Good Advice About Bad Writing

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How does one avoid being a bad writer? Presumably, most people visiting or subscribing to this site needn’t concern themselves with being accused of high crimes against the English language, but allow me to make a distinction between poor writing and bad writing.

Poor writing is lazy, careless writing, an attempt to communicate without adequate preparation or care. It is writing replete with passive construction, limp verbs, leaden clichés, mixed metaphors, dangling participles and misplaced modifiers, and other enemies of clear prose.

Without vigilance, we are all vulnerable — we can easily produce any one of these errors, and perhaps more than one, in a single article or essay or short story. But poor writing is a multiplicity of such mistakes, and it is a sin of omission rather than one of commission: We might commit all these transgressions because we don’t know or recognize them.

Bad writing is more of a challenge, because it is a sin of commission: You have to make an effort to write badly — though it is easier to achieve than you might think, because many very accomplished, intelligent people do so. How does one manage to join such exalted company?

Bad writing is that which demonstrates a surfeit of intention. (Translation: Bad writing happens when you try too hard.) Forty years ago, S. Leonard Rubenstein, now a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, wrote “If a man intends to impress someone, his work will not be clear, because he does not intend clarity: he intends to impress.”

And that is when writing often goes bad: Writers let their desire to demonstrate erudition, artistry, or cleverness — acceptable in small doses — overwhelm their effort to communicate. We see it in academic and technical writing, laden with polysyllabic prose and complicated and extensive sentence construction that obfuscates rather than opens our eyes. We see it in lay nonfiction, when arguments fight themselves, explanations leave us more confused than before, and overwrought overwriting leaves us overwhelmed. We see it in fiction, when novelists and short story writers belabor their narrative with contrived constructions and purple prose.

Here are some tips on avoiding the pitfalls of bad writing:

1. Be Fresh
The purpose of metaphor and simile is to evoke recognition by comparison or allusion. Write these analogies to aid your readers with your clarity of vision, not to serve your ego, and avoid clichés.

2. Be Clear
When drafting expository fiction or nonfiction, record your voice as you spontaneously describe a scene or explain a procedure, transcribe your comments, and base your writing on the transcription, revising only to select more vivid verbs and more precise nouns and to seek moderation in adverbs and adjectives.

3. Be Active
Use the passive voice judiciously.

4. Be Concise
Write tight.

5. Be Thorough
Accept that writing is the easy part; it’s the revision that makes or breaks your project — and requires most of your effort.

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6 thoughts on “Good Advice About Bad Writing”

  1. This might be one of your best. Ok, this might be one that spoke to me immediately. I certainly get a lot out of your posts. They come in on my RSS reader and into my email. I share them with my friends and talk about them often. I come back to them and search them out as resources. Thank you!

  2. I’ve heard it described as “getting out of the way”. Just tell the story. Most of the description is built in your readers’ heads anyway.

  3. Thank you, Mark, this was a great post. Unfortunately, most of the people who need this admonishment won’t read this post. They think they write well, or is that good. You know what I mean.

    Thanks for all your hard work. I don’t know how you do it…everyday.

  4. I believe that “good writing” has internal as well as external harmony with the reader’s sensibilities. The writer’s heart must beat in his/her words, and the force that kicks it into action is the metaphor upon which it feeds.

  5. I agree w/Ron. Most people who need to hear/read this never will. I on the other hand know that I need to improve my writing a lot so I’m constantly searching for articles such as this one to help me 🙂

    Thanks for posting.

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