Bad Writing Among "the Best"
Bad writing annoys me. Even though I am well aware of my own writing faults, I expect better quality from supposed "best sellers". After all, haven't these novels been vetted by armies of editors and publishing house gate keepers? Don't these writers go through the gauntlet of grammar checkers? Don't they read all those "how to make sure your writing doesn't suck" articles?
When I find examples of bad writing in best selling novels, I react in the following way:
Recreational reading as a writer has offered me the opportunity to weed out bad writing. Below are five bad writing habits I frequently find in best selling novels.
1. The Blue Car Effect
When a writer discovers a new favorite word, they tend to overuse it. I'm sure I've done the same, but that is why the Find/Replace function in Word was invented. I recently read a novel where the author enjoyed the word "clandestine". Before I knew it, the word was popping up every few pages, and not necessarily in an appropriate way. How often does one take a clandestine trip to the drugstore?
This phenomenon could be explained by frequency illusion, otherwise known as The Blue Car Effect. When you purchase a blue car, suddenly you notice blue cars everywhere. In the case of writing, when I notice an inappropriate use of an unusual word that bothers me, suddenly I see that word everywhere.
I have also experienced The Blue Car Effect when a word has been used appropriately, but it is such an odd word that it stands out and becomes annoying. For example, Stephen King uses the word piebald to describe the monster in Lisey's Story. It is a completely legitimate use of the word that accurately describes the spotted creature, however I became annoyed every time I came across it. It's such an unusual word that I don't think I've read it in another book since. I wonder if it was King's "pet word" at the time.
2. Functional Shift
Functional shifts can be fine when used judiciously, however some writers use it as an attempt at clever writing.
Some un-favorite (and unfortunately real) examples:
"he oranged the walls"
"shouldering me to the side"
"she worried her brow"
Please make it stop.
3. Excessive Profanity
I am not a prude. I curse. I swear. I use profanity. Not a lot, but I do. I don't mind reading it or hearing it. After all, I have read and enjoyed the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series and watched all episodes of Game of Thrones on HBO.
A few years back, I decided to read a NYT best selling book recommended to me by a friend. The first page was littered by several versions of f*ck. It was framed within a character's inner dialog, so I tried to squelch my annoyed reaction and continued reading.
Apparently, the protagonist was fond of the word, so the entire book was full of f*cks. Don't tell me it's a vital part of a character's aura. It was overused to the point of becoming a crutch, a lame attempt at sounding relevant, or current, or hip, or whatever.
Nope. That's just lazy.
Another example of lazy, bad writing is the use of mirrors to describe a character. How often in real life does a person glide past a hallway mirror, catch their reflection, and pause to examine each aspect of their physical features in excruciating detail?
I caught my own offense while writing Mother's Nature. I had included the mirror cliche in the scene when Raven first returns to her grandmother's house and finds the note on the hall table. I reread the description and recognized it for what it was. DELETE.
I would rather imagine a character's appearance than have it blatantly described to me by the author. There are ways to insert aspects of a character's physical appearance into the story. It doesn't have to be done all at once, and not every detail of a character's face needs to be included. Is the hair color relevant? Eye color? Freckles on the nose? Huge scar on the neck? (Well, maybe that one)
Let readers discover small aspects of a character as they read, just like, over time, we discover aspects of people we meet.
5. Say My Name
This is perhaps my biggest pet peeve in both books and movies.
"I'm flying Jack."
"I'm king of the world Rose."
"I love you Jack."
"I love you Rose."
"I won't ever let go Jack."
"Don't ever let go Rose."
In case you didn't know, the lovers are named Jack and Rose. Now don't forget it because it might be important.
Another paraphrased (and perhaps slightly exaggerated) example from a book I couldn't finish:
"Hey Isabelle, let's go or we're going to be late," he said over his shoulder.
When I write, I spend a lot of time trying to come up with ways to avoid the overuse of character names because it drives me crazy. I hope I am a bit more successful at it than some.
I Am No John Steinbeck
I always say I am no John Steinbeck. I don't claim to be the next great American author. I have no delusions of grandeur.
But I can--and do--recognize bad writing when I see it. I work hard to perfect my writing, often spending hours on a single sentence. So when I read lazy, bad writing in a book that has sold millions of copies, I get annoyed.
I write novels and poetry and this blog.