A Sample of Amateur Writing

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At a recent writers’ conference I heard a successful self-published author say, “Readers are not looking for great writing; they’re looking for a great story.”

Does that mean that taking pains over grammar, diction, and syntax is a waste of time? Certainly not!

Just because readers are not looking for “great writing” doesn’t mean that novelists shouldn’t be expected to produce good writing.

Few writers have what it takes to produce “great writing,” but even a great storyteller requires professional writing skills to get the story across to the reader.

The difference between amateur writing and professional writing is rewriting.

Here is an extract from a self-published work. The fact that the book was self-published is not so important as the fact that the author published it before it was ready.

Here the author describes a church interior:

It had hat shelves and coat racks along both sides. There were double doors leading into the sanctuary, which was plain but neat. There was a carpeted main aisle that ran from the doors to the altar. There were neat rows of oak pews on both sides of the aisle. Secondary aisles ran along both sides of the church between the pews and the windows. On the raised platform in front, there was an altar, a lectern, and behind that were two rows of chairs for the choir. There was a fairly new piano on the left side of the platform…

The excerpt contains ten clauses, eight of which have was or were for the main verb. It contains 101 words, eight of them repeated at least once: aisle/s (3), pew/s (2), altar (2), rows (2), doors (2), platform (2), sides (3), neat (2). Of the seven sentences, four begin with There and one begins with It. The sentence that begins, “It had hat shelves,” produces a double take in the reader because the “had hat” looks like a typographical error.

One paragraph like this every hundred pages might not trouble a reader, but this sample is typical of the book. Word choice is unimaginative, and passages abound that contain nothing to connect the scene to the story.

Here is a description written by a professional novelist (P.D. James). The setting is the interior of a clinic for mental patients in a building that used to be a Georgian mansion:

Behind the reception kiosk and with windows facing the square was the general office, part of which had been partitioned to form a small filing-room for the current medical records. Next to the general office was Miss Bolam’s room and, beyond that, the E.C.T. suite with its treatment-room, nurses’ duty-room and male and female recovery bays. This suite was separated by a hallway from the medical staff cloakroom, clerical staff lavatories and the domestic assistant’s pantry. At the end of the hallway was the locked side door, seldom used except by members of the staff who had been working late and who did not want to give Nagle the trouble of undoing the more complicated locks, bolts and chains on the front door.

I’m not holding the second passage up as “great writing.” It resembles the previous passage in some ways. The word room–alone and in compounds–occurs five times; door and hallway occur twice each; was is used four times. But what James does that the other writer doesn’t do is vary language and syntax and relate the description to the story and the characters. The first writer could have done the same thing.

Whether readers are looking for it or not, few novelists are capable of producing great writing. Anyone who aspires to publication, however, should know the difference between amateur writing and professional writing. It’s revision.

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31 thoughts on “A Sample of Amateur Writing”

  1. That’s good work Maeve. It needed saying.

    Lincoln supposedly said, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” One could say the same of the writing profession: He who edits of his own writing has a fool for a client.

  2. I faced a quandary as I clicked Submit Comment. Should I add hedges to antecritically address those who, like me, cannot resist pointing out the exceptions to such rules, or should I leave it generalized but pithy for effect? Ah, but if only I had an editor with whom to discuss it.

  3. Quote:

    “Anyone who aspires to publication, however, should know the difference amateur writing and professional writing. It’s revision.”

    Whoops! Revision required indeed.

  4. One of my favorite quotes on writing, by Cherryh:
    “It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”

    I think many novice novelists mistake the sense of accomplishment at having finished the first draft for the belief that the manuscript is ready. As I have told many clients, if the story is great, it deserves to be told well. The accomplishment is real, but the work is not yet done.

  5. As a side note, Isabel Allende wrote some of the most beautiful scene descriptions, in my opinion. Proust, too, wrote great descriptions, though they were a bit too exhaustive for my tastes.

  6. The article makes a very valid point. The money shot, though, is this gem: “The difference between amateur writing and professional writing is rewriting.” And I assume it was set off as a single-sentence paragraph to highlight the importance of the message therein.

    Regarding the samples, the first is atrocious. The second only marginally better. P.D. James’s description is too long by far. Is it necessary that the reader know all that right then? Why not break that up with a little action, someone doing something, even if it’s merely walking down the hall or taking a seat. Also, I detect a POV problem with the clause, “… seldom used except by members of the staff… ”

    That said, the second sample still reads better than the first, and makes the point the article intended.

