How to ID your bad writing

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Having a “vocabulary” of writing problems might sound like a strange idea but there are some terrific benefits from knowing how to ID your bad writing…

I was speaking with a coaching client last week about “bad writing.” Here’s what we decided:

Most writing is neither bad nor good. Instead, the vast majority of it lies somewhere “in the middle.” And whether you, the reader, like it boils down to taste. In matters of taste, we’re all experts.

Still in that vast “middle area” there are likely some bad sentences. And the skilled self-editor has a vocabulary for describing them. Here’s how you can ID your own bad writing:

  1. Are your sentences too long? People often freak out when I tell them this, but, think about it: Isn’t it harder to read a long sentence than a short one? (Hands up if you survived the 958-word first sentence of Remembrance of Things Past. I know I didn’t!) As well, sentence length is often a “placeholder” for other problems. Are you unduly wordy? Do you have any misplaced modifiers? Are you sure your “sentence” has a subject and predicate? All of these issues are easier to miss in long sentences. In short ones, they stand out like a pair of shorts at a funeral. Remember: In our TV- and Internet-modulated society, readers respond best to an average sentence length of 14 to 18 words. Be sure to note that I said average and don’t make all your sentences exactly the same length.
  2. Are your sentences too similar? Most schools don’t teach grammar these days so I’m going to keep this really basic. The sentence Madison went to the store begins with a subject (Madison), includes a predicate AKA a verb (went) and finishes with an object (store). If all of your sentences are as simple as this, you’ll bore your readers. Use more variety. Perhaps you can begin with a dependent clause: Although she was very tired, Madison went to the store. Or an infinitive phrase: To please her mother, Madison went to the store. Or an adverb, Quickly, Madison went to the store. Or a participial phrase: Hoping to find some ice cream, Madison went to the store. Don’t bore your readers, or yourself, by always saying things the same way.
  3. Are you inclined to be too abstract? Readers like writing that allows them to engage the mind’s eye. If I write the word dog you will immediately form a visual image — perhaps of your own dog or that of a friend or neighbour. But if I write the word existence, what do you picture? If I really push myself, I see a picture of a globe (who knows why?) But that takes real effort. The word doesn’t lend itself to images and that makes readers feel weary. Instead of writing about abstractions, challenge yourself to include more stories,  anecdotes  and examples. This will excite your readers and make them more enthusiastic about your writing.
  4. Do you use too many unclear antecedents? I know, antecedent is another scary grammar word. Sorry! An antecedent is a word that gives meaning to another word. For example, Daphne wrote this column. She wanted to remove the fear of antecedents. The word she is a pronoun. The antecedent is Daphne. When I’m reading stories, I frequently find writers have used pronouns like it or noun markers like this, that and these too far from their antecedents. It’s okay to use pronouns, of course. But you need to make sure you’re clear about the antecedents they’re referring to. If you tend to be vague with your antecedents, I suggest you develop the habit of doing a search (command + F) for it, this, that and these and double-check to ensure they are obvious.
  5. Are you too easily seduced by clichés? I read a New York Times obit on newspaperman Ben Bradlee last week. Imagine my chagrin when I encountered the following sentence about Bradlee protégées Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: Soon they were working the phones, wearing out shoe leather and putting two and two together. These aren’t even truly horrible clichés (like the nick of time) but they’re worse than I expect from the Times. When you self-edit spend at least part of your time extinguishing clichés. If you have trouble finding them, you might want to try using the Cliche Finder, an imperfect but useful tool.
  6. Do you fail to use connectors or transitions? I know I’m in the hands of a sophisticated writer when I see words or phrases like on the other hand, or here for example, or similarly. These transitional words help ease readers’ way, letting them know what to expect in the next sentence. Beginning writers almost universally fail to use enough connectors or transitions. This is such an important issue, I’ve devoted an entire post to it.
  7. Do you use too much passive voice? Passive sentences hide the leading actor. If that doesn’t make sense to you, here’s a classic example: Mistakes were made. Who made those mistakes? We don’t know. That’s why the sentence is passive. But mention the actor, and voilà, you have a sentence that’s active and easier for the reader to visualize: The Canadian government made mistakes. Not all passive is quite so simple to identify, however. That’s why I suggest using the Hemingway app. This fantastic tool is the best non-human editor I’ve ever met and will highlight your sins of passivity in bright green. (Note: Passive voice isn’t uniformly bad. But if you can’t recognize it you shouldn’t be allowed to use it. I’ll write about this in a future column.)
  8. Do you have too little to say? This is the most serious problem of all, and one I see frequently in many of the blogs I review. The writer doesn’t have enough material that’s interesting, new or useful. Don’t waste your readers’ time! Know your point or your angle and give it succinctly.

Your writing may be in the middle. But you want it to be aiming towards excellence. And excellence is not an accident. It’s something achieved through habit.

What kind of bad writing do you watch for? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment on my blog by October 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the novel, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.