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Bad Writing Is No Badge of Honor

October 24, 2016

I am a reader first. Then a writer. Then an editor.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship amongst these identities because they are so intertwined. Reading is what made me want to write. Writing forced me to understand how to edit. Learning how to edit enabled me to become a better and more critical reader.

I’ve also been thinking about the relationship amongst these identities because I’ve been reading a wonderful little tone poem of a book by Vernon Klinkenborg called Several Short Sentences About Writing. Klinkenborg takes exception to the idea of “flow” in writing, postulating that it comes not from inspiration, but from hard work and firm attention to detail. In other words, it is crucial to be in control of your craft. “You can only judge intentionality in context,” he writes. “If all the sentences in a piece are clear and sharp, then perhaps–perhaps!–we can say that a slightly aberrant sentence is intentional, if there seems to be a reason for it. But if many of the sentences in a piece are unclear, ambiguous or weak, we have to assume that intention is irrelevant–indiscernible at best. We have to assume the writer lacks control.” Klinkenborg goes on to say that a writer’s job “is making sentences.” Other jobs include “fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.”

These prescriptives came to mind yesterday when I received a post from the blogging site Medium in my email inbox that began “I am a terrible writer. I am almost ashamed of myself when I post on Medium.”

I confess that I was taken in. My curiosity was aroused. It was a good hook. Why would someone say that? So I clicked through and read the piece in its entirety. The writer was a young woman whose life had nearly been destroyed by her addiction to heroin. There was an honesty to the writing, in the sense that it was confessional and lacked artifice, but she was right in saying that she was a terrible writer.

There were sentences that tried to convey several ideas at once, some in contradiction to others, without the specificity that would imbue real meaning:  “I couldn’t assimilate, and it was torture really. I had been locked up, living on the streets, and High School was too much of a culture shock.”

There were sentences with misplaced modifiers: “Got a boyfriend in a band that was older than me and was getting into every bar I wanted to, before the age of 18.”

There were cliches: “I sank into that dark hole of heroin.”

There were typos, improper capitalization, misspellings.

Near the top of the piece, right after the confession of being a terrible writer, she doubled down – “And then I’m going to tell you why I keep writing in a sea of Grammar Nazis with brilliant minds that perfectly articulate whatever they want” – as if being a terrible writer were a badge of honor signifying bravery and authenticity, as if it actually gave her a kind of added street cred, as if it absolved her of responsibility to the reader.

I am the first to champion honesty as a virtue in a writer. It may well be the greatest virtue. But honesty does not excuse laziness, lack of effort, or lack of dedication to make one’s writing as good, as precise, as controlled (in the best sense) that it can be.

I will grant you that this writer, this self-confessed “terrible writer,” was not without her virtues. At times her writing had a rhythm, an odd pleasure to be found in her awkward syntax, and always the sense that she was not trying to hide behind her words, but was in fact trying to reveal herself. Maybe that was why I found it so frustrating to read. I had the sense that if instead of using her failings as a shield, if she had actually tried to be better, spent more time editing herself, she might have created something worthwhile and truly revealing. That is what good writing does. Bad writing, at its best, can only suggest what might be there.

As frustrated as I was by the piece, I found myself even more frustrated by the comments.

“This is the first piece of yours that I have ever read. So it feels a little odd to be so obnoxiously assured in telling you how incredibly mistaken you are when you say you are a terrible writer. Terrible writing is many things, but to move someone in the way that you have me, is not something terrible…”

“Wow! Who’d even notice grammar? Powerful. Honest. Real, lyrically paced. I can’t wait to read more. You are right: it would be a shame not to share and worse, to hide and be afraid. The only thing for which you might need to apologize is not writing. Don’t stop. Don’t…”

“When writing from the heart, it is impossible to “suck”. I need you here to teach me to be courageous, writing just as you write. You’re very easy to read because (I’m guessing) you write like you talk… and that is not the most common of gifts.”

There were many more such comments. After a while, I had to stop reading them. They were just too fucking depressing. The bar is set so low these days. Writers no longer have editors to help them improve. There is no one to stop them from foisting unfinished work on readers. And readers, like children raised on a diet of fast food, are increasingly unable to distinguish between the good and the bad. Their palate has been dulled. They respond only to things with a strong and easy taste.

It’s tempting to extrapolate from here. All roads these days lead to Trump. But suffice to say that we live in a time when the mere appearance of authenticity seems to be the only thing required to elicit an emotional response and a positive feeling about the cathected object.

One antidote to this dangerous illusion is to read the work of great writers. To keep reading them. To read intelligently, with an eye toward understanding what makes them great. And then when you write yourself, if that is something you choose to do, try to apply what you have learned. And understand, as Klinkenborg writes, that “most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed. That this will be true for a long time.”

This post was originally published on Peter Alson’s blog and can be found here.


  • Peter Alson

    Peter Alson is a writer, editor, and the author of multiple books, including ‘Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie’ and ‘Take Me to the River.’

    View all posts

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