Everyone has an idea of what constitutes “bad writing.” But there hasn’t been an official definition of the term. Is the writing bad because of a poorly constructed plot? Is it because of the author’s poor understanding of the language they are writing in? Does the story consist of flat or inconsistent characters? By all means, a story can have a mix of good or bad qualities. For example, a story can have beautifully written prose that elicits strong emotions from the reader, but upon closer inspection, the verb tenses used are all over the place and totally inconsistent, or the author seems to be deathly allergic to paragraphs, or they describe their subject matter with the raw enthusiasm of a suicidal toll booth operator.
In an industry where a majority of work sent to publishers, editors, or agents is turned down simply because of the quality of the writing, authors must be vigilant with themselves. In this Lab Report, we’ll be covering five major problems that affect quality of writing. There are going to be some major truth bombs dropped here. This isn’t going to be very sugarcoated. But sometimes, a person needs to hear the hard truth.
Problem 1: Lack of Clarity
This problem sometimes stems from a limited vocabulary. While no one expects you to have the vocabulary of James Baldwin or Herman Melville, you should definitely be able to spice things up. This is often the difference between saying the character is “happy” to saying that the character “exudes overwhelming joy,” when receiving a puppy.
Problem 2: Showing Too Much
Every writer has to have heard the term “show don’t tell” at least once in their writing career. But some writers seem to take this too literally. We don’t need to know what brand of deodorant your character uses or what their preferred condiment on burgers is. It’s really great that you know these minute details about your character, but we as the audience don’t need to know these things.
Problem 3: The Character is Not You
While characters are extensions of ourselves, they are separate entities. You can have a character with qualities similar to yourself, but there’s a difference between self-examination and wish fulfillment. This creates the issue of writing the same kind of character over and over again because you only know how to write from your own perspective.
Problem 4: Relying on Clichés
This has to do with specificity. Clichés aren’t inherently bad, but they’ve become clichés from being over used. Saying “The dragon had Ermias scared out of his wits,” or “Ermias was as brave as a lion,” doesn’t say anything new. We’ve all heard these sayings before, and the act of using them shows that you’re not being original.
Problem 5: A Weak Voice
This is one of the tougher ones to describe. Often it’s the difference between the active and passive voice. For example, saying, “Ermias ate raw cabbages with his bare hands,” versus “The raw cabbages were being eaten by Ermias using his bare hands.” The first is an example of using an active voice. The man is the subject and we know exactly what he’s doing. The second is written in the passive voice. It takes longer for the reader to understand what is happening because the cabbages are the subject of the sentence and we don’t know what’s being done to them until the very end. The passive voice is usually saved for journalism and scientific writing. This is why textbooks are so slow and difficult to read, but a Stephen King novel isn’t.
Data and Observation:
Now don’t think I was about to drop all these problems on you without any ways to fix them. There are ways to improve your writing, even if you start by only addressing one of these problems.
Solution 1: Being Specific
Ernest Hemingway once said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” And while he may not have been the greatest man on the planet, he was definitely a master of the craft and the patron saint of short, concise sentences. You don’t have to write like Hemingway to be a good writer however.
To fix the problem of clarity, learn how to say the same things in different ways. Take the word “home” for example (in honor of our current Lab Review issue). The connotative meaning of the word could make it a place your character feels great discomfort, or it could be a person with whom your character feels the most security. Whereas the denotative meaning of the word “home” is simply “a place one resides in for a period of time.” The emotions we attach to the words we are using change their meaning and allow you to say more than what fits on the page.
Another easy thing you can do is to expand your vocabulary. Read outside of your normal genre and never be afraid to look up words you don’t understand. But never feel like you have to use every single new word that you learn. Sometimes, when your character only uses complicated words, they tend to sound like they’re full of themselves (i.e. Augustus Waters, The Fault in Our Stars); unless this is your intent, then you can go ahead and make them sound like a pretentious asshole.
Solution 2: Finding a Balance
The difference between a story that shows too much and one that shows just enough is the use of meaningful actions or scenes. When writing, ask yourself if the detail you are putting in has any effect of the story or character as a whole. This’ll help you weed out unnecessary words and sentences. For example, say your character really hates strawberries and they repeatedly claim throughout the beginning of the story that strawberries are the bane of human existence. Unless your character has to fight a giant sentient strawberry at the end for an “I-told-you-so” kind of moment, we don’t really need to know about their passionate disdain for the fruit. However, say your character has claimed that they hate strawberries and then later on, they’re forced into eating breakfast with the main villain and are must eat strawberry to survive. Then you can show the reader how their face twists in disgust as they pop it into their mouth, or how they can’t even chew on it without their tongue trying to force it out, or how they want to barf as they swallow it much to the enjoyment of the villain. We, as the reader, understand why the act of eating a strawberry is so hard because the character has mentioned before that they don’t like strawberries.
