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Thread: 'Bad Writing'

  1. #1
    Winston KarmaHead's Avatar
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    'Bad Writing'

    To me, the phrase 'bad writing' when appointed to a novel or something of fiction could mean a variety of things.

    What do you specifically mean when you complain about bad writing? Or is it a variant of things? For example, I was with a friend a few weeks ago who told me about some novel (which I can't seem to remember the name of), and she told me it was full 'bad writing' and was difficult to finish. I asked her why, and she said it read like a teen novel, despite being aimed at older audiences. I assume she was speaking of the overall grammar or style, etc.

    When I refer to bad writing, I usually mean the story as an overall, or the structure of a novel. If I read something poorly written, I'd usually look past that and dissect the story, and then make my mind up as to what didn't work.

    I think more importantly, would you finish a book if it was poorly written in any respect?

  2. #2
    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    I don't even turn the first page if the book isn't written well. The writing carries the story, if the writing is not up to my standard I'm not going to read it.
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  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by WillSauger View Post
    I don't even turn the first page if the book isn't written well. The writing carries the story, if the writing is not up to my standard I'm not going to read it.

    Yep, this. Bad writing doesn't capture or hold my interest. It annoys me and makes it very difficult for me to follow whatever story there might be.
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  4. #4
    Follow your heart; take your brain SelmaW's Avatar
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    If writing calls attention to itself by telling a story in the least effective way, it's bad. The story should feel effortlessly carried along by the writing. I shouldn't be wondering why the author chose to phrase things the way they did.

  5. #5
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    To me, in the context of a published novel, bad writing is simply writing that gets in the way of story and character. I don't think very much bad writing gets published, and this includes the writing in Twilight.

    What does get published is poor story and poor, unempathetic characters. I think too many writers, new and used, often concentrate too much on the writing, and far too little on story and character. I love great use of language, good rhythm and flow, but it's the unexpected sentence that gets to me, the truth I hadn't seen before, the sudden left turn that takes me to a new place.

    Ray Bradbury did just this, and did so with plain, simple, everyday prose. Anyway, once writing is at a publishable level, I think the writing itself is most often just a matter of personal taste, and we win or lose by story, by character, and by what we have to say, the truth we tell, etc.

  6. #6
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    Some books I have looked past grammar issues to finish the book, especially if it is one that I am supposed to review. I have however closed a book and refused to review it if is badly written, that goes past simple grammar and typo errors.

    If a book is able to pull me in despite errors, I think for me, it is easier to look past the errors and read the story.

    Bad writing to me is something that goes past mere grammar issues. For example I tried to read a book recently that I was supposed to review. I was asked to review it simply because it was a difficult read. I read 4 chapters and still had absolutely no idea what I was reading. I couldn't understand the plot, I had no idea who the main character was or even what genre it was supposed to be written in. The author explained that he was trying to show his intellectual side, but after reading nearly half the book his bad writing convinced me he was trying to be smarter than he actually was.
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  7. #7
    I am reading Mr. Churchill's Secretary now. It is bad. I haven't quit because I'm a stubborn finish-what-I-start reader, unless it's so horrible I can't go on, and the story actually isn't bad. But the writing is bad in the following ways:

    1. Anachronistic behavior and dialog. Characters who behave like feisty 21st century feminists even though it is England in War War II.
    2. Bad guys who have meetings for no other reason than to spell out their evil plans for the reader. Complete with "As you know, Murphy, the IRA does not like England" speeches. (Goes with the "Did you know the Nazis were very bad people and were mean to Jews?" monologues.)
    3. Constant arbitrary insertion of historical events and people to remind us "Oh hey, this is England and it is World War II." Oh hey, the book is called Mr. Churchill's Secretary, I think we got the "England" and "World War II" part.
    4. Telling not showing. I kind of hate this generic advice, it's used too frequently, but this book is full of the omniscient 3rd person narrator telling us what everyone is feeling and why they feel it and then telling us that by the way this is England and it is World War II. Along with narrating of backstory. Maggie meets Charlotte for breakfast and by the way here is Charlotte's life story.

