WHAT MAKES BAD WRITING BAD

virginia-woolf

 

Virginia Woolf: “The psychic risk of a novel such as Woolf’s The Waves is vast – particularly for someone for whom psychic risk was so potentially debilitating.”  This article is Written by Toby Litt who is a London-based writer. Hospital, his latest novel, is published by Hamish Hamilton. ( A reblog from 2015)

Bad writing is mainly boring writing. It can be boring because it is too confused or too logical, or boring because it is hysterical or lethargic, or boring because nothing really happens. If I give you a 400 page manuscript of an unpublished novel – something that I consider to be badly written – you may read it to the end, but you will suffer as you do.

It’s possible that you’ve never had to read 80,000 words of bad writing. The friend of a friend’s novel. I have. On numerous occasions. If you ask around, I’m sure you’ll be able to find a really bad novel easily enough. I mean a novel by someone who has spent isolated years writing a book they are convinced is a great work of literature. And when you’re reading it you’ll know it’s bad, and you’ll know what bad truly is.

The friend of a friend’s novel may have some redeeming features – the odd nicely shaped sentence, the stray brilliant image. But it is still an agony to force oneself to keep going. It is still telling you nothing you didn’t already know.

Bad writers continue to write badly because they have many reasons – in their view very good reasons – for writing in the way they do. Writers are bad because they cleave to the causes of writing badly.

Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self. The person who will admire it first and last and most is the writer herself.

When Updike began writing Rabbit, Run it was either going to be a great technical feat or a humiliating misjudgment

While bad writers may read a great many diverse works of fiction, they are unable or unwilling to perceive the things these works do which their own writing fails to do. So the most dangerous kind of writers for bad writers to read are what I call excuse writers – writers of the sort who seem to grant permission to others to borrow or imitate their failings.

I’ll give you some examples: Jack Kerouac, John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou. Bad writers bulwark themselves against a confrontation of their own badness by references to other writers with whom they feel they share certain defense of worthy characteristics. They write defensive admirations: “If Updike can get away with these kind of half-page descriptions of women’s breasts, I can too” or “If Virginia Woolf is a bit woozy on spatiality, on putting things down concretely, I’ll just let things float free”. If another writer’s work survives on charm, you will never be able to steal it, only imitate it in an embarrassingly obvious way.

 

Bad writing is writing defensively; good writing is a way of making the self as vulnerable as possible. The psychic risk of a novel such as Woolf’s The Waves is vast – particularly for someone for whom psychic risk was so potentially debilitating. When Updike began writing Rabbit, Run all in the present tense, it was either going to be a great technical feat or a humiliating aesthetic misjudgment. (Excuse writers aren’t, in themselves, bad writers; not at all.)

Often, the bad writer will feel that they have a particular story they want to tell. It may be a story passed on to them by their grandmother or it may be something that happened to them when they were younger. Until they’ve told this particular story, they feel they can’t move on. But because the material is so close to them they can’t mess around with it enough to learn how writing works. And, ultimately, they lack the will to betray the material sufficiently to make it true.

Bad writers often want to rewrite a book by another writer that is written in a different time period, under completely different social conditions. Because it’s a good book, they see no reason why they can’t simply do the same kind of thing again. They don’t understand that even historical novels or science fiction novels are a response to a particular moment. And pretending that the world isn’t as it is – or that the world should still be as it once was – is disastrous for any serious fiction.

Any attempt to write fiction in order to make the world a better, fairer place is almost certain to fail

Conversely, bad writers often write in order to forward a cause or enlarge other people’s understanding of a contemporary social issue. Any attempt to write fiction in order to make the world a better, fairer place is almost certain to fail. Holding any value as more important than learning to be a good writer is dangerous. Put very simply, your characters must be alive before they seek justice.

Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn, and that it is the literary world’s fault that they have not yet been recognised, published, lauded and laurelled. It is a very destructive thing to believe that you are very close to being a good writer, and that all you need to do is keep going as you are rather than completely reinvent what you are doing. Bad writers think: “I want to write this.” Good writers think: “This is being written.”

To go from being a competent writer to being a great writer, I think you have to risk being – or risk being seen as – a bad writer. Competence is deadly because it prevents the writer risking the humiliation that they will need to risk before they pass beyond competence. To write competently is to do a few magic tricks for friends and family; to write well is to run away to join the circus.

Your friends and family will love your tricks, because they love you. But try busking those tricks on the street. Try busking them alongside a magician who has been doing it for 10 years, earning their living. When they are watching a magician, people don’t want to say, “Well done.” They want to say, “Wow.”

