will be.
The audience isn’t even your mom, who might be the only person willing to read the thing, and even then, mom tends to lie and say yes, she loved it, where’s the rest?
If you want to write for you and you alone, do it in a diary and lock it up in that sock drawer.
Writing should be read, understood and enjoyed other people. Period.
That doesn’t mean good writing is shallow, low-brow and always happy.
Paul Krugman, Malcolm Gladwell and every issue of The Economist prove you can write intelligently about deep subjects without resorting to any of these types of bad writing.
People want actual substance, some real meat on those writing bones. They want to laugh and cry, to learn new things.
They want to think and ponder, and sometimes have so much fun that they read it again and again.
It’s that simple.
Bad writing puts barriers between readers and all of those things.
When your ego puts up any of those walls–and it happens to every writer–go back and tear them down.
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Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.