    Basically, everything is spelled out for a reader who is assumed to be historically ignorant, exceedingly dense, and completely incapable of parsing nuance or subtext.

    That's bad writing. Even though on a technical level it's competent enough, and the prose and story is certainly seviceable. This bugs me as much as (if not more than) finding grammatical and punctuation errors. Writers should spend as much time focusing on good style and narration as they do angsting over serial commas.

  8. #8
    Retired Illuminatus dangerousbill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KarmaHead View Post
    To me, the phrase 'bad writing' when appointed to a novel or something of fiction could mean a variety of things.
    Bad writing: when the words on the page distract from the story being told.

    This happens:

    (a) When spelling and grammar mistakes are too distracting.

    (b) When the writing is convoluted or florid, and the author is saying, 'Never mind the story. Look at me, what a clever writer I am'.

    (c) When there are too many common structural issues, like shifting or uncertain pov, inconsistent characters, inconsistent plot, etc.
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    Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. kaitie's Avatar
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    I can only think of one big name writer who actually has a lot of spelling and grammar errors, so usually for me bad writing falls into one of two categories.

    Usually if I say a book has bad writing, I mean that it's clunky. There's no rhythm to it, for instance. Repetitive words or phrases drive me completely insane. Unrealistic dialogue is a really common element I see. Head hopping. Pacing issues (too flowery, for instance, to the point of being boring, ruining suspense). Overwriting or underwriting.

    Most books have some flaw somewhere. It might be writing that just doesn't sound good. A proliferation of "I....I....I..." sentences in first-person is something I've seen a few times. Using the same sentence structure repeatedly without variation is another common issue that can weaken writing. Lack of a good voice.

    The thing is, even if an author has a problem with head hopping, or uses one type of sentence a lot, it won't bother me unless an author has several of the issues. I don't mind the occasional weak dialogue as long as that's the only real problem. Some authors have a lot of head hopping, but if that's the only problem, I won't call that bad writing. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and it only becomes a problem for me when the weaknesses are multiple and detract from my enjoyment.

    I'll keep reading a book that's badly written and potentially even enjoy it as long as it's got a great story or great characters to back it up.

    What I'm much less forgiving of as a reader is story flaws. Plot holes, moments that break suspension of disbelief, characters doing things that are good for the plot but make absolutely no sense for the character, that sort of thing. I'd rather read weaker writing with a great story than a weak story with good writing. I'm there for the story after all.
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  10. #10
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    I keep thinking about "Timeline," Michael Crichton. I like Michael Crichton and the story wasn't bad but God, the infodump. By the third dump I'm thinking, REALLY? You think I don't know what you're doing, Crichton?

    Wooden dialogue is a deal-breaker. Or stories that you can tell right off are too ridiculous to be palatable. I used to read a book through, even if it was crap because--

    I don't know. Felt un-American or something if I didn't. Not any more. If it sucks, I'm done.
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  11. #11
    practical experience, FTW
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    IMO bad writing includes bad grammar, and it goes beyond that as well.

    & No. I would not finish it unless, somehow, the story was amazing enough to drag me through the rest of the story. That hasn’t happened yet.

    I tried to read a book the other day, but I had to stop reading because of the bad writing. When I got it, I thought to myself, “This has about 1100 reviews and ~4.5 stars. I guess I’ll give it a try!” Yeah. No. That book was not 4-star worthy. I knew from the first page that it was bad. However, I pushed myself on to see why everyone liked it. I only got to page 15 before I gave up completely.

