Ten tell-tale signs of bad creative writing

As a would-be creative writer, I’ve come to embrace my bad writing as a signpost on a long journey. When I write a thing one day that I can’t bear to look at the next, I call it what it is: an instructive turd. Once such a turd is produced and duly noted, all that’s left to do is get rid of it or keep it in a secured place for science. The unfortunate fact of writing is that you have to make tons of turds before you can make non-turds.

In other words, if you want to write well, writing poorly is unavoidable. You can’t skip over it. On my journey toward the promised land of good writing, I’ve produced thousands of pages of bad writing. Some of it’s out in the world, and there’s nothing to be done about that. But most of it has never been seen in the light of day, until now. Because I’ve become so well-acquainted with the ingredients of bad writing, I thought I would share some of the general tendencies I’ve noted in my and others’ efforts, and illustrate some of them with examples from my early writing archives.

  • bad writing summarizes the thing you are here to say instead of presenting the thing you are here to say.

Here’s a summary from an essay I wrote about my recently deceased godmother. “S. in the good Deerfield Avenue days referred to many friends in the neighborhood and beyond, and several cousins, and, from her telling, she was always busy, with the tribulations of her rose gardens, or the demanding, aggravating upkeep of the old place. S. hosted my wedding shower at her Deerfield Avenue house as a formal tea party. That shower was the first time I noticed just how much energy she put into fretting.”

In lieu of this recitation, I could have taken you inside a scene from my actual bridal shower, and through it you could have seen and heard my godmother for yourself. Readers read personal narrative in order to have an emotional experience, not to learn facts about your godmother.

  • bad writing restates what you’ve just saidinstead of letting what you’ve said speak for itself.

In this essay about my brief teaching stint at Walton High School in the Bronx, I highlighted one standout student.

Out of a roster of 18 students, there were three or four kids there, and only one constant. A. was a quiet, self-contained junior from the Dominican Republic. She was unique in coming on time, sitting in the front row, doing her work and rarely missing class. She was also, as my father would have said admiringly, bright as hell. If I assigned a long book and a six-page essay about it, she wrote a carefully considered six-page essay that demonstrated she’d thoroughly read and understood the book. This set her apart from her classmates of her. ”

“Yes, we know,” I hear my readers say. “You already told us she was unique. You don’t need to hit us over the head.”

  • Bad writing has faith in exotic facts to tell a story in and of itself.

Crazy trips to foreign lands. Unimaginable personal tragedies. Eccentric family members. Brokenhearts. Everyone has an exotic life experience of some kind or another to draw on, but they are all, for the purpose of creativity, besides the point. I figured the two years I spent in Papua New Guinea would write themselves into compelling stories. The wild feel of the place spoke for itself. All I had to do was start a sentence with, “When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Papua New Guinea...” and it wouldn’t matter what followed.

Nope. A good writer, like Virginia Woolf, can make the death of a fascinating moth, and a poor one, as I soon discovered, can make Papua New Guinea dead dull. As Italo Calvino said, “An exotic birthplace on its own is not informative of anything.”

  • Bad writing is often consumed with a need to make a point, instead of with “all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.” (That’s Flannery O’Connor talking.)

My first semester writing teacher wrote, in a comment on an essay I’d written about my dad: “Your job is to do the grunt work of showing us everything.” I had a hard time doing that because, as I learned through that Flannery O’Connor essay, I am “too lazy or highfalutin to descend to the concrete where fiction operates.” Details and images and descriptions of people’s appearances felt too mundane and obvious and boring to bother with. I started with the message I liked my audience to receive, the message that would touch them, make them see the error of their ways, then force them to repent and follow me.

I called the essay about my dad “Res Judicata,” which is Latin for “a thing already judged.”

  • bad writing takes itself too seriously.

(See above.)

  • Bad writing is indiscriminate with details. It takes the kitchen sink approach, throwing in everything about the subject at hand and laying it all out in a chronological, naturalistic order.

Here’s another paragraph from the essay I wrote about my godmother:

As young children, S. and my mother, R., lived in small row houses across a narrow street from each other in Queens, New York. S. was like a fourth daughter to my Irish immigrant grandparents, along with Mom, R., and her older sisters K. and P.

S’s own home wasn’t a happy place for a little girl. S. and my mother attended Catholic elementary school, high school, and college together, the first ones in their circle to do so. They cut a new path again by doing graduate study in Ireland. When they returned home, Mom became the registrar of St. John’s University Law School, where my father was teaching, and S. became a middle school teacher.

If I’m getting bored reading this, how much more bored would a disinterested reader feel??

  • bad writing does not take into account that readers are lazy, and need to be explicitly told where to pay attention, and what matters.

An essay about my ex-boyfriend from Papua New Guinea was supposed to center on how he was a good guy who paved the way for me to make the good choice of my husband later on.

But here’s a flavor of that essay:

A’s father B. was from Gisborne, New Zealand. He was the tallest and least chatty of the angry old white men who lined up at the club bar every afternoon to complain. B. had come to PNG to work at a coffee plantation in the late 1960s. He met and then married A’s mother, a woman from the northern coast, when she got pregnant. It was prodigious work to get A. to articulate any emotion more descriptive than, “I’m knackered.” I would never know what went through his head and heart at the club.

This might be called the combo kitchen sink approach plus a total disregard for which details a reader needs and does not need. A 3,000-word essay is not going to tell any story comprehensively. In the best case scenario it tells a tiny sliver of a story with grace and care and considers it from every available angle.

  • Bad writing does not do its homework.

Yet another early essay was an unpleasant rant about the materialism of Christmas. I started out one section with: “Surely I’m not alone in cringing ashamedly as my children tear through 500 square feet of carefully prepared boxes in less time than it takes to make a cup of tea, and then end up turning the largest box into the day’s most entertaining, unifying, delightful present while thousands of dollars’ worth of hard plastic figures, soft stuffed animals, tee-shirts and knick knacks lie where they fell, ignored.”

Surely, I think now, I was not the first writer to address the subject of materialism at Christmas. Surely my piece would have been deepened and improved upon by looking around a little bit, seeing what others had to say on the matter. I might even have looked up a study or two that had something interesting to say about children’s behavior vis a vis Christmas gifts.

  • Bad writing, if you’re being honest with yourself, cannot reasonably be expected to interest anyone but the writer.

I love this essay in the Guardian on bad writing, by Toby Litt. My favorite line is: “Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self.”

I’ve written so much love poetry to myself! I think the difference between bad and good writing might not have much to do with the writing itself, but with how well you understand and respect what your audience is craving and what they need to have their craving satisfied.

  • Lastly, bad writing looks upon all of creation and sees no hope in it, or for it.

Of all the bad writing I’ve done, the only pieces that make me feel truly ashamed are those written from a place of bitterness, with cynicism dripping from their sentences. I’ve discarded nearly all of them.

For a more promising example I’ll turn instead to George Orwell, one of my favorite writers, who’s taught me what good writing can illuminate. Even “1984,” his dystopian masterpiece by him, which he wrote in the last years of his life when he was suffering acutely from tuberculosis, is not entirely without hope.

The last chapter begins, “The chestnut tree was nearly empty.”

Nearly empty. Not all empty.

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