Monday, March 13, 2023

What is “Bad Writing?” (And How Can We Avoid It?)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

"Bad writing" means different things to different readers.

We writers notice bad writing far more easily than readers, because we know the rules. For us, the writing is critical, but for a reader, it’s more about the story.

Readers don’t care how the sausage is made as long as it tastes good. And “good” is very subjective.

No matter what genre you write, I bet you can name a few huge, mega-bestsellers you feel are badly written. Every genre has them. And they drive us crazy as writers because “writers must write well” is drilled into our heads by everyone in the writing and publishing industry.

In one way it’s true—we should strive to write well to be successful.

In another way it’s not—a fantastic story that resonates with readers will trump “good writing” every time.

And this is when the serious hair pulling starts. It’s such a contradiction that “badly written books” with good stories sell. It goes against everything we’re taught, and makes us crazy (and a little depressed) when we run across it.

So what exactly is bad writing?

This will change depending on who you ask, but for me, “bad writing” is anything that yanks a reader out of a story and prevents them from enjoying the book.

This can take many, many forms, from technical skills to storytelling abilities. Some readers are turned off by:
  • Bland characters
  • Slow plots
  • Too-complex sentence construction
  • Too-simple sentence construction
  • Grammatical errors and typos
  • Too much description
  • Not enough description
  • The wrong kind of description
And the list goes on and on. This is why different people will have wildly different views on the same novel. It’s why a manuscript will get rejected by ten editors but sell to the eleventh. It’s why one beta reader rips apart your book while another praises it on every page.

(Here's more with The Difference Between a Writing Problem, and a “Not For Me” Issue)  

Reading and writing are so very subjective. What one person considers bad writing another person loves.

What’s interesting, is that readers are far more forgiving than those in the industry—writers, agents, editors, reviewers, etc. What bothers a writer doesn’t even blip on a reader’s radar.

My family is full of voracious readers who read across all genres. I’m the only writer, and I’ve gained a lot of insights by listening to them describe the novels they’ve read.

My father once recommended a series to me and said, “The first hundred pages are really slow, but after that it picks up.”

I don’t know about you guys, but there’s no way I’m waiting a hundred pages for a story to start. A novel gets three chapters from me—tops. Ruthless, yes, but I have too many novels I want to read to spend time on those that don’t grab me right away. But my father didn’t care that this book started slowly. He liked the idea enough to stick with the entire series—and by this author’s sales numbers—so did a lot of other readers.

My sister also loved an author whose book I never read past the first chapter. When I asked her if X, Y, and Z bothered her, she shrugged and said no. After I’d mentioned them, she said she could see the flaws, but she hadn’t given them any thought while she was reading. She didn’t see what I, as a writer, saw. Or care.

On the flip side, my mother told me of a book she put down because it was just “too hard to read.” The author had included lots of newspaper clippings and snippets from other sources outside the narrative, and she found it exhausting. She was there for the story (which she thought was a fascinating premise), but the book got in its own way stylistically and she gave up.

I’d guess many of you have similar stories and have had similar conversations with your own non-writer friends and families. 

The more we know about the process and what “good writing” is supposed to be, the more “bad writing” bothers us.

How do we deal with bad writing? 

We ignore it.

Now, I’m not saying we write badly and ignore what we’ve learned, but there are simply too many factors that go into what makes a book “good” to worry about them all. 

Our energy is better spent on writing the best book we can, using the best skills we posses. It’s the only control we really have, because there’s no telling what books a reader will love. 

The more we stress over making every single word perfect, the more likely the story itself will suffer.

Fine, then how do we avoid bad writing in our own work? 

A baseline professional skill is, of course, important regardless, but where that line falls is more flexible. But after years and years of seeing readers rave about “badly written books,” I’ve realized a few things often trump technical writing skill. Such as:

1. Tell a fantastic story.

Offer a compelling tale with lots of unpredictable story questions that need answers, and readers will usually enjoy the book. I think a lot of well-written books fail because there’s nothing original about them. Sure, they hit all the right technical marks, but they lack originality or unpredictability. If readers can figure out what’s going to happen before it does, they story feels boring.

(Here’s more with Aren't You the Crafty One: Writing vs Storytelling)

2. Resonate with readers.

If the characters and story resonate with readers, and they lose themselves in that world and that character’s problems, they’ll love our book. 

Reading is escapism and wish fulfillment, which is why I feel Twilight did so well. A perfectly average and unremarkable girl who was unique and special to someone fabulous and larger than life, and he told her how amazing she was and whisked her away to a exciting world filled with adventures. 

No matter what you think about Meyers’ writing skill or how she executed her story, that is a dream we’ve all had at one point. It resonates with the self-doubting and lonely teen in all of us. Meyers connected to readers in a way that’s universal.