    Thank you.

  7. “The difference between amateur writing and professional writing is rewriting.” And rewriting, and then rewriting more! I used the poor example as a writing exercise for myself. I copied the text into a Word document and rewrote it to make it better. Of course, I had to imagine many details since there weren’t provided. Good writing contains many sensory details: colors, smells, textures, etc.

  8. Maeve, I think you should hold a contest to rewrite the paragraph!
    I do find it hard to believe the writer didn’t take a second look. I can only wonder what the rest of the book was like.

  9. Great article. I often learn more by reading bad writing, by listening to bad music, by seeing bad art than by being shown the epitome of good writing. Keep it up!

  10. @Sally: Suspend your disbelief. A dear friend of mine had a life-long dream to co-author a book with her father, who had suffered through the Holocaust. They started writing the book; I’m not sure how much input her father had, because I think he died before it was finished. At some point she finished it. I offered to proofread it for free, as her friend, but I think she was in a rush to get it done, so she self-published it. I don’t think another pair of eyes besides hers ever looked at it before she was handing out copies to her family and friends, and even sent one to Oprah. I am not going to go into any kind of detail here like mentioning the title, in case it is possible for someone to find that book or find this post and connect my comments to the book or to her. She died 4 years ago but her family members are still around, and although they are dolts, they are dolts who have computers, and I would not want to start anything. The book is mind-numbingly dull and horribly written, with mistakes on every page in spelling, grammar and punctuation. The plot, if you can call it that, is cliché and goes nowhere. There are issues with the formatting and the font, which are related to the company that does this self-publishing thing. It is, you know, like a ‘vanity press’ kind of thing, I think that is the expression I’ve heard. So what I’m saying is, there are people who fancy themselves to be writers, and they have the ability to self-publish books and poetry, and then they can claim to be published writers. Caveat emptor.

  11. Another problem with the first paragraph is its lack of substantive content. The author is describing something that really doesn’t require much description at all: Apparently, a profoundly mundane church interior. There were doors leading to the sanctuary. A carpet ran down the main aisle. There were pews on either side of said aisle. And aisles between those and the windows. The platform in front had, surprisingly (?), an altar, a lectern, and choir chairs. Hmm…was there a ceiling, too? Maybe he should mention that. Something like, “There was a ceiling on top of the walls that was over the whole room.” And, ”There was a floor underneath the pews and the carpet making a bottom for the room. “ You get the picture (both of them).

    “I didn’t say you can’t bake a cake. I said the cakes you bake aren’t very good. I don’t want to eat them. Other that they’re fine.” Arvid Darver

  12. Having words twice in the same paragraph is no sin. You harp on it like it is. It’s how they’re woven in that matters. The main problem with the first one is that he doesn’t take you thru the scene and it reads like a list rather than a slow walk. As the old saw goes … Don’t tell ’em what’s there; show ’em! The second one does this much better.

  13. @AnWulf: It’s not a sin but it IS best avoided if possible. Rarely is there no ready alternative to a word you’ve already used 2, 3, 4 times in the same paragraph. It just doesn’t read well. This article is about writing that is “not good” rather than bad or technically incompetent, so I think it seems appropriate in this context to criticize style– or lack of it.

    I’ve never taught composition, but I’ll bet this kind of writing is the most difficult to correct. More to it than pointing out misspellings and run-on sentence, etc.

  14. You know, this reminds me of the “Clan of the Cave Bear” series. I enjoyed certain aspects of the series, like what I felt was a peek into that time in history (actually pre-history) in terms of what people might have been like and how they might have lived, but I was often bored, and skipped over, the exquisitely detailed descriptions of the scenery, flora and fauna, etc. I wanted to get to the “meat” of the book, the action, what was going on with the characters. So as Maeve said, the difference between something being intriguing or boring could be the action, or lack thereof, and character play woven into the purely descriptive parts. It’s one thing to set the scene; it’s another thing entirely to beat it to death, as venqax points out nicely 🙂 And as far as AnWulf’s comment (“show them”), if the scene is so complex or in need of such detailed description, then the author should just put a picture or a map there, like inside the front cover of “The Hobbit” and such. Save the readers all the trouble, and they can refer back to it if they need clarification (was Arundel east or west of that river they mentioned? Better check that map…) A picture is worth a thousand words. That church as described in the first example sounds exceedingly ordinary, and even I, a Jew, don’t need that much description to know what the inside of a church looks like!

