When I was a freshman in high school, I started taking acting very seriously. I had been doing it for six years by that point, but now I really wanted to get good at it. Or at least, be perceived as good at it. So, in the way that I am, I turned to my logical self, asking how to act out those really hard, casual, daily lines that aren’t supposed to be punctuated with extreme bouts of emotion.
I remember distinctly coming up with this flawless line of logic: If my character is just talking, and then I just talk, clearly I will talk like I’m just talking.
I’m glad I remember thinking this, because now, years later, as I teach children the art, I often know exactly why they believe the answer of who they’re talking to could be, “the audience,” and yet still be surprised they’re not being convincing.
If you are onstage in front of an audience and you see yourself as onstage in front of an audience you’re going to talk like you’re onstage in front of an audience. If you are onstage picturing the room you are in, picturing the person you are talking to, picturing the feelings your character has, you’re going to be compelling.
Bad writing happens for a reason. Sometimes it has to do with how the author perceives something. Sometimes it has to do with how the reader perceives something. Sometimes it is “just not how it works,” and others it is “not what we expect.”
In a place where everything can be good, yet not everything is, the question of bad writing becomes not about what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it.
1. Defending from rejection.
I talk about us learning what we’re supposed to do “in polite society,” and how the demands of the art world require retraining to do the exact opposite. Primarily, we are constantly told that no one cares about our opinions. No one likes our political Facebook posts, I don’t want to hear you go on about abortion, don’t mention politics, religion or money at the dinner table, etc.
In conversation, having someone stronghold you will all his half-baked ideas is boring, mostly because you’re sitting around waiting to talk yourself.
However, in the art world, I’m not planning on talking to you. You’re a book. If I were to start responding and telling you my story, I think the issues would not be with what the book was saying.
Have you ever listened to someone talk for a long period of time without expressing anything personal? What they think about, are worried about, their opinions, their hopes, their dreams? They just go on and on, divulging some step-by-step drivel?
It’s the same rule of thumb for storytelling. People like people. We want things to get personal. And while it’s better for us to hear the development of a character than an author, there should be underlying hints and opinions.
A man who perceives a chair as the bane of his existence will be listened too much more raptly than a man who describes a chair in a page long list of details.
The less risks we take, the less we reveal about ourselves and what we think, the less chance there is for rejection. I have compared writing to deciding where to eat in which the reader is sitting there, hoping to have a suggestion on what he should think about with the entire intention of accepting or rejecting it. Which is why his friends, knowing he’s sitting there planning to judge him, clamp shut. No one’s going to say something just to be shot down.
Stories need to take risks and have unique perspectives. Bad stories are those that depend on what works, the author avoiding talking about anything special to themselves. In order to enjoy something, we need to feel impressed, a connection, and we won’t when being told, “There was a kitchen with a stove and a table.”
2. Your guess is as good as mine.
The difference between being convincing and being creative is a pretty thin line. Why is it okay to have a vampire who lives for a thousand years but not have someone survive a fourteen-story fall?
Part of that has to do with how deliberate a choice seems, but a major issue is when the author comes up with an idea the reader feels not only could he come up with, but probably would, and maybe even has.
It’s the job of the author to impress people, no matter what her reason for writing is. Whether she wants respect, money, or to help others, her goals will not be achieved if no one feels an impact from the work. Even if she just wanted to have fun while writing, if she’s not impressed by herself, she will not be happy.
So part of the issue is the idea that you have to deserve it to be a successful author, and in order to deserve it, you have to be better than me. But if you’re coming up with things that I could come up with, then clearly I deserve it more than you do, and I’m not going to listen to you or read what you write. What’s the point when I can just fantasize.
The “your guess is as good as mine” problem comes from the same kin as, “write what you know,” or rather, “know what you write.”
The issue is this: I don’t know something. Say, what it’s like to live in a prison. So, while writing, I start to take my best guess as to how it would be. Unfortunately, when I pull off the top of my head what it would be like, I’m very likely to come up with something that my reader would make up. Low and behold, it sounds made up to them.
Of course, many authors don’t want to admit this. We like to think of ourselves as innately divined to being a writer, we want to be the people who automatically think differently, who can pull out of our ass something fabulous without a lot of thought, to be, in all essence, the genius who would not come up with something anyone could.
The reality is, however, though some people feel consistently weird, everyone is normal to some extent.