    Since it’s still fresh on my mind, I can tell you exactly why I thought it was bad writing:
    • Poor pacing. Far too often, the FMC (who is narrating) will pause a conversation to explain some new thing that got mentioned. These asides are usually a paragraph each. Then the conversation suddenly resumes. This happens constantly throughout the 15 pages.
    • Obvious use of a “big word” that seemed to have been pulled from a dictionary (vacillate). I’m not saying people don’t use the word vacillate. It’s just that I couldn’t see the FMC using the word.
    • A Jekyll and Hyde-ish problem with the FMC’s voice. This is a good example of two completely different voices one right after another: “... I watched a blob of yellow land in her bowl. / It was moving. Gross. / It continued to vacillate as it interacted with the mixture...”
    • Grammar. Commas, em-dashes, tenses. The usual.
    • Bad transitions between actions and no explanation where it’s actually needed.
      For example: (sneaking into a room) “My foot hit something and made a thunk sound. I dropped to my knees and clenched my hand into a fist.”
      Three or four sentences later, I finally get to find out why she suddenly decided kneel down and make a fist: she was making fire.
    • Overuse of similes. So many of them. Everything is like-a-something. Let’s take a look at some of the ones I saw in the first fifteen pages!
      Something was like: a thousand fireflies, a herd of buffalo, a water balloon with a leak, an alien, duck feet, a stealthy cat, having a seizure, an angry wolf, a spent cobra, a fat man on a bicycle, crack, Whitney Houston, red lace doily, biting into a carrot, uncooked tuna, etc.
      (I actually liked the fat man on a bicycle one )


    As you can see, there are lot of things that can contribute to an overall “bad writing” experience for a reader.
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  12. #12
    practical experience, FTW archerjoe's Avatar
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    In addition to all of the above, one that bugs me is: "Oh crap, I just discovered a plot hole! I'll put a heavy-handed fix for it right here, right now rather than go back and take care of the issue in a more believable place."

    That and deux ex machina endings.
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  13. #13
    Not responsible for bitten fingers Shadow_Ferret's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KarmaHead View Post
    To me, the phrase 'bad writing' when appointed to a novel or something of fiction could mean a variety of things.

    ...

    I think more importantly, would you finish a book if it was poorly written in any respect?
    Yes. A variety of things. But overall, it means anything that kicks me out of the story and makes me notice the mechanics. A good story is like a sleek sports car. All I should see is the beauty of the car's sheet metal and paint and experience a breathtaking ride. But if its rusting, or has dents, or the upholstery is torn, and the engine sputters, then I don't want to drive it any more.

    That was convoluted, wasn't it? Anyway, a lot of things the writer has done can kick me out and to me, that's if not bad writing, at least annoying. (Which of course, is different from being kicked out because of my ADHD. I used to blame the writer, or the book, for that, but I recently learned it was me, not them.)


    And no, I never try to finish anything that constantly kicks me out. That's too much work for too little payoff.
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  14. #14
    Just keep swimming... electroweakstar's Avatar
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    I find myself using the term "that's bad writing" more when referring to movies or television shows. It almost always refers to the writer(s) taking a shortcut to achieve something that knocks me out of the story or makes me go "that character seriously wouldn't do that". x10 if it's obvious fan pandering (HATE). I have quit shows many times due to writing holes.

    I can only think of one book I've read in the last year that fit this and it was by a BIG name paranormal author (the following book was much, much better). Said book was also riddled with typos and grammatical errors, so I might have said "lazy editing" or called it "rushed" rather than bad.

    I use "poorly written" to describe bad or cliche grammar, purple prose, and writing styles that are trying way too hard. Kind of mincing words, but there you are.

    I try to be more specific when it's a book that I just don't enjoy because of choices the author made. For example, I recently read a romance/adventure novel that is fairly acclaimed and I could not finish it because the male lead followed the female lead around with his eyes on her rear The. Entire. Book. Some readers might find that hot or entertaining, but I found his tent-making skills incredibly distracting and finally threw the book down despite enjoying the overall story and worldbuilding. I can't call that "bad writing", but "the author made choices I don't enjoy" might be used.

    I have a really tough time putting any book down, though. Weird that it's so different from TV in that respect.

    All that said... I'm super specific about stuff, but I like the simplicity of "dangerousbill" view.
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    The colors! THE COLORS! leahzero's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SelmaW View Post
    If writing calls attention to itself by telling a story in the least effective way, it's bad. The story should feel effortlessly carried along by the writing. I shouldn't be wondering why the author chose to phrase things the way they did.
    No. This is subjective.