  15. bluebird,

    Is our your friend one of those people who say grammar, syntax and spelling don’t matter as long as you manage to get your point across? I’m always at a loss of what to say to those folks once “You sound like an idiot” fails to change their minds…..

    Also, regarding “Show, don’t tell” I’m quite certain that advice does not mean to draw a picture. Not sure if it best applied to passages of pure description at all, in fact.

    Consider that two future DWT topic requests right there for you!
    How to evangelize for standard English, and wordcraft lesson on “Show, don’t tell!”

  16. LOL @ ApK! My friend is, as I said, quite dead, in fact since 2010. Luckily she lived long enough past the book publishing to sign it for me. I can’t remember her coming out and saying that grammar and syntax don’t matter, in quite so many words, but I think she felt that it was more important to get the book “published” (and I use that term loosely) than to subject it to the delay that would have been caused by what would have been my excruciatingly painstaking review. It’s not as if I even have time for that kind of thing, and actually when I offered to do it, I had no idea what was involved and how bad it was. I’m glad she didn’t take me up on it, because she would have died before it left my hands. My ex-boyfriend’s son also has this burning desire to become a writer; he is about 24 years old right now and has been working on a “book” since he was about 17. I can’t even describe how awful it is, some kind of science fiction thing. He had it handwritten on reams of loose-leaf paper, and asked me to read it at one point. I started to read it, and not only was it horribly written, it was boring as hell, a topic I am totally not interested in. Initially I told him I didn’t have time to read it, but as the years went by and he kept asking (long after I broke up with his father!), I finally told him I could not review a book on that topic; it is of no interest to me, I can’t do it justice, I can only do basic spelling and grammar checks, etc. I could not suggest revisions that would make it more interesting/appealing, since it would only appeal to a small niche. I told him he could not afford to pay me what I would have to charge just to do basic review, and I certainly wasn’t going to read his handwritten stack of loose-leaf notes. And you know, friends don’t stay your friends if you start proofreading and critiquing their stuff. So my advice is, don’t do it! Because they don’t like to hear, “But you sound like an idiot!”

  17. As a published author of both self published and “really” published books, I can’t fully agree with this article. Sure, poor writing drives me nuts, but editors exist for a reason. A gazillion books are “written” by celebrities and sales are in the bazillions. Why? Not because they know how to write, but they have something others want to read, no matter how vapid or self aggrandizing. Coming from a journalism background, I sweat over my grammar and other details, but in the end, as long as it’s written well enough to catch the gist, if it’s interesting enough to a publisher then an editor is put to work to make it right. Good writing is an art, editing is a science.

  18. @Vic – I disagree with you on a couple of points (not because I think you’re wrong, though). First, not all writers take advantage of editors, and not all editors are able to help the writing, as bluebird’s stories indicate, so poor writing does make its way out into the world. Second, editing may well be a science, but I believe that it can also be as much of an art as writing, transforming something poor or merely “good enough” into something beautiful. That’s why I do it. 🙂

  19. Without any context to indicate why these descriptive passages might be significant, both are dull as door nails, and the greater point might be to question whether all these details are necessary at all.

  20. @Vic: Re: “…an editor is put to work to make it right.”
    You have pretty much proven Maeve’s point. Her point was that people who just rush to publish, without sweating enough over their grammar and other details, and without paying someone ELSE to do it, are probably going to put forth subpar work. The point is, one’s first draft is not going to be stellar, and while it behooves one to do some self-review (probably with a sharp scissors), one should definitely consider hiring someone with plenty of editorial experience to go over the work, critique it, correct it and edit it for everything (grammar, punctuation, formatting, content, accuracy…). I really, really doubt that JK Rowling self-published the first draft she wrote. Even the “Dick and Jane” books had editors!

  21. Given that anyone can now self-publish simply by pressing a button, criticizing the lack of professionalism is like shooting fish in a barrel. If the point of the post is that no book should be published before it’s ready, that’s a pretty evident statement. Of course self-published books are more likely to be published before they are ready, and are more likely to be published by non-professionals. This is not news.

