2015.78: A Taxonomy of Bad Writing


Writing is thinking. People who know you only by your writing will judge you by your writing. If you write sloppily, people will judge you a sloppy thinker. If shallowly, shallow. If boringly, boring.

You can write better. If you want to write up to your potential, read on. I’ll introduce four levels of bad writing and discuss how to diagnose them.

Bad writing on the word level is characterized by misspellings, incorrect punctuation, and incorrect hyphenation. Word-level bad writing may, to the reader, be indistinguishable from typing error. The difference between word-level bad writing and typos is that the latter are accidental.

Much word-level error can be caught by your word processor’s spell-check function. Much of it will slip through. Diagnose word-level bad writing by reading your sentences carefully and looking up in the dictionary any words that you are unsure about. Read and absorb Strunk & White or a more comprehensive modern usage guide such as Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Bad writing on the sentence level reveals itself in disagreement between parts of a sentence. Misconjugated verbs, busted parallelisms (“I went to Paris, to London, and Rome”), and incorrect prepositions (“between 1900 to 1910”) are all symptoms of bad writing on the sentence level. Poor word choice is a sentence-level error rather than, as you might suspect, a word-level error.

What appears to be bad writing on the sentence level is often editing error: you have written a sentence, found a better way to write part of it, and not rewritten the rest of it to match. I do this all the time, and will probably do it in this post.

The diagnosis and cure for sentence-level bad writing are the same: read your sentences aloud. If your ear is not attuned to sentence-level error, reading Strunk & White might help, but if “between 1900 to 1910” sounds right to you, you need a writing course. Either find one at your local university or, if you can’t be bothered to do that, curse your high-school English teachers and resign yourself, like this guy, to sentence-level mediocrity:

One level of writing does not depend on another. There are people who can’t spell their way out of a wet paper bag, but who can put their misspelled words together into coherent sentences, paragraphs, and essays. They force their readers to work harder than they ought to to tease out the meaning, and bad writing is — at least to a reader who is also a good writer — distracting, but their writing may still be worth reading. Likewise those who can’t put together a sentence to save their lives.

In bad writing on the paragraph level the sentences may be well-formed, but they do not fit together.

Paragraph-level errors are more difficult to diagnose than lower-level bad writing. At the paragraph level your writing becomes more reflective of your conscious cognitive processes (as opposed to habit or reflex), so errors at the paragraph level are less susceptible to conscious diagnosis. If your errors are paragraph-level they look right to your eye and sound right to your ear. To diagnose paragraph-level errors ask of each sentence, “How does this follow from the previous sentence? What transition would I use between them?”

So, for example, if I suspected I might be prone to paragraph-level errors, I would ask of the paragraph I just wrote:

  1. How does the second sentence follow from the first? ((Notice that I could break the second sentence into two sentences at “so.” Not doing so was purely a style choice.)) It explains the rule. If I used a transition between the first and second sentences, it would be, “That’s because….”
  2. How does the third sentence follow from the second? It illustrates the explanation. If I used a transition between the second and third sentences it would be, “That is,….”
  3. How does the fourth sentence follow from the third? It provides a solution to the problem that the third sentence illustrated. If I used a transition between the third and fourth sentences, it would be “So….”

In conducting this interrogation of my own writing, I would recognize a paragraph-level error if a sentence did not follow from the preceding, or if the transition were more than a couple of words.

If a sentence does not follow, that’s not the right place for it. It may belong elsewhere in the paragraph, it may need to be in another paragraph, ((I prefer more and shorter paragraphs with discrete ideas.)) or it may belong on the editing-room floor.

You know by now where this is going: when writing is bad on the essay level each paragraph may be well-written, but they don’t make sense together. On the essay level, writing reflects even higher-level thought processes than on the paragraph level. Can you put paragraphs, each of which develops an idea, together into a cogent argument or exposition?

The process for diagnosing essay-level writing error is much the same as that for diagnosing bad writing on the paragraph level: question each paragraph’s relationship to the surrounding paragraphs, and question each paragraph’s relationship to the whole.

Almost always, recognizing essay-level error requires objectivity — more objectivity than I have immediately after writing an essay, and I suspect more than you have at that point. If it is important to you to get a writing just right, ((My posts here are first or, at best, second drafts. My briefs get much, much more attention.)) come back to it after you’ve occupied your mind with other tasks. Either that, or get someone else to read it for you.

In fact, a good editor is an excellent tool for learning to write better. Red pencil on a page of your best prose will help you find your weaknesses, which is the greater part of eliminating them. And while you will learn more from someone who is better at writing than from someone who is not, even someone who does not write as well as you can improve your writing by editing it. You are writing for readers, and what a reader thinks is wrong with your writing matters even if she is wrong. ((Yes, have at it.))

