Monday, 30 May 2016


This week I read the article 'What Makes Bad Writing Bad?' on The Guardian UK website. If you are at all insecure about your abilities as a writer this rather high-handed pontification will not help matters, so I suggest you proceed with caution when it comes to reading it for yourself.

From just reading the title, it would be reasonable to assume it's about the things that make bad writing bad. wouldn't it? You know, the usual suspects; adverbs, passive voice, filtering, repetitive phrases...

Spoiler alert - it isn't. Somewhere along the line the author decided instead that it was certain kinds of people who made these grievous errors - and they personally were the 'things' that made bad writing bad. His issue wasn't so much with the way words were laid out on the page, but with the personality and motivations of the person who was putting them there.

I will concede he did make one or two good points. It's certainly true, for example, that any writer who believes they have nothing more to learn because they've become Masters of the Craft are generally full of something, and it isn't good writing. But overall I feel he swung his Bat of Shame in a pretty broad circle without much regard for who he might have been hitting. If you are an aspiring, as-yet-unpublished writer - or even an already-published one - I challenge you to get through the entire article without feeling at least a little bit stung by the end of it, because it's cleverly worded to stab little needles of doubt into the sensitive writer's self-esteem.

Aspiring to write boundary-breaking fiction like influential authors such as Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood, David Foster Wallace and Maya Angelou? You're probably a Bad Writer then. Been working for a few years on the novel that's been burning in your brain, and can't start another until you've got this one out of your head? You're probably a Bad Writer too. Writing a novel that explores certain ideologies and issues that are dear to your heart? Yep, you guessed it - you're a Bad Writer as well.

Now these declarations might make sense if every author who's ever written anything that fits in any of those above categories has always produced something bad. But that clearly isn't true, as - ooh, I don't know, several thousand classics and bestsellers over at least a couple of centuries will testify. Yes, these things can certainly be done badly by writers who lack the necessary skills - but that in itself shouldn't be clarion call to all writers to never even attempt to write what their heart wants to write. The problem is, this article doesn't make that distinction; it takes what it regards as 'bad writing,' looks for the genres and motivations most commonly associated with it and then brands everyone who writes or wants to write that stuff as 'bad writers' before they've even begun.

Bad writers don't realise they're bad, is the takeaway message from this article. They keep on writing their terrible stuff, convinced it's what they're meant to do, that their instincts are right and they should keep on writing, no matter what everyone else says. Bad writers believe in themselves and their writing ability when they really, really shouldn't.

And isn't that the very head-demon most halfway-decent, good and even great writers fight, every day of their writing life? That, actually, they're not as good at this writing lark as they think they are, and they should just quit their narcissistic dreaming and get back to the Real World? How many of us have heard those same sentiments echoed out loud by the naysayers among our friends, families, teachers, peers and work colleagues?

I bet you can picture the looks on their faces as they say it too. That half-pitying, half-contemptuous look that says "I'm just trying to make you see how much of a delusional loser you really are, because I'm smart enough to predict your eventual humiliation and kind-hearted enough to warn you about it in advance." Ironically, they're often not so kind-hearted that they'll be happy for you if you prove them wrong - in fact, their little hearts will shrivel with secret fury if you dare to defy their cutting non-expectations at some point in the future. Because here's the secret those people don't want you to know; if you're a creative person who's actively chasing your dream, you break their world view and that scares the crap out of them.

Society at large is not encouraged to 'think big.' If you want a guaranteed system for Making It in life, you work your arse off in a normal, steady job that pays a regular wage for practical skill sets that can be applied to everyday life - skills like retail, office-based, trades, hospitality, catering and managerial skills. Not only that, but if you're really serious about supporting yourself and then later on providing for your family, this is the path you should be committing your energies to. That's how you get respect in this society - playing the game by The Rules.

But while a large proportion of society accepts and abides by these Rules, that doesn't mean they're always happy about it. Even people without a single creative bone in their body have crazy dreams about the kind of life they'd live instead, if they didn't have to do their duty in their job that Pays The Bills and Puts Food on the Table. But they bury those dreams, shoving them aside for the Greater Good, and the only way they can do that without tumbling into a pit of inner misery is to convince themselves that they're doing it because the way they've committed to - the sensible, real-world-thinking way - is the way that works. That taking the rule-breaker path of following their dreams and sucking up knockback after knockback - probably for years and possibly forever if they never succeed - is the choice so life-wrecking and impossible it shouldn't even be contemplated. They need that to be the absolute truth in their life if they are to keep trudging down their safe but humdrum life of stability.

And then someone like you comes along. You, the creative, who hasn't locked her dreams away in a box marked 'Unrealistic' and stuck to The Rules like you were 'supposed to.' You're taking all the risks they're too afraid to take and - well, you may not have achieved all the things you've dreamed of achieving, but you also haven't died or been left destitute and friendless either. You're making chasing your dreams look... kind of attractive as a life strategy. You even look like you're enjoying the process, damn you! You're breaking everything - if you can do it and not get swallowed down a hair-clogged plughole of disaster, that means it might not be wrong for them to try it either... You're making everyone who takes the safe path look like wusses, you troublemaker!

You must therefore be stopped, before you convince others to follow in your footsteps and make those too scared to try feel even more resentful for choosing to stick with their safe life choices. And since rejecting and ridiculing what you do clearly hasn't been working so far, because you still insist on doing it anyway, the only alternative is to go personal and reject and ridicule what you are.

And that's how you get from 'Bad Writing' to 'Bad Writers' in a single web article. It's  also why you can swap out 'writing' and 'writers' for 'art' and 'artists, 'performances' and 'performers...' You imply the two are one and the same, a symbiotic relationship where each 'partner' feeds off the other to survive.

And no creative person on the planet is immune from such a judgement - if the kind of person who judges creatives in this way decides they don't like the way Stephen King writes his stories, they will judge him a Bad Writer until the day they die, in spite of a cosmic crapload of evidence that this can't actually be true. That's not to say he hasn't produced bad writing in his career - the man himself has owned up to that on more than one occasion. But doing anything badly is part of the process toward becoming good at it; every one of us once had to have bums regularly wiped clean by an adult because we hadn't figured out toilets yet. Imagine if, instead of being encouraged to keep trying, we'd all been branded 'bad children' and told to give up on our dreams of ever being able to control our own bowels?

So yeah, when people tell you they don't like your writing... they're entitled to their opinion, and you're entitled to make up your own mind whether you want to try and change it or not. If people tell you what you've written is 'bad writing,' the same applies, but it might be worth your while taking another look at your work and seeking some other opinions to see if there's any truth in what they're saying.

But anyone who tells you you're a 'bad writer?' Unless you're stabbing them in the eyes with your pen, abusing people on social media or committing crimes that have nothing to do with written prose it's a meaningless criticism. No writer in the history of forever was ever born a 'good' writer. We all suck in the beginning, and no two writers' journey from 'crap' to 'okay' to 'good' (and maybe even 'great') are the same, or take the same length of time to travel. That person who produces 'bad writing' now might bang out a kick-ass best-seller in a couple of years' time - or ten years' time, or maybe it'll take them twenty or more years to finally crack it. Meanwhile, another writer who wrote fantastic stuff in his early twenties might struggle to maintain that standard as he slides into his thirties, spend his forties in creative doldrums and then suddenly have a resurgence in his fifties and beyond. You could try and slap the 'Bad Writer' label on both of them - but you can't make it stick.

Even when your writing is bad, it is not because you are a bad writer. Remember that in your deepest, darkest moments of self-doubt. Mistakes are things, not people.

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