    Sometimes I read a book EXPRESSLY FOR the prose. Because it's luscious, decadent, and calls all sorts of attention to itself, in a wonderful way.

    "Bad writing" is subjective. We can point to objective grammatical and mechanical errors*, but aside from that, it's all opinion.


    * Though even these can be deliberately and artfully done. See: the poet e.e. cummings; the novelist Cormac McCarthy; et al.
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    I read a cop story the other week, which I'd class as bad writing. It was filled with silly speech tags, including a 'mused' every two or three pages - and there actually wasn't much by way of musing going on. The writer was also obsessed with recreating the 80s, but the only way he did it was constant, heavy-handed musical references. This was fun at first but just got silly and bizarre. And then there was all the 'As you know, there's been a miners' strike going on for the last eight months and we've been drafted up from London to help the local bobbies' kind of dialogue. Then the author ended the story leaving most of the questions unanswered. Nothing on the cover indicated there would be a sequel!

    Now this might get me pelted with large red mushy tomatoes, rotten yellow turnips, wilted leafy cabbages and uncooked dirty potatoes, while my standard-sized head with its grey-blue eyes and alabaster skin is poking out the round hole in the wooden, splintered stocks, but I'm also not a fan of the George RR Martin way of hitting the reader with a whole load of ikea catalogue description. Give us description if you like but work it into the action fer gawd's sake.

  17. #17
    You Cannot Ignore the Moon Dot Com Riley's Avatar
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    For me, bad writing means a lot of things. Probably thousands of things, even. Good thing it's like pornography: you know it when you see it.
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  18. #18
    Travel biologist, piss-poor fluffer quicklime's Avatar
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    as mentioned, there is lots of components to good writing, and "bad writing" is a case where any one, or more, is glaringly obvious. It could be grammar, pacing, exposition, purple prose, etc. etc. etc.
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  19. #19
    Travel biologist, piss-poor fluffer quicklime's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Riley View Post
    Good thing it's like pornography: you know it when you see it.

    Bad writing is like pornography. After the first 45 minutes or so, I take my hand out of my pants and walk away, disgusted.
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  20. #20
    Writing Anarchist DeleyanLee's Avatar
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    "Bad writing" is anything put on the page that doesn't get the story the author is trying to tell into my (the Reader's) head, plain and simple.

    Once the story is in my head and I'm invested in it, I don't care about all kinds of "writing mistakes". I honestly don't notice them at all and can remember the story fondly despite all the "errors".

    I have not seen much "bad writing" in published books, mind you. I've seen writing styles that I don't enjoy (Tolkien leaps to mind immediately), and I've seen typos, etc, that happen no matter what in fiction, but I rarely see published writing that I can't glean what the story is. Whether or not I like the story is a completely different question.
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  21. #21
    practical experience, FTW flapperphilosopher's Avatar
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    I agree with pretty much all the above. I have an especially low tolerance for wordiness, purple prose, head-hopping, and bad dialogue (which is a whole issue onto itself!).

    Also lazy description. By this I mean especially description that bears no actual relation to what would be seen/happen. I once read the line ""I dropped the jam jar into the sink where it smashed to smithereens." (I forget the name of the book or author, though I wouldn't mention them anyway). This drives me crazy. First of all, "smashed to smithereens" is not only a cliche, it's a cliche no one uses (which seems like a contradiction, doesn't it?). But more than that-- Jam jars do not smash into smithereens. They are thick glass. The narrator was cleaning it so right over the sink. A jam jar probably won't even break if dropped that far, and if so it will not be obliterated, which "smithereens" indicates. The author fell back on an inappropriate cliche rather than observation--THAT is bad writing.
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  22. #22
    Not responsible for bitten fingers Shadow_Ferret's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by leahzero View Post

    "Bad writing" is subjective. We can point to objective grammatical and mechanical errors*, but aside from that, it's all opinion.