(Here’s more with Are You Trying to Write a Well-Written Book or Tell a Great Story?)

3. Engage the reader and make them care.

Regardless of the genre, engaging readers in the tale and making them care will keep them reading.

Maybe solving the puzzle and learning the answer makes them love a story, even if they don’t care about other aspects. Or falling in love with a character makes them care, and what that character does is unimportant. It could be simply exploring a fascinating world engages them and they don’t care what happens as long as they get to wander through that world. 

Whatever it is, something about the book compels readers to get on board and lose themselves.

(Here’s more with So What? Making Readers Care About Your Story)

Do all three of these things at once, and the odds of a book clicking with readers and taking off go way up. 

Tell a great story that resonates with readers and makes them care. 

Easier said than done, I know. And trust me, I get just as frustrated as the next writer when I see a book I couldn’t finish hit the bestseller lists and win all the awards. It’s disheartening for sure, but we can try to look past the frustration to understand why that book did so well. 

Read the reviews and see what readers are saying. What’s working for them, what resonated with them? Use the good feedback of bad books to make your books better and hit those all-important reader buttons.

Bad writing might hurt a book, but bad storytelling will kill it. Make sure you're focusing on the right thing to best serve your novel.

What do you consider “bad writing?”

*Originally published November 2015. Last updated March 2023.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. You raise a great point. Writing and storytelling are different talents. My favorite books are the ones both written and told with competence. As a writer and editor, I see flaws in some work and struggle to overlook them. But I have friends who get so sucked in when they read a good story, they don't see the technical mistakes. Wish I could be more like them and just enjoy a story for what it is.

    1. I think that's an occupational hazard of being a writer. :)

    2. Like being a chef trying to enjoy dinner at another restaurant ...

  2. There are people who review a book, they love it, they rave about it being the best book they ever read. I buy the book and can't get past the first chapter because my inner editor hulks to the surface.

    Sometimes, I think that as a writer we can get too caught up in all of the rules. Don't end a sentence with a preposition, don't mix past and present tense, don't head hop, don't, don't, don't... and we lose our voice along the way.

    1. I agree. I especially had trouble separating the two in the earlier days of ebooks. To me, a screen = editing. It was impossible not to edit. I'm better now, but it's been hard to get past it.

  3. This is an interesting perspective. I was recently involved in a discussion on another writing forum about this exact topic: What will truly kill a story, 1) Bad writing, or 2) Bad storytelling? Normally I would agree with you that bad storytelling will kill a novel much faster and much more completely than bad writing, but oddly, a number of people in that discussion said bad writing was the killer. That if the writing is bad enough to disengage readers, it doesn't matter how original or interesting the story's premises are. The bad writing, effectively, destroyed their interest in the story. Made it so they couldn't engage. I thought that especially interesting since I'm much more willing to forgive bad writing if the story and characters are engaging.

    1. I think writers will have a different view on this vs readers. It would be interesting to see the same discussion on a reader forum and see what (if any) the differences were.

      Of course, if either is seriously bad it'll trump the other, so this is subjective. :)

  4. This was probably one of the best-written blogs on writing I've read in a long time. Definitely sharing it. It also makes me think if EL James and her Fifty Shades of Grey series. I did not like her writing at all. BUT! I couldn't stop reading the books because the plot was interesting enough and the cliffhangers at the end of the first two books left me wanting to know what would happen next. EL James, regardless of what people think of her writing, is a prime example of how important it is to have a social media following. I read some where that her book started off as fanfiction from the Twilight series that she wrote on her blog and because of her following, after she self-published her first book, she was picked up by a publisher. It's definitely food for thought.

    1. Aw, thanks so much! James is a perfect example of this.

  5. Replies
    1. Hehe, that's always the tricky part, right?

  6. Great post. I have been researching this same topic as I work on my first novel. I have concluded a few things for myself.

    1. If a writer can combine good writing, a good plot, and interesting character interactions, you will increase your odds of greater success.

    2. Some successful writers make it to the top for other reasons that may not be completely logical.

    3. Most readers are not writers, so they are less likely to be disturbed by poor writing.

    4. Most forums on wiring are monitored by writers, so they are more critical of poor writing and would provide that opinion for it being more important in a story.

    1. I'd have to agree with all those points :)

  7. For me, bad grammar (redundant apostrophes) will ruin an otherwise good story. I'll forgive a typo here or there, but when a story is riddled with them it just seems shoddy. Anachronisms are another bugbear, whether it's an item that didn't exist in the time period being written about, or 21st century attitudes and figures of speech being pasted onto earlier centuries.

    1. Anachronisms get me as well.

    2. Dangling participles, especially in my own writing, drive me nuts

  8. Loved the post. It's actually "bad writing" that convinced me to start down my path to writing a few years ago. I read three chapters of a novel written so poorly that even with a lack of writing/editing experience, I wondered how it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. That convinced me. If THAT guy can do it, I can do better. That bad read was my inspiration to learn the writing craft, and I work at it a little each day.

