What makes writing bad?

I have been thinking about this a lot recently. I am getting towards the end of the first draft of my current book. That means that I am starting to think about editing – the long and sometimes painful process of chopping out my own bad writing habits.

As it happens, there are a couple of discussions on the internet where people are quoting passages of bad writing. With apologies for anyone who finds their own writing on the list, here is a sample …

Let’s start with the obvious:

John had studied up on the kind of octopus he was buying. It was a tiny breed. It was Caribbean Pygmy Octopus that was the size of half a dollar. John did notice that it had blue rings similar to another breed that was poisonous but none of that breeds other characteristics. It most just be some anomaly.

Yes, the word “tiny” really is underlined in the book. I am guessing that it was left in by mistake.

The other big problem here is the spelling and punctuation. We have missing words “It was a Caribbean Pygmy Octopus.”

We have missing punctuation – “breeds” should be “breed’s”.

We have entirely wrong words. In the last sentence, “most” should be “must”.

Another example:

As spring hangs out her perfumes along our mortal way, the heavy vapours of silence begin to thread my nostrils and the mould of time grows dankly across my reputation.

Like a martyr I allowed myself to undergo the indignity of bending over the desk, my hands on the sides, and receiving four humourless bombardments on my bare vulnerability.

Someone is having their bottom spanked. I think.

This is a case of a writing trying too hard. They are hoping that readers  will look at it and say “wow”. What is more likely is that readers will say “whoa.”

It is much too purple. It is too flowery, ornate, artificial.

Fantasy seems to attract more purple writing than just about any other genre:

The stallions ripe and ready muscles rippled under his shimmering coat as he thrusted himself to victory.

Um. I’m not quite sure where to start with this one. Purple adjectives – check. Missing apostrophe – check. Pointless alliteration (ripe, ready, rippled) – check.

Here’s another one:

Wide gaping maws, fanged and stretched to maul, loosed a shrill cry, shaking Gossamyr de Wintershinn from her petrified stance.

First we have to try to work out what is happening here. I think we have the mouth of an animal  (the maw) making a noise (the shrill cry) which makes the unfortunately named Goassamyr move where previously she had been standing still.

I think.

Naturally we also have the purple language. Of particular note is the adjective-noun trap. We want to include detail in our writing, so it is quite natural to pair up an adjective with a noun. But if we do this with every noun it can become very repetitive.

Here’s one of my favourites:

Average in height, strong as an ox, dark-haired, swarthy Setau the snake-charmer was making love to his lissome Nubian wife, Lotus, whose slender curves kept him constantly on the brink of arousal.

Too much information and the writing is both purple and clichéd.

It is funny how often writers stumble with sex scenes. Maybe there is an inherent difficulty in describing sex in words. It is both indescribably fun and also an undignified piece of synchronised plumbing. Add in an author’s coyness about describing what is really happening, and we can get an unholy mess.

Perhaps sex, like eating fine food or drinking wine, is something that we should just do and not try to describe?

To counteract all this smut, here’s a bit of religion. It’s the very first paragraph of an autobiography of a vicar:

In a plain little room out of the sun, religious zealots in robes and beards meet to study the teachings of the founder of their sect. In the hum of their discourse and the rhythm of their prayer summaries of his teachings emerge, are worked up, and broadcast to the communities he founded, fractious and disobedient, in the cities and towns of that hot and volatile region.

The teacher we know as St. Paul…

The language here is very dense. It is difficult to understand who is doing what to who, as we are bounced from a room, to the zealots, the teachings of the founder of their sect, their discourse, prayer, summaries, teachings again, communities, cities, region.

And all that to introduce Paul. Paul isn’t even the subject of the book. It’s a preamble to a preamble to a preamble.

There are too many ideas for one paragraph to carry. One internet friend told me that he managed about one chapter of this book before giving up.

Then there’s this one:

And then many things happened. Some of them happened at the same time as other things, and others in such quick succession that it felt like they were simultaneous. Some things didn’t actually happen at all, but afterwards at least one person would swear that they had. Yet again, some things happened more than once, which made it feel like there were more things happening than there really were. It became so noisy and confused, that some people had to ask some other people to repeat what they had just said or done, and this all added to the confusion about the number of things which were, or were not, or may not have been happening.

Here we have an author who seems to like the sound of his own voice. Instead of moving the story on, he is jumping somersaults trying to impress the reader. Who has probably got bored half way through this and wandered off to make a cup of tea.

A very experienced writer and editor on Absolute Write offered up this gem. He was reading a medieval fantasy where the leader of a mighty army has laid waste to everyone who stands before him. At the end of one slaughter, the leader surveys the scene and says:

Wow, this conquering stuff is easy!

And here, for once, we have the opposite of purple language. At a moment when the author could get away with something with curly edges, he lapses into mundane modern language.

A conclusion? One of the biggest problems that we writers face is that we want to impress. We want our writing to zing. So we stuff in as many images and fancy words as we can. We imagine we are writing in super high definition on a widescreen television.

Instead, our readers see blotchy handwritten text written in a gothic script with curly bits.

There’s a funny thing about purple writing. It doesn’t look purple when you are writing it. As an author you see a delicate shade of lilac with a hint of vermillion. The reader sees the garish shade of purple that we used to like in the 1970s – the decade that style forgot.

If I could give only one advice to aspiring authors it would be this.

Depurplify your writing. Please, please, please.

And if anyone thinks that I am being unnecessarily cruel by quoting these, I ought to make a disclaimer.

At least three of these examples are from published books. One self-published and two through recognised publishing houses.

One of the books has received very good reviews from the critics.

One is an international bestseller.

And one of the quotes was written by me.


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