‘Bad writing’ — what deserves that label?

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes 

“That’s bad writing” is a phrase I hear a lot, whether applied to a book, magazine article or blog post. But what, specifically, makes writing “bad” and what can we do about it?

When I recommended the Gregory Maguire novel, Wicked, to a neighbour of mine, I had no idea what I was doing.

To me, it was a funny, clever and deeply affecting re-telling of the Wizard of Oz  story — from the (sympathetic) point of view of the wicked witch. To my neighbour, as she confessed after more than six months following my recommendation, it was a millstone, hanging around her neck. She hated the book and read it only out of a sense of obligation to me. It took her more than six weeks.

My neighbour is smart. Educated. Sensitive. Well read. Why could we not agree on this book? The answer is simple: Reading is a matter of taste. Asking why we didn’t like the same book is a bit like asking why not everyone likes the colour green (my fave), or broccoli (my most loved vegetable), or vocal jazz (the genre of music I like best.) We are all different and we each have our own preferences.

Clients often ask me to tell them if I think they’ve produced “bad writing.” I’m always willing to do this, but not without issuing a proviso first. Here is what I say:

Imagine I was to take all the writing in the world and arrange it on a scale from the absolute worst to the absolute best. (Yes, I understand this is not possible and even if it were, the scale would stretch from here to the moon. But let’s pretend for a moment.) If you or any other well-read person were to look at where I’d placed various pieces of writing on my scale, you’d probably disagree with precisely where I’d put the vast amount of material in the middle. We’d likely only come to consensus with the writing at each end — the really bad stuff and the outstandingly good stuff. (And even there we might still have some disagreements.) This is because the judgements “good” and “bad” are matters of taste.

But, wait, you say. What about book sales? Don’t they reveal a more neutral view? Sadly, no. In the case of Wicked, for example, it was a bestseller, it launched two sequels, and it was turned into a Broadway musical. Yet my neighbour still thought it was bad writing. And while I disagree with her, I totally respect her view.

OK, so then what about those authors who are mega bestsellers? John Grisham,  Stephen King, E.L. James?  For me, many of these types of books are among the worst-written I’ve ever encountered, even though the authors are wildly successful. I explicitly dislike Stephen King’s writing, apart from his sensitive and wise instructional book, On Writing, which I highly recommend. As for E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey,  friends and reviewers tell me her writing is execrable and I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. The bottom line is that commercial success isn’t a sign of great writing. It simply tells you what’s popular. So, if you want me to answer the question, “do I think your writing is any good,” be aware that I’m not going to tell you about whether you’ll be successful in publishing. That’s an entirely different question. 

Finally, what about the prize winners? There’s a plethora of them: The Pulitzer. The Man Booker. The Newbery Medal. The National Book Awards. The Giller. Surely those authors must be “good” writers. For me, however, winning a book prize doesn’t signify much except perhaps that the author might be worth taking a look at. Fashions come and go and book prize panels are not always neutral. Judges may have friends they want to reward or enemies (perhaps authors who gave them a bad review) they wish to punish. Yes, this type of venal attitude exists even in the literary world. Here’s another issue, authors sometimes win a prize for what’s clearly not their best work. I’m typically a big fan of Ian McEwan but I disliked his book Amsterdam, which won the Man Booker in 1998. Also, be aware, that writers of literary fiction often sell far fewer copies of their books than popular authors — sometimes in the order of 5,000 copies versus two million.

For all these reasons, it makes no sense to worry about whether your writing is good or bad. That’s an opinion — it belongs to other people and it’s clearly out of your control. Don’t you think it’s far better and more useful to concentrate, simply, on turning your crappy first draft into something that pleases you?

Do you worry that other people are going to accuse you of bad writing? How do you deal with that concern? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Abby, the winner of this month’s book prize, Floating Off The Page, edited by Ken Wells for a Sept. 20/16 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of the novel Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Scroll to Top


"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.