We all have to be more normal than we think—it allows us to have conversations. And we all have to be weirder than we think—it allows us to have arguments. The fact of the matter is that everyone will have typical thoughts and that doing so won’t mean they aren’t geniuses. By acknowledging it, we can change it to something more interesting.
I ask you for a tool, you’re probably going to say hammer. I ask you for a vegetable, you’re probably going to say carrot. But knowing the trick, being aware of what “everyone else would say,” allows you to come up with something more creative. Conscientious thought is the only kind of thought that can control how “common” you are, because the subconscious just wants to be normal.
3. How we speak.
This one is a pain in the butt because it has two contradictory parts; problems from writing like we write, and problems from writing like we talk.
First, the issue is that when we write, we automatically do it differently than how we talk. A prime example is that, while orally explaining something, a speaker feels inclined to get out all the information as quickly as possible, so his sentences are shorter, more succinct and to the point. While writing, however, people can take their time. Often, when they do so, it sounds like they’re doing so. In “bad” fiction, I will see the problem as being overly explanatory, in which the writer is using extra words, like prepositions, conjunctions and nondescript clarifiers (“like that”), making the story have a tone of “It’s really important you understand this,” and not, “It was a dark and spooky night.” So, while I might say orally, “My grandmother once caught a chipmunk. Still has the bite mark to this day,” textually, I might explain, “My grandmother was born in 1901. She liked to work in the yard every day. When she was doing this, one day, she saw a chipmunk across the yard. Sweeping up her rake, she smacked him in the head and ran over to him and grabbed him because he was stunned. He woke up and bit her and she still has the mark to this day.” The second sounds like it’s being written.
Secondly, because we write so much slower than we speak, we are more prone to repetitive word choice. While talking we are more likely to remember what we said in the last sentence and not only not feel compelled to explain what we’re referencing. In typing, we often type a sentence, stop, think about it, forget exactly what we wrote, and reuse it again.
Now, on that same note, while writing differently than we talk makes it sound strange, writing the same as we talk isn’t always better.
For instance, we are allowed to use repetitive words while speaking because it is off the top of the head. Even though we often pretend a book is supposed to be someone speaking without a lot of editorial thought, because everyone recognizes that really isn’t the case, it becomes inappropriate to leave “realistic” speaking errors. It looks more like the author didn’t read through it again.
Not only is text expected to be more contrived than speaking—the ideas have to be linear, easy to follow, the right word used in every sentence, the moments of stalling and sputtering “uhs” weird and often inappropriate—but it wants to be longer. While too long and too explanatory of a sentence is unappealing, sentence fragments and short, singular point sentences are jarring.
Often times, the definition of bad writing is based on expectation, so when the expectation of a story needs to sort of be how we talk yet contextually unique onto itself, the issue becomes about learning what the expectations are and if we’re meeting the wrong ones.
4. Mismanaging priorities.
A couple of years ago I had a director who would focus on all the tiny, little, noncreative details, ignoring all the big picture concepts. He wouldn’t block, but instead get in arguments with the crew about how long they could take to announce something (that really didn’t require more than a, “Hey guys, just so you know…”). As the actors and I watched him, we would find ourselves very confused as to why he prioritized the things he did, ignoring the things we thought he should be talking about.
Sometimes you’ll catch yourself getting stuck. Your brain will have told you, “It has to be that way!” and you’ll be inclined to believe it until, one day, you’re thinking about it, and all of the sudden you say, “Why does it have to be that way? What is wrong with me?”
Fixating on something, requiring it to be a specific way and sacrificing other things in order to make it that way, is a common trend for people to get into, that we don’t even realize is happening.
In the art world, we always have to sacrifice something. Whether it be quality over fun, believability over likeability, or this concept for that concept, choices come up and, unfortunately have to be made. And no matter what anyone says, that choice really is up to you. It’s important for an author to pick his priorities without fear of what anyone else thinks they should be; it’s the only way for him to achieve his vision.
What happens is less of a problem of how he prioritized his options, but when those priorities consistently shift, or #2 had to sacrifice #3 and then #1 sacrificed #2.
Take the typical academic example:
We have a teacher whose priorities go
1) Amount of Effort.
3) Child’s Vision.