However, sometimes you just have to tell the reader things. There’s no need to have your character describe their entire evening ritual. For example, let’s visit Ermias again, my completely made up hero:
It was Ermias’ turn to wash the dishes on this eve, a task he utterly hated. He eyed the stack of fifteen mutton and slop covered plates beside the copper basin and wondered what life would be like if he hadn’t brought along fourteen men to defeat the dragon. He picked up the first plate, shaking the food scraps into the nearby garbage before running it under the cold tap. He did this for every single one of these plates, his fingers pruned beyond recognition before he even got to the lathering bit. He used Palmolive Soft Touch Dish Soap, his preferred brand as it did not dry up his skin as much as the dollar store kind. He took his Scotch-Brite sponge and scrubbed at the plates in a circular motion, making sure to get off every single bit of food residue lest he wanted to promote germ growth and get his warriors sick.
In this case, we don’t need to know how Ermias washes dishes. It has nothing to with his quest to defeat a dragon. You can simply say that it was Ermias’ turn to wash dishes and then continue on with the rest of the night. However, there are cases where the information you are describing is important and needs to be told.
Meet Tammy, a shape-shifting dragon and Ermias’ mortal enemy. This is what you need to know about her: she is entering a club in the form of a human searching for her next kill. She’s wearing a short purple dress the color of her scales. She also wears a dragon claw shaped pendant that is the source of her powers.
But say we wrote this:
Tammy wore a skin-tight purple dress, the color of her scales, that cut off just at her mid-thigh. It laced up down the front with black string. She wore black tights that had a little rip on her left calf, and her shoes were black and dragon-leather with a six-inch heel. Tammy’s blonde hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail that started at the crown of her head and reached to just below her neck. It was tied with a purple band. At her neck, she wore an emerald green dragon claw necklace, the source of her shape-shifting ability. She was dressed to kill. Literally.
In Tammy’s paragraph, there are a lot of details just like with Ermias’. However, we can see the aforementioned important details, like the fact that her dress and dragon scales are the same color, and that she gets her shape-shifting powers from a necklace, and that she may or not be planning on killing someone tonight. These are important details that you want to focus on. The rest (the length of her dress, her tights, her shoes, her ponytail, her hair tie) are not so important. Don’t be afraid to break up details, you don’t have to mention things all at once. However you could include these the extra details if, for example, we find out that Tammy has a ponytail because it whips around her head as she dances, or we find out that her dress is laced up when a prospective victim starts playing with it, or we find out that she wears a necklace when she uses it to kill. When mentioning specific details about a character, think of this saying, “If you mention a gun it has to go off by the end of the story.”
Solution 3: Varying Characterization
When your problem is having a character that is too much like you, try writing a character who is the total opposite of yourself. If you are a generally closed off person, try writing a character whose every move and word is exaggerated tenfold. If you know that you’re one of the lazy types, try writing a character who is very systematic and matter-of-fact. If you’re a boy, try writing from a female perspective and vice versa. If your cisgendered, try writing someone who doesn’t identify the same way. The possibilities are endless. Personalities are made up of a billion different facets so don’t worry about fitting all of that into one opposite attempt. Have fun with it. Try it multiple times. This is not an assignment that I’m going to grade you on.
Sometimes, we can’t avoid the fact that the character we are creating is similar to ourselves. In these cases however, it is best to limit them to one or two similar characteristics. And when you’re working on a different character, give them a different set of characteristics you have. For example, both you and Character X pour milk into a bowl before the cereal. You want to make sure that Character Y from a different story pours their cereal in before adding milk. Another example: you and Character M have a habit of chewing on your own hair when you’re nervous. It would be very awkward if Character N from the same story did the same, so instead, make Character N twiddle their thumbs.
Another option is people watching. While you shouldn’t start stalking people, try sitting in a window seat at a coffee shop and study the different people who walk by. Or, if leaving your apartment is too much of an effort, steal from the people you know just to practice. Look at how they hold themselves, the looks on their faces (what are their idle expressions?). What can you come up with based on this information alone? What kinds of stories do these people tell? Write it down. Maybe you can use them as a template for one of your characters.
By having a more diverse cast of characters, you’re essentially ensuring your readers will continue to read your work. They’ll appreciate that you have the ability to create different characters, and they know they won’t encounter the same type twice.
