What is Bad Writing?

Last week I wrote about what is good writing and seems only natural to followup with what is bad writing. In the eyes of a critic, it may appear as if all writing is bad. That said, it’s difficult to pass judgment on what bad is, because what appears bad to some, appears good to others.

Let me make a broad and perhaps an overreaching statement; bad writing simply fails in what ever purpose it was designed to do. In the case of fiction, it is writing that fails to move the story in a way that keeps the reader engaged. That is why a simple direct writing style is best. In other words, seeking to write as often as possible in simple direct declarative sentences.

This, of course, does not mean dialogue and such ends up being like a Detective Joe Friday scene from Dragnet. What it does mean is to give attention to only what is needed to move the story.

In my novel, The Id and The Odyssey, there is a character who is an editor. To test a prospective reporter’s ability to convey what he sees into words, the editor walks two fingers across a table and asks the applicant to describe what occurred. The answer he looks for is, “He walked.” Many years later, my novel’s protagonists replies to the editor, “He limped.”

To exaggerate the point, bad writing might be, “He perambulated in such a manner it appeared as if one leg out-lengthened the other, thus exhausted his earthly existence never venturing beyond the county for which he was born, because he could only walk in a circle no more than five furlongs in circumference.”

Bad writing overdoes. It is condescending to the reader, it boasts the writer not the story, and it is dishonest.

One of my first rejection letters contained a sentence with nearly 100 words—most of the words I did not know the meaning. It seemed to say to me, unless you can understand what is written, you are not good enough for our journal. Actually I read their journal and it was full of pretentiousness and snobbery. It was an honor to be rejected by them. Immediately, the story was sent to another literary journal and published.

If writing doesn’t sound like the best story teller from your childhood, it is likely bad writing.

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