Because the point of prioritizing is telling yourself, when the demand of sacrifice arises, which one you will pick over the other, what happens is that the teacher will sacrifice the child’s vision—“No you can’t have a fart joke”—for the sake of quality, but then, when a problem arises and she realizes, “Oh, we need to film a whole new scene for this to make sense,” she’ll go, “We don’t need it.”
So now the child didn’t get to do what he wanted because she was afraid it would ruin the movie, and yet not care that the movie was bad as long as it didn’t mean extra work. She now has sacrificed two goals for the price of one.
Now, as I said, you should be honest about what you find important. That being said, if “amount of effort” is above “success,” than you have to consider that putting in no effort is achieving your goals just as much, if not more so, than being a successful writer. It means that you have to be happy with doing nothing and not getting anything in return. If that isn’t how your priorities actually are and success is more important to you than the amount of effort put in, then you sacrifice having fun and doing what you want in favor of getting the vision you want.
The important thing is to be honest and to not allow “reality” to shift around your motivations. Recognize why your priorities are the way they are, that easiness and laziness have a good grasp on people’s motivations, and that deciding what you want will inevitably prevent those, “Why do I care about this so much?” moments.
5. Looking like you’re doing what you’re doing.
At times, I feel like some of my discussion mates want to believe they are nothing but pure in their motivation, tactics, and ideas. They want to think that, “I’m writing this for an unselfish reason,” that, “It is nothing more than a form of self-expression,” and that, “All my thoughts are fully formed, well thought out, and proven through practice and experimentation.”
I hate the word selfish because it has such a stigma on it. There are no positive phrases that say, “I am doing this for myself, which is reasonable.”
In motivation, however, we’re always selfish. That doesn’t mean we’re always sacrificing others, bulldozing our way to the top, destroying happiness for the sake of our own. It does mean, however, that we are hoping something good will happen to us whenever we do anything.
For example, writers write for fun. Sure, it’s not always so; often times is a tear-inducing frustration fest. But we write because we get joy out of it, and that is, by the base of the word, selfish.
Even if we claim to be writing to help other people. Even in the most purest sense, helping others gives us a good feeling. Then, while taking it to the next step, the question becomes why write for altruism? While the pen is powerful, volunteering is less risky. You put the same amount of time fundraising as into writing, you’re more likely to come out with something that actually has an affect.
As I say, the people who actually write are the ones with thousands of reasons to do so. Those with only one goal, even fun or charity, will not be able to keep motivating themselves when that aim runs dry. You will stop having fun, you will hate the world, you will fear that this book is “too bad” to help anyone. Writing for one objective means that you would have to consistently be inspired by that same objective everyday, which just won’t happen.
A novel is fiction. It’s being made up off the top of your head. It shouldn’t sound like it’s being made up off the top of your head. You writing to save the world? A book that screams, “I’m writing to save the world!” will be met with only a little less chagrin as “I’m writing to make money!” Self-expression? How about, self-expression of a few base thoughts and a bunch of filler and stalling as we try to develop it? How about, trying to understand life through writing just as much as trying to explain it?
In a perfect world, the author wouldn’t need to keep up appearances. We would realize that all of us are insecure and still respect those with the lack of confidence. We’d constantly expose the truth through unbridled honesty, would not have to wear suits to interviews, and good self-published books would sell well.
Unfortunately, we live in a world with a lot of decisions to be made and little capacity for chancing them all. We need to judge a book by its cover because otherwise we’d have to read the whole thing to know if we should read the whole thing. As I said before, we demand authors to be impressive, and being impressive requires us to not look like we’re doing what we’re doing.
6. Lack of variation.
As one last bonus piece of advice, the mother of them all, the number one reason why something is “bad” has more to do with how many times it’s been used before than what’s actually being done.
Variation, even when that sometimes means varying the amount of variation, is the key to a great book.
The trick is, when finding a method that works, find another method that works instead of reusing the old.
Do you only use said? Do you never use said? Do all your sentences start with a pronoun? Do all your character descriptions involve just the clothes, hair, and eye color? While things work great once, it doesn’t mean they’ll work over and over again.
Vary it. Do something different, find something new, take a risk on something you’re not sure will work.
When it comes to “bad” writing, there really is no such thing. That being said, because humans are so prone to defining it, ignoring that we have certain expectations of authors, that we believe they have to be holier than the average peon, and that it is the author’s job to be impressive will only make your unjudgeable piece apathetically unjudged.