    1. A good friend of mine started writing the same way :) He's now a successful author, and I hope you follow the same path.

  9. Perhaps there is not so much bad writing as there is boring writing. (story-telling that just puts you to sleep) Readers will put up with a lot but fiction is not called fiction for nothing; the (over)dramatization of events and characters is the most important thing. Tell any story you want but when a main character is about to drown you better milk that moment for all it's worth.

    This is, I think, where ''bad'' story-tellers trail better story-tellers. Bad story-tellers seem to forget that mundane does not belong in fiction. Not character-wise, not story-wise. Exploit events and characters in your story for all their worth. Leave no stone unturned. Entice the reader on every page with character and story-development. Fictional characters are not like real people; they need to be in constant peril to keep us readers entertained. Same goes for events. Whenever possible, it being in a supermarket or on a luxurious steam-liner, events need to breath more drama then we, real people would ever experience when going to that supermarket or luxurious steam-liner.

    As an example of a book that sold millions of copies yet is written with all the excitement of wallpaper I offer Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
    At some point the main characters have to escape from the Louvre and Dan Brown has Robert Langdon rig a bar of soap with a transponder so as to distract he local police.
    A bar of SOAP? Really? How totally boring and what a missed opportunity to treat the reader to some real excitement when it comes to resolving a certain predicament.

    My solution?
    As a writer I would have had the main villain (the monk Silas) burn down the entire Louvre(!) and then have the main characters make a narrow escape, perhaps via some underground tunnels.
    Smoke and fire and an exiting escape.
    Dan Brown is perhaps not the worst writer in the world, but definitely one of many poor story-tellers.

    Point being; Boring will kill any story any time. Fact.

  10. I read a book, quite a long time ago in my writing journey, called Story Trump's Structure. I forget who wrote it. It says that the most important thing is the story.
    Yes, lots of errors will throw me out of a story. But so will an overcomplicated plot. I gave up on a book (first in a series) because of this. And many of the characters had similar names. Members of the same family. I had the impression that the author had read (or seen) Game of Thrones and was trying to write something similar. I just got confused.

    1. That book is by Steven James, not only a master at the action adventure books (a whole series) but also a great writing teacher. I've attended a couple of his week-long workshops and you're right, that book is a gold mine. It debunks a lot of myths about writing

  11. Might I pose a thought? Perhaps people do not purchase books with 'bad' writing thus filtering that aspect out before diving into the story. Then if the story does not fulfill the only option is to put the book aside because of 'bad' story, not bad writing.

    1. I think if the bad writing in on the first page or so, then yes. I can see readers reading a page and then deciding not to buy it. But the "bad writing" can show up later in the story since the opening scene and chapter are often heavily revised and edited. Same as a bad story, really. Sometimes it takes a chapter or two before you know if a book is worth reading.

  12. Some writers use dialogue to get through the rough spots of the story. This can end up being over 2 pages of dribble coming out of a character's mouth when one paragraph of explanation or description that may cover half a page would be a better alternative. I find chatty characters a real bore.

    1. Empty dialogue is definably on the list of "bad writing." I think a lot of that happens because writers are so afraid of doing the "wrong" thing that they go too far in the opposite direction. Or they hear "dialogue is fast-paced" and use a lot of it, not realizing that dialogue with no point is just as bad as heavy description with no point.

  13. Alexander Elliott3/18/2023 12:45 PM

    Every indie author needs to read this post! The rules we're all supposed to follow crush individuality and creativity. Readers like what they like, and really don't care what the supposed rules are. As for some bad writers who succeed anyway, sometimes it comes down to superior business & marketing skills - something many authors lack.

    1. Thanks! Yep, there's no telling what a reader will like, and there's a reader out there for pretty much very book. Not everything has to be the same to be good.

  14. Good Post. I thought it wonderful, and I agree with pretty much all you said. The younger me, however, was screaming in my head that you had missed something important, but you mentioned it in the comments. Thank Goodness. "Every reader takes what they wish to from a tale".
    Description, I agreed, but every Nobel prize winner from Herman Hesse to JP Sartre would be screaming...No, you have that wrong (encapsulate in your mind a sight you have never seen, a feeling that you have never felt, or a sound you have never heard). Description takes you there.
    I enjoy a difficult to read book. I enjoy the complex and downright impossible. I consider those books a challenge, mind exercises, a (non-physical) workout. I suspect that everyone has at least started Cixin Liu's the "Three Body Problem" by now. Me I had to understand it.
    I enjoy the difficult to read but still wish for the exceptional story. A mind challenge, I loved it.

    1. That's the beauty of fiction. Every reader can find the writer that best matches what they want to read. (And vice versa). :)