Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bad Writing

Here's a simple question for you. 

What is bad writing?

Objectively, as far as such things can be measured, or subjectively to your individual preference --what makes a piece of fiction bad?

I've spent the last few months catching up to a new year's resolution I made to read all the indie books open on my Kindle. Not all the books archived, just the ones I'd put on the machine and hadn't yet looked at.  As expected, I enjoyed most of them. Others, not so much. Innocently enough, I checked out some online reviews of the titles I'd read.

And herein lies the question.

Books I considered poorly written, but with an adequate story or cast of characters, got just as many stars as books of outstanding prose. Stories that didn't make any sense at all, with murky settings, and cliched or non distinct characters, often got as many good reviews as their opposites.

In other words, there seems to be a lack of consistency in what people judge as good or bad. 

Not exactly news, I know, but it got me to thinking about what's most important to a story.  As a writer I wondered, what do people want?

Most say a good character. But I wonder, do you have to like him/her? Is it enough to identify with some aspect of them? Do you even need that?

Some say plot is secondary, not as important as character. But can beating the same old tired story trail be considered good writing? 

When you read, is grammar important to you? If the author drops that Oxford comma, do you throw the book across the room in disgust?

How about this: do you have different parameters for different genres?  

For example, I'm willing to skip over (or look up) unfamiliar words I come across in a western.  Even if the author is making them up.  On the other hand, I weary of the made-up words in science fiction. Too much techno-babble and I'm outta there.

What about originality? Nothing will kick me out of a book faster than an author who repeats the same scene from book to book. In my New Year's batch was a western writer I had previously never heard of (and who isn't, I don't think, a member of the Fictioneers). I tried two of the guy's titles and couldn't make it through any of them. Especially when, half-way through the first chapter of the second book, I read the exact same shoot-em-up scene I'd read in the first story.

My vague conclusion --for me-- is that bad writing is anything that --when repeated more than once or twice-- knocks me (as a reader) out of the story.

(That goes for too many dashes, parentheses, and italic words too!) 

I'll put up with bad grammar for a while if the story is good. I'll put up with a trite story if the characters are good. I'll put up with bad characters if I like the word choice on a sentence level. Or if I like the setting. If the dialog crackles, I'll stick with a murky setting.

But when the mistakes add up, that's when I put the book down.

How about you?

After growing up on a Nebraska farm, Richard Prosch worked as a professional writer, artist, and teacher in Wyoming, South Carolina, and Missouri. His western crime fiction captures the fleeting history and lonely frontier stories of his youth where characters aren’t always what they seem, and the windburned landscapes are filled with swift, deadly danger. Read more at


  1. Richard Prosch,

    This is a very pertinent article.

    I've said it before, to me, writing the story is 10% of the process. The greater effort is editing and making the manuscript as good as it can be. Dealing with grammar, punctuation, style, removing repeated words, is essential. My process is to read, rewrite, and correct about three times, then with a professional editor I sit down and read the story out loud correcting as we go. The editing process takes from three weeks to sometimes two years because the lack of availability of the one editor I could find who could stand to work with me. (Time taken, also depends on the length of the manuscript.)

    Then, there is a professional layout program done by a professional familiar with such computer programs and finally when the book comes back, another final edit for mistakes.

    A book once printed is forever and there is no excuse not to make it as professional as possible.

    You asked, and that's how I see it. Who wants to EVER read a book poorly edited and with a poor layout?

    1. Thanks for the reply, Charlie! I think we all get too eager to throw around the "bad writing" label without stopping to think what we're really talking about.

  2. If I have to work too hard to read a book–due to fact or grammar errors, too many characters and scene changes, wild-goose-chase side plots, or even overly lush writing–I'm out.

    I suppose I define good writing as being seamless, engaging and memorable.

    1. I agree! Enjoyable reading shouldn't be such hard work!

  3. Unbelievable characters or when there isn't a single character I can root for. Those are my stoppers

  4. Any number of things can take me "out of the moment" when reading a book. This could range from excessive typos, bad grammar, and punctuation to unbelievable plotting or inconsistent characterizations. Jerky, staccato prose can also make for a difficult read if it's in an inappropriate part of the book. As far as content goes, I feel that is subject to one's taste. Even though I may not like the characters or the story, that doesn't necessarily make the writing bad; I simply won't enjoy the book as much.

    1. Thanks for your comment, JD. Good point about personal taste!