Shelley Widhalm

What causes writing to go bad

In 52: A Writer's Life, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 2, 2013 at 11:00 am

Can a writer of fiction still read just for pleasure?

I don’t think so, at least not entirely.

The more I learn about the writing process and what makes for good writing, the harder it is for me to glide over errors.

The most obvious – grammatical errors – can be annoying.

But what really gets me is a poorly set up first chapter, the use of clichés and dialogue that goes on and on without hinging on the plot or character development.

I read these bad books because if I bought them or they were given to me, I feel obligated. I agonize that if I get rid of the book, there might have been some gem in it somewhere, even though I have to drag through most of the staccato sentences to find the shine.

Some of these annoying errors occur in best-sellers (I won’t name any because I’m trying to keep my blog mostly about happy, good writer thoughts) and in books published by major houses.

The errors that make me, the reader, want to take out the red pen include:

• An opening with a scene in bed or with sex if the book is not erotica.
• Sentences of similar structure without any variety and repeating words and phrases in the same paragraph or paragraphs next to each other.
• Scenes that make logistics unclear, including flashbacks that whip the reader from one time period to another without stop.
• Dialogue with back story, especially if the background facts go on for paragraphs as if the characters are on stage acting before an audience. They wouldn’t be having these conversations in their worlds, because who talks to their friend, “Remember when” and gives all the details, unless the friend has a memory disorder.
• Dialogue that sounds like real conversation with all the pauses, inanities and back-and-forth interactions but without saying anything important to the setting, plot or character development. I read this bit of dialogue in the back I’m trying to finish because it was one of those given-to-me books:
“See you when I see you,” I say.
“See you when I see you,” he says at the same time.
“Jinx,” we both say.
Seriously? This is not good writing.
• Lack of plot even if the novel is supposed to be literary or a memoir, so that it reads like scenes stacked on each other or stretched out going nowhere. Add in memoirs that read like essays trying to pull off the interesting plot that’s not there.
• Plain writing.

However, however, however, I repeat, reading bad writing can be a good exercise to identify what you hope never shows up in yours.

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  1. I can’t begin to count the number of badly written books that I’ve had to trudge through. I’m not a published author (yet) but I know enough to know when I’m reading what I dare not write. I find it sad when I pick up a book by an author I loved, back in the day before I knew what good and bad writing were, only to discover many of those errors you have listed in your post.

    On a happy note, glad to have found you, Shelley. I like your writing and I’ll follow to keep up with what’s going on.

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