At worst, on a creative writing course, the tutor will be able to show you how to do some magic tricks; at best, they will teach you how to be a good magician; beyond that, though, is doing magic – and that you will have to learn for yourself. For what a tutor can’t show you is how to do things you shouldn’t be able to do.

Toby Litt is a London-based writer. Hospital, his latest novel, is published by Hamish Hamilton.

29 thoughts on “WHAT MAKES BAD WRITING BAD

  1. I need to improve my writing too. Blogging as well as journaling is helping me. I do not get a lot of time to write but I try to do as much as possible. Love your writing style and this post. Thanks a lot for showing light on the facts about bad writing.

    Like

      1. I once started reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and I was so bored I gave up after a couple of pages – I’ve never attempted to read her since. I can imagine being even more bored by an author who copied her writing!

        Like

  2. And unfortunately, part of the development of writing ability is getting all of that “bad stuff” out of the way first…which means writing it. And having someone read it….And STILL having the courage to press on!

    Like

  3. I agree it’s easy to say someone’s writing is bad but difficult to judge our own writing. I remember when I was reading, “Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand. I felt she wrote too many pages of a speech which I thought was not only boring but unnecessary. The book was 1108 pages, which had things that could easily be taken out. She was a famous writer therefore anything she wrote was accepted with open arms.
    Then there is Dan Brown who wrote fifty extra pages of how the main character was chasing the culprit. One reader said in her comment, ‘I wonder if writers are paid by how many pages are in their book?”
    I felt the same when I read his novel.
    I’ve never tried to write a novel, it’s just something I think is too much work.

    Like

    1. Hi Ranu, I agree with you 100%. Great writers also make mistakes and do extra pages to validate their own insecurity about the novel they have written by overwriting. And, yes, writing a novel is hard to do and I just finished my 3rd novel (first draft), plus I have 2 uncompleted novels that I will return to after I complete the 2nd draft and editing of my almost ready to publish novel: If I Go. K. D. 🙂

      Like

  4. My question: Is a ‘boring’ book just a matter of opinion? One person could see a book as boring, whereas another might think it’s the best book they’ve ever read. Who’s to say if a book is boring or badly written? I wouldn’t mind having the success that Virginia Woolf had with her books!

    Like

    1. HI Steve, this is true in general. The difference is, perhaps, that some writers can look for and find improvements needed in other writers’ work. Just like doctors, lawyers or almost any other profession. Thank you for commenting and I like your opinion! K. D. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Any attempt to write fiction in order to make the world a better, fairer place is almost certain to fail?

    I had artistic purity pounded into my head for years of college and grad school. But right now the Iowa Writer’s Workshop is conducting an online class about writing for justice and community. You don’t have to write to change the world, but you change the world as soon as you publish and transmit your world vision, whether it be social justice, nihilism or artistic solipsism. Woolfe bared her psyche to reveal to the world the internal narrative of repression.

    I would be the first to say that making art for change requires the artist to put her art first and bury the message within so that the viewer discovers a new vision of the world rather than being pounded in the face with a message. But artistic purity is an oxymoron. The artistically pure work of art says to the world, change doesn’t matter only this moment of interaction between artist and viewer (reader), That message is an agent of change away from community consciousness to isolation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello Phillip,

    Thank you for commenting. I do agree with you about this article, written by Toby Litt, a London-based writer. Mr. Litt has written a poorly thought out and badly constructed article. In fact, he has demonstrated this clearly by writing poorly constructed sentences and does not give examples that are weighted to back-up his assertions about bad writing. However, many writers, myself included, have been guilty of not always producing our best writing ability from thought process to paper. The difference is, most writers are aware when their writing is poorly constructed and ergo, edit heavily. Mr. Litt appears to be unaware of his poor writing skills.

    Furthermore, you have correctly pointed out that Mr. Litt’s assertion that writing fiction does not influence the world community is ill-considered at best and fallacious at his most erroneous understanding. I chose this article to point out poorly written articles that are, perhaps, dashed off, with little thought, on a computer or iPhone. If a writer does not know how to put together a constructive comparative analysis that makes sense, then a writer should not attempt to do so. Mr. Litt as shown us what bad writing looks like, by his own poorly written article. K. D.

    Like

    1. Well, I remember those feeling myself, however, I said to myself, “I will get a few Beta readers and an editor to give me corrections. Just write, people just want a good story, most don’t care about perfect this or than on writing (within reason of course). Karen 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s