    * Though even these can be deliberately and artfully done. See: the poet e.e. cummings; the novelist Cormac McCarthy; et al.
    So you don't believe we can quantify "bad writing?" Because I do agree that it is all opinion, but there's are differences between the quality of the opinions. You can probably find some who are of the opinion that say Hemingway is a bad writer. But their opinions are in the minority. The majority of opinion is that he was a good writer. That's how judgements are made between things being good and bad. Is it subjective? Sure. What isn't subjective outside of math?

    When we analyze fiction there are agreed upon rules, standards, and conventions that we look for to determine if a piece works or fails. Now some works might "artfully" break these rules, but that's an accepted convention, too. It's pretty easy to tell the difference between a skilled writer playing with the language and an unskilled writer blindly stumbling along.


    So literary criticism may be "subjective" but it's a judgement made from special knowledge. We can dismiss one or two claims of "bad writing" as "just opinion" but when it becomes the opinion of a majority, then its the accepted prevailing viewpoint.
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  23. #23
    Creepy Centipede Chasing the Horizon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DeleyanLee View Post
    I have not seen much "bad writing" in published books, mind you. I've seen writing styles that I don't enjoy (Tolkien leaps to mind immediately), and I've seen typos, etc, that happen no matter what in fiction, but I rarely see published writing that I can't glean what the story is. Whether or not I like the story is a completely different question.
    This, right down to not enjoying Tolkien in the least.

    Occasionally I'll run across an objectively bad piece of writing in a book, almost always related to unbelievable plot development. But mostly I put down books for not being paced the way I like or not having characters I can connect with. This isn't objectively bad writing. It's stories that don't suit my taste.

    Of course there is such a thing as terrible writing. Stories full of bad grammar and prose that make no sense whatsoever. I'm sure there are a few examples of this in SYW right now. But I only buy work from specific publishers I trust and they would never put out books like that.


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  24. #24
    Follow your heart; take your brain SelmaW's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by leahzero View Post
    No. This is subjective.

    Sometimes I read a book EXPRESSLY FOR the prose. Because it's luscious, decadent, and calls all sorts of attention to itself, in a wonderful way.

    "Bad writing" is subjective. We can point to objective grammatical and mechanical errors*, but aside from that, it's all opinion.


    * Though even these can be deliberately and artfully done. See: the poet e.e. cummings; the novelist Cormac McCarthy; et al.
    Oh, sure, but that's only okay if that's the intent of the novel. If you read something literary that puts lyrical prose on display, then that's part of the experience. If you read a chapter book full of extended metaphors and ten-cent words, it's less good.

    I think Shadow_Ferret pretty much hit the nail on the head re: subjectivity.

  25. #25
    Azarath Metrion Zinthos AshleyEpidemic's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kkbe View Post
    I keep thinking about "Timeline," Michael Crichton. I like Michael Crichton and the story wasn't bad but God, the infodump. By the third dump I'm thinking, REALLY? You think I don't know what you're doing, Crichton?
    I actually remembering loving the infodumps in that story, more than the plot. Then again, I like long winded explanations, as long as they don't repeat themselves. I think this is because I don't like ambiguity. I am a walking oxymoron, fyi.

    Quote Originally Posted by electroweakstar View Post
    I find myself using the term "that's bad writing" more when referring to movies or television shows. It almost always refers to the writer(s) taking a shortcut to achieve something that knocks me out of the story or makes me go "that character seriously wouldn't do that". x10 if it's obvious fan pandering (HATE). I have quit shows many times due to writing holes.
    I tend to relate bad writing to films and tv, as well. But that is because it is the medium that consumes the majority of my life. But ultimately writing for film or tv is the same as writing a book in the sense that you are telling a story. A bad story in any medium makes me angry, I include video games with this. Nothing is worse than investing 20 hours to a video game for it to crap in your face with an awful ending. Or drag you through the mud, through a lackluster story because of a good ending. The whole piece needs to work.

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