Good Advice About Bad Writing
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
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.