Beyond the chapter level, we would get to bad writing on the book level. While I have read a few badly written books, and started reading a whole lot more, I am not qualified to expound on this, not having written a book.

Yet.


15 responses to “2015.78: A Taxonomy of Bad Writing”

  1. Mark – this is a good blog. I will share a couple of random thoughts re writing.

    1. I once wrote an amicus brief that was pretty good. An older friend asked me who helped me write it. “Nobody” was the answer. The question posed was both a compliment and an insult but really I always just thought it was funny.

    2. I once wrote a brief that I thought was pretty special. I showed it to Randy Schaffer. Randy is a superb writer. Randy asked if I wanted edits. I saiid sure. I was confident it was great and there would be no edits. Randy gave it back to me and it was covered in red ink. At first I was irritated as my ego was hurt. I read it with Randy’s edits and I quickly realized it was much better with his edits. I learned a writer should seek a good editor. I also learned that most things can be said better.

    3. I think one of the best ways to become a better writer is to read great writers. Read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Updike and McGuane and you cannot help but become a better writer. Hemingway said the first draft of anything was shit. I think he was right.
    So this post is shit but it’s all I have time for.

    It’s a good blog.

    Robb

  2. Great post, Mark. And considering the appeal to authority fallacy many authors of terrible books would use to claim qualification on the topic of bad writing on a book level, I think your opinions are as good as any

  3. Grammar and punctuation: It irks me to read a good novelist who writes, “Me and Jim were there.” Supposedly from highly educated people.

    Another of my pet peeves is apostrophe-itis. People who think if word ends in “s” it needs an apostrophe. I sent email to a local car dealer to tell him to get his money back from whomever did his TV ad–“We sell Honda’s.”

    As to editors, before I buy a kindle ebook I “take a peek” to see if an editor was credited. If not, forget it. But many editors at big trade publishers are as sloppy as the writer, with the two aforementioned errors.

  4. Do you think that your insistence on thought during the writing process prevents you from achieving the prolificacy of the barbecue craving New Yorker, by whom I mean the lawyer of great girth and thinly veiled feelz?

  5. I certainly enjoyed this article. It serves as a reminder that lack of effort in physical work is evident, just as lack of effort in intellectual work shows up to the reader.
    I saw a news blurb warning that the use of the comma is fading away, and that the disappearance of it would not be noticed. I guess the panda that eats, shoots, and leaves will finally have his day.

  6. “The diagnosis and cure for sentence-level bad writing are the same: read your sentences aloud”.

    Shouldn’t that be: “The diagnosis and cure for sentence-level bad writing is the same…”

    [Liked reading through your posts. Came to your blog from refs to Patrick Zarrelli – most fun since Prenda Steele Hansmeier]

    Regards, Mark.

      • You are correct that there are two subjects, which would suggest plural, but they are both singular and the “and” then also conjoins them into a singular subject – the concept or idea of which is “read your sentences aloud”. This singular subject thus calls for a singular verb: “is”.

        Rewriting the sentence slightly to read: “‘Read your sentences aloud’ are the diagnosis and cure for sentence-level bad writing.” surely illustrates that “read your sentences aloud” is singular and that “are” is used incorrectly and should be “is” – which, I have suggested, is the case in the original.

        Kind Regards,

        Mark,

        —–

        ‘As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “When the nouns form ‘a collective idea’ or ‘a oneness of idea,’ the singular verb is appropriate”’
        http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/compound-subjects

        ——–

        “Often …two singular nouns joined with ‘and’ produce a subject singular in sense, which calls for a singular verb.”
        http://www.grammar.com/subject-verb-agreement-plural-subjects/

      • Ah, I see where you’re confused. I’m not saying that “the diagnosis and cure” is the same as something else. Diagnosis and cure do not form a collective idea. You could have a diagnosis without a cure (it’s cancer) or a cure without a diagnosis (drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest).

        The diagnosis and the cure are the same as each other: read your sentences aloud. I thought the “as each other” was implicit, and so did not write it.

      • Mark Bennett, I thought you meant “The diagnosis and cure for sentence-level bad writing are the same [as the diagnosis and cure for the previously discussed types of bad writing]: read your sentences aloud.” — until I thought about it some more.

        For sentence-level bad writing, the diagnosis is the same as the cure: read your sentences aloud. [But that’s not true, because the cure is to rewrite!]

        The diagnosis for sentence-level bad writing is the same as the cure for sentence-level bad writing [or, the same as its cure]: …

        Sentence-level bad writing has the same diagnosis and cure: …

        The cure for sentence-level bad writing is the same as its diagnosis: …

        [But all of these are false, because reading aloud is not a diagnosis, but a METHOD of diagnosis. The diagnosis is that it’s bad writing!]

        To diagnose sentence-level bad writing, read your sentences aloud. To cure it, rewrite them.

        Read your sentences aloud if you want to know whether they are badly written.

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