    Frankly, there are a lot of books that will never be ready, that no amount of editing can save. I agree with the poster that one should know the difference before one “aspires” to be published.

    This is a dilemma for those of us who take writing seriously and are self-published. It’s a problem for readers trying to sift through and find the hidden gems.

    I’m not sure that a post like this, however, does anything more than confirm people’s prejudices regarding self-publishing. I searched for the book sampled and found that it has no customer reviews, and based on the sales rankings probably never sold more than a few copies. This isn’t a sample of a book with a “great story” that hasn’t been properly edited. It’s simple a sample of an amateurish work that’s been self-published. Dog bites man. Nothing newsworthy here.

    Why not look at some successful self-published books? The poster might find that generally those books were “ready” and had great stories — or at least good ones that readers were able to connect to. They might not be polished or edited to industries standards, but they are unlikely to be as badly written as the sample sited.

    Readers are less likely to find examples of truly amateurish work if they avoid self-published books altogether, but they are also more likely to miss out on some great reads.

  22. While the first sample clearly grates on the nerves when I read it – I do feel both samples suffer from using long sentences. Breaking up certain points into shorter sentences, presents a more powerful narrative in general.

  23. No editor can turn bad writing into good writing. This is not the function of an editor. All any editor can do is help the writer tweak a bit. A bad writer remains a bad writer, even with the help of the best editor, and no one wants bad writing. Writing does not have to be great, but it does have to be competent.

    It’s true readers are after story and character, but bad writers can’t give the good story and character because they lack the language skills needed to do so.

    As for celebrities, I’m really sick of hearing this. The truth is that the average movie star can write better than the average writer. A great many read and write more in a week than the average writer does in a month.

    When a celebrity can’t write, they do not turn out good books because an editor helps them, they turn out good books because the publisher hires a proven ghostwriter.

    Andmost successful self-published books are porn. It’s called “erotica”, but it’s porn, and one of the oldest statements in publishing is that “If you want to be a successful writer, you can write well, or you can write porn”. Nothing wrong with this, but the writing sucks.

    The writing in 99.9% of self-published books sucks horribly, and no editor can help it. Too many simply do not understand that writers make good writing, not editors. Period.

    I’ve met a lot of writers who threw away a promising career because they simply don’t understand that readers DO want good writing, and who think an editor can make up for poor writing. It simply isn’t true.

    As for the two samples, the first sucks in every possible way, including the repeated words. Repeating words is fine, if done with purpose, and with ability. It is not fine when done this way.

    The second sample is just average for a pro writer, which is all James meant it to be, another sign of a talented writer. She’s a master at knowing when to just get the information across, and when to use lively, vibrant writing.

    Very few who try writing have any talent for it at all. This is true in most occupations, but more so in writing because all it takes is a word Just like that, you’re a writer.

    And just like that you think your first novel is good enough to charm the masses, so you self-publish it when those idiots in commercial publishing don’t recognize true genius. And flush what might have been a promising career right down the toilet in the process.

  24. Trying to write a YouTube comment to impress caused me to be overly critical of myself. Amateur writing if you will. The incessant need to revise my not so important comment, however, allowed for improvement. Thank you, Superwoman!

  25. That huge description block bugged the hell out of me the moment I read it. Ugg. I couldn’t help myself:

    The church had double doors that lead into a tidy sanctuary, inside a long carpet ran from the doors to the altar. The typical pews along the aisle, the same with the stained glass windows. Its most notable aspect being the new piano on a platform next to where the choir seated at the end of the room. It was warm and inviting, a contrast to the drafty one back home.

    There I feel better. It’s to fix it, not knowing the characters likes and dislikes, opinions and such. :p

  26. That paragraph was so boring, it makes me wonder why the writer thought it was so important that they had to bring attention to it? Umm? If not DELETE!

    Gosh It could be:

    She stole into the church as the drizzle streamed into a downpour, she sat on a pew warming her hands. It wouldn’t take long, hopefully nobody would care. Right?

    Yay? Man. Writers if they’d just read a few articles and buy a couple of books to learn. Why does everyone think that writing is easy? That’s like thinking you can learn to play the flue well in one day. Like hell!

  27. Forgive me! I try not to but am stuck using a mobile keyboard. I’m not good at typing with it.

    flu = flute

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