Solution 4: Being Original
The first thing I want you to understand is that using clichés and tropes aren’t inherently bad. It is just a matter of understanding how to use them correctly, and using them in a way that either hasn’t been seen before, or hasn’t been done well before. Like I mentioned before, clichés become clichés because they’re very popular and good at explaining things simply. So let’s take a look at the clichéd examples I gave earlier. The first, “The dragon had Ermias scared out of his wits.” The clichéd phrase here is ‘scared out of his wits.’ The downside of using clichés is that everyone knows what they means, but not in the contexts of your character and story. One way to combat this to get really specific. So instead of saying, “The dragon had Ermias scared out of his wits,” we would want to say, “Ermias quivered before the dragon, his mind blanking from fear.” Let’s look at my other example, “Ermias was as brave as a lion.” To step away from the clichéd phrase ‘brave as a lion,’ we might want to say something along the lines of “Ermias quivered before the dragon, but it was his duty to save the kingdom and he could not let his people down. So he let the love he had for his home swallow his fear whole. He then brandished his sword, ready for the great battle his people had chosen him for.”
Leah McClellan from Simple Writing thinks that you should avoid clichés if they are “old or archaic” such as “avoid like the plague”. The plague hasn’t been around for hundreds of years, therefore there’s no need to avoid one. Another time to avoid using a cliché is if it won’t make sense to the majority, such as the idiomatic cliché “he’s totally chill.” A reader for an older generation might not understand what that means. However, sometimes clichés can’t be avoided because there really is no better way to put things. They’re often unavoidable in everyday life. McClellan suggests that you use clichés when they “make sense and aren’t easily misunderstood.” Saying something in simple terms (like “on the other hand” or “easy as pie”) is sometimes the best because the meaning of the cliché is so ingrained in the culture of the person writing and the people reading that it succinctly sums up what you mean. If you have to use a cliché, use it wisely and try not to make a habit of it.
The point of separating yourself from a cliché is to expand on what everyone already knows about your character or the situation again. In more recent times, there has been an influx of novels examining age old fairytales and overused character tropes, such as Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, the ‘damsel in distress’ in Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle, and ‘the manic-pixie dream girl’ in most John Green novels. Meyer’s puts classic fairytale characters like Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel in a futuristic, sci-fi setting. Miller turns the focus of Achilles downfall to his lifelong intimate relationship with Patroclus. Gaiman throws the ‘damsel in distress’ trope out the window when his storybook princess turns out to be a cursed witch. And lastly, Green shows his readers the dangers of putting women on pedestals. These authors have taken widely known stories and turned them into something fresh and new. And that’s something you can do too.
Solution 5: Strengthening your Character
If you’ve never experimented with your story, now is a good time to start if you think the problem lies with your voice. A strong voice makes for a strong story. And strong voices come from well developed characters. So if you’re having trouble with a weak voice, look to your character; maybe they need more development or maybe they’re not the one meant to tell the story. If your story is in first person, try second or third. If it’s told in present tense, try past. Try writing from another character’s point of view. Sometimes, as writer’s we’re blinded by how we normally tell stories and forget that it’s not the only way. And often, it’s these subtle difference that can make or break a story.
Another way to improve the quality of voice is to know what your character’s motivations are before you start writing. If you have the time, sit and ask yourself these questions:
- What does my character want?
- Why do they want it?
- How are their going to achieve their goal?
- What are they willing to do to achieve their goal?
List down everything you need to know about your character. Having a deeper understanding of your character can sometimes improve your character’s voice immediately. Ask yourself these questions with however many characters you want. Also remember that sometimes, it comes down to the literal voice of your character. Does your character use a certain dialect when they speak? Do they have a speech impediment? Everyone’s vocabulary is different. No two people are going to say things the same way. Whereas one person might say, “I need all of you to arrive on time,” another person might say, “Y’all need t’ get here when I tell ya to.” Be aware of how your character talks verbally because they most likely will speak like that in their head. You want to make sure that the words you are writing reflect your character is and where they came from.
Having bad writing is not the end of the world (note: this is one of those unavoidable clichés). And just because you think your work is bad, doesn’t mean that it really is. To every problem, there is usually a solution. There are definitely dozens more that I could have mentioned in this post and I apologize if your problem isn’t one that I addressed here. What I’ve created for you is a starting point. Remember that you don’t have to address every problem all at once. It’s okay to fail multiple times before you find what’s working.
As a writer, the first step starts with you. Be critical of yourself and find areas in your work that could use improvement. But don’t forget to go beyond that. Remind yourself that it’s okay to not be good at something right away. When you find flaws, ask yourself what you can do to improve it. Maybe you need to change things up, or maybe you just need to read more to understand what other authors are doing. Take those flaws and do something with them. And if you need help, that’s okay. You should always have other people look over your work before you start sending it out. Use every resource you can and see where it takes you.
My final advice for you is this:
- keep writing
- keep writing
- keep writing
Good writing doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve probably heard this somewhere before, but just keep writing. You’ll be fine.
Celeste Paed is an associate editor for the Publishing Lab. She is junior fiction writing major at Columbia College Chicago with a minor in Business. She has only two states of being: crying and procrastinating. When not working on her writing, you can often find her hiding in bed binge watching TV, working at a candy store, or wondering what color she should dye her hair next.