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20 Universal Signs of Bad Writing

Tolstoy says that all happy families are happy in the same way, but that unhappy families are all unhappy in different ways, which is why, I suppose, he finds it interesting to write about the unhappy ones.

I think that bad writers are all bad in the same way, but that good writers are all good in different ways. And these are the ways that bad writers are bad:

1. They don't tell a story.

Usually this is because they are so focused on the words at a sentence or phrase level that they have forgotten what the bigger picture looks like. They might not even be aware of this. I'm sure I was not. Sometimes better writers will sit down and ask them what they are really trying to write about. It is not always possible to figure this out.

2. They are never concise. Sentences are never short. And there is no sense of pacing the language.

I think this must be partly because of the habit everyone gets into in high school, when you have to write a certain length of paper, and so it is always better to say something the long way (and over and over) than the short one. You just tend to get better grades. I know I did. I don't know why I did, but that's the way it is.

3. They use an abundance of adjectives and adverbs.

I think this is because they are trying to follow some rule of "good writing," they've been told, where they have to give a "sense of place," or "use all five senses in the opening paragraph." But it's an external rule, that has nothing to do with the actual story that is being told here and now, on this page.

4. They do not know the meaning of the word "subtle."

Nothing is so unimportant that they can't tell you exactly how it fits into the story their way. In a way, this is a kind of insecurity, not believing the reader can or should be allowed to interpret things on their own. Also called "hitting the reader over the head."

5. They do not allow any surprises to be discovered by the reader along the way.

This is partly because they are not sure themselves what is going to happen next, so they are trying to think about it. This often appears as the viewpoint character thinking about what to do next, or telling the reader what is going to happen next and how he feels about it, in advance.

6. They do not understand viewpoint and are constantly telling the reader things that the viewpoint character can't know.

Writers who can deftly move out of one character's head and into another's without confusing the reader and very rare, and only the most experienced should try this. Otherwise, stick with one viewpoint character and everything that is said must be what they know or can see.

7. They show too much.

The classic "show, don't tell" rule is sometimes misunderstood, because authors don't know what not to show. Obviously, the reader does not want to know everything that happens, detail by detail. They don't need to know when the character goes to the bathroom. They only want to know the interesting things, the things that tell them about the character, that show conflict, that are fun.

8. They tell too much about themselves

The problem here is that the reader wants to know about the story, not about the author's personal life. Again, this is a problem sometimes that authors cannot see. They identify so much with their characters that they telegraph to the reader information about their fantasies and their relationships that is just too much. The story isn't really about the author. It should be about the story

9. They write with bad information

Sometimes even if you aren't an expert in a field, you can tell that the author is just making things up. Authors make stuff up all the time. It's what they do. But they have to make up the right stuff. They can't sound like idiots.

10. They mix metaphors or use them in in appropriate ways. Or just too often.

Metaphors are the stuff of good writing. Everyone knows this from college. Only think about this--a good metaphor will carry an entire book. You don't want to suffocate the reader in them. Use one really good one, and then don't use anymore. Or don't use them at all, if you're not sure that one is really good. You'll be better off. I promise.

10.They have characters do things that don't matter.

Yes, I know that published authors do this sometimes, but even their most faithful readers want to throw the book across the room. If you are going to end the story in such a way as to make what the main character does unimportant, end it a different way. Or have the main character do something else, something that matters. Otherwise why would anyone read your book?

11.They drop threads right and left.

Details matter in a book. Yes, all of them. And you as the writer are the weaver of the tale. You must hold all the threads in your hand and make sure they all end up where they should go.

12.They write about characters who don't care, who are depressed, or who want to die.

You may think this is "meaningful" literature, or true to life, but if your character has no reason to live, the reader has no reason to read. There has to be something the character wants, or needs, something to propel the story forward. Maybe even something the character doesn't want, that they have to stop.

12. They have villains who are mysterious and pure evil.

I'm not one into villains. I think you have plenty of conflict when good people simply disagree on what is most imporant in life. But if you do have villains, don't make them stupid villains who do what they do merely to stand in the way of others. Give them a reason, even if it's not one that anyone else can agree with.

13. They kill off characters when they can't figure out what to do with them next. Or send them on a journey and never talk about them again. Or just drop them.

If you're going to kill off a character the reader is invested in, you better have a damn good reason, and you better make sure that reason is foreshadowed in some way.

14. They use inadvertent rhyme. Or bad rhyme when writing poetry.

Check your words. Make sure you want them to sound that way.

15. They use the same word fifteen times on the same page, like "quietly."

And they try to fix it if you point this out to them by using synonyms for that word. That is not the problem.

16. They tell you how every character says everything. With feeling, while itching their butt, laughingly.

Said is plenty.

17. They tell you how every character feels.

The thing is, we don't need to know how they all feel. We need to know how the main character feels. It's his/her story. The rest don't matter.

18. They have dialogue that doesn't matter.

I guess they feel like they need to put dialogue in somewhere, but the reader does not want to know--truly-- about the conversation they had about boring, trivial things. Unless the book is about a boring, trivial life, and then-- honestly, don't write a book about that. No one wants to read it.

19. They want to tell you about all the things that aren't written down in the book that make it good.

I don't understand this tendency. Some writers, I know, write pages and pages about their books, and then figure out what to put in the actual manuscript based on what is important to the story at any particular moment. This isn't a bad thing per se, I don't think, although it's not what I do. But if a reader tells you something is missing, you should never argue with them. This is important information about how to make your book better. It's your job to do it.

20. They write beginning after beginning, never getting through the middle, and certainly never finding an end. Sometimes they might write the words "The End," but it never is an ending, because there is never any resolution.

Again, if your book is about how life never has any resolution, don't bother. Readers read fiction because they want what life doesn't offer them. They want to pretend there is resolution. Really.

By the way, I got all of these examples from my own bad writing that you can sample here. All writers are bad to begin with, and all writers write bad stuff some of the time. Maybe lots of the time. Maybe most of the time. They just learn how to tell what's bad and throw it out. Or some of them learn what thoughts are bad and don't ever write those down (so they produce fewer words, but seem like better writers). And I hate them! Bad writers of the world unite--and become better writers!

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Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2011 all rights reserved.
Last revised August 10, 2011.