How to Know If You’re a Bad Writer

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Earlier this year, I posted a discussion on what to do when you’re a bad writer with a good story. PopCultureGrinch read the piece and asked a follow up: how do you know when you’re a bad writer?

I responded wittily, “There’s a reasonably famous quote that says there’s no such thing as a bad writer, only bad writing but maybe that’s just to make us all feel better about ourselves.” It’s a little ironic because in that moment, I was a bad writer. There is no such quote, at least not a famous one. I guess it’s my quote now. The quote I was actually referring to is by Oscar Wilde, who said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

Which just goes to show that being a bad writer isn’t a static state. Someone who has previously been a bad writer can become a good writer. And someone who has previously been a good writer can lapse into moments (hopefully not too many) of being a bad writer. (I hope that it’s not something I suffer from all the time and is more closely related to my laziness in confirming that the quote existed anywhere outside of my mind rather than my general ability to write.)

PopCultureGrinch also asked, “Is the quality of the writer based upon their output or their work ethic?” This is easier to answer. It’s all about output. Because you can have the worst work ethic in the world and still produce writing of quality. And you can have the greatest work ethic in the world and never produce any writing of quality if you don’t have at least a little bit of natural talent.

I think bad writing is a bit like bad art – I know it when I see it. But coming up with some generic rules to identify it is a little more complex. There’s also that pesky problem of beauty being in the eye of the beholder – that is, something that I think is bad writing might be someone else’s idea of good writing.

Here’s an example of something I think is poorly written:

“The usual ‘oohs….aahs’ of ours were obvious from the confines of our lonely 4WD parked in the middle of nowhere, with us as co-habitants in way outback. Here we were slap bang in the middle of the lowly occupied Wet Season, miles from anywhere and anyone, in total darkness and dreaming of our near departure from this Heritage Gazetted, Wilderness Park.”

Out of respect, I won’t name the writer. After all, I’m writing this post to help writers identify ways to get better at writing, not to target and ridicule those who haven’t achieved that yet.

So why is it bad writing? I think it’s because the writer is trying to write something evocative and is getting tangled up in an attempt to integrate a bunch of fancy words instead of keeping it simple. I see this a lot with people who aren’t “natural” writers. They want it to sound impressive and instead it ends up sounding nonsensical.

Let’s start with the “usual ‘oohs….aahs’ of ours”. “Oohs” and “aahs” aren’t generally usual. They’re rare. That’s what makes “oohs” and “aahs” an expression of something wonderful going on. And when the writer talks about them being “obvious”, I think what they actually meant was that the sounds stood out against the quietness of the remote location they were in. But that isn’t what was written. The “lonely 4WD parked in the middle of nowhere” is repetition. If the 4WD is lonely, the reader understands the implication that there aren’t any other cars or people around. Then “co-habitants”? Co-habiting is something you do in a house, not a car. And “in way outback” is repetition again. Awkwardly constructed repetition.

“Slap bang” is a cliché. It’s not the wet season that is “lowly occupied”, it’s the place in the wet season. After that comes the “miles from anywhere and anyone”, which is more repetition. In “total darkness”? If so, how can they see anything? And the reference to the “dreaming of our near departure” is confusing. Are they wanting to leave, which is what “dreaming” suggests? Or would they actually rather stay? Each of these individual points contributes to it being considered bad writing. Assessed as a whole, it’s extremely and unnecessarily wordy, which just adds more weight to the way the reader already feels.

(The poor punctuation and random capital letters are not evidence of bad writing, just writing that hasn’t been edited yet and there are plenty of people considered good writers who need good editors to maintain that reputation.)

It’s very difficult to recognise whether you are a bad writer by yourself. That’s usually when it’s a problem because it’s up to somebody else to tell you. Cue hurt feelings if it’s not done right. It’s strange because I know I’m not a good cook or a good artist but I don’t get upset if someone tells me so. Writing, like so many other artistic endeavours, is one of those things that everybody wants to be good at. And because most know their alphabet and the basics of construction, they think that translates into the ability to write. Unfortunately, sometimes, it doesn’t. That’s why it’s important to have honest beta readers, I guess, people who are prepared to tell us the truth about our writing, not just our mums telling us how clever we are.

However, if you’re prepared to attempt a self-assessment, here are a few things to look out for:

*Waffle – good writers get to the point.
*Ranting – good writers don’t just vent to make themselves feel better.
*Lack of research – good writers support their statements in non-fiction with facts and reasoning and their creations in fiction with authenticity that comes from having at least a vague idea of what they are talking about.
*Poor construction – good writers work hard to make their writing easy to read. (Most people won’t go to all the trouble of analysing a piece of writing to understand why it’s bad, like I did above. They will simply understand it intrinsically because poor construction makes it hard to read.)
*First drafts – good writers don’t inflict first drafts on their readers. Multiple rewrites are essential to make sure your writing is as good as it can be.
*Unwillingness to consider viewpoints other than your own – good writers understand that they are not gods, that they can’t know it all and that the viewpoints of others may be just as valid. Actually, good people in general understand this. Consider the opinions of others about your writing, even if this means playing devil’s advocate against yourself.

The most important thing to remember is that bad writers can get better. Even if a currently bad writer isn’t naturally talented, investing the time and effort in learning the basics, practising a lot, asking for feedback and acting on the advice received will really help in becoming a better writer and maybe even eventually a good writer.

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