Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Good writing, bad writing

Recently there have been discussions on an e-mail list I belong to, about what kind fow riters, and writing, people like and dislike. One author whose name came up often was Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code. There's a lot for people to complain about in this book, although for the record, I found it a decent enough read, though I did get pretty tired of his continual references to anagrams, puzzles, etc. If I want that sort of thing, there is a game I like to play that does this very well.

What a lot of people complained about on this list was his "bad writing". This, BTW, is a writer's list, so I guess the people are unusually sensitive to what they conceive to be "bad writing". Quite frankly, I can't remember anything much about his writing style. I do remember the rather silly premise, and while I think by now Brown is "laughing all the way to the bank", as they say, it spawned a lot of "Templar-themed" look-alike books, often written much worse, again IMO, than The Da Vinci Code.

Be that as it may, the concept of what is "good" and "bad" writing raises some interesting questions. What, exactly is "bad writing"? Many people think that overuse of adverbs and adjectives falls into this category. And it's true, but. . . . How many adjectives and adverbs are "too many". What if you are trying to introduce a character, and want to describe his/her appareance, for example? Stephen King says he doesn't do much that way; he is more interested in the character's psychological state and their surroundings. King is a true heir, in some ways, to Edgar Allen Poe. He is, IOW, a storyteller. Some of his early works are better than some of his later ones, but he has mastered his craft. And he uses adverbs and adjectives when necessary.

One more reliable sign of bad, or at least "novice" writing, is too much use of "conversation tags".
Conversation tags are "he said", "she said", etc. But again, it's necessary to usee these "conversation tags" sometimes. However, it may be easier, with practice, to cut a lot of these. Editors and others often tell new writers to "show, don't tell" the character's actions or emotional states. This is good advice, but how does one do this?

Melissa James, a writer originally from Australia, has a very good article that shows several ways to do this. She calls this "deep POV", and says it is quite hard to do. I think she is probably right, but even if, like me, you are a novice, you can still learn a great deal by reading the relevant article here. What she does, falls under the rubric of "showing, not telling". True, she uses some admective and adverbs, but she shows by using the noun-verb core of any sentence. In other words, she describes her characters doing an action. Just using this technique is immensely helpful in cutting down on the number of "descriptive" words that often contribute to "flabby" writing. And "flabby" writing is what a lot of "novice" writers are prone to. To be honest, I'm prone to it myself. That is one reason why I have a writing partner and an online critique group. They catch things that didn't occur to me while I was writing whatever section of my novel I'm working on. But then, writing is a lifelong learning process, even for someone as experienced as Stephen King. Or it should be, if the writer is any good at all.

Going a little further down the line of "bad" writing, I doubt that Dan Brown uses a lot of "passive voice" in his writing. Good writers avoid this generally, unless the character has reason to recall or review some past action. "Passive voice" is something that some people often speak in. I know a woman who constantly says things like "I had gone to the farmers market to buy some veggies". It's fairly characteristic of people who are from "less educated" backgrounds, especially if they were lucky enough to become "educated" in some way. Apparently such people consider it more "erudite" or "refined".

But it's a no-no in writing. At least it's a no-no in modern writing, and I can see why. Too much "passive voice" sounds "flabby" too. The book I'm reading right now, The Golden Tulip, is a wonderful story by Rosalind Laker, but it was written some time ago, and the version I'm reading is a reprint. She lapses into this kind of writing all the time(plus uses a lot of adverbs and adjectives). I doubt the book would pass an editor today. On the other hand, her name isn't Rosalind Laker. Her real name suggests that English isn't her native language, so perhaps she can be forgiven for these lapses.

I think "good writing" or "bad writing" is in part, a matter of taste. However, the above examples should suggest to the aspiring writer, that there are some things he or she should guard against in writing. I may lapse into these "faults" in a first draft, and I may have situations that are unclear, but that's why a writer should be prepared to write several drafts before they send their work of art out to an agent or editor. Agents and editors spot such things awfully quickly. And reject them. And we writers don't want that(though realistically, we get lots of rejections!)

Gentle reader, and aspiring writer, we can at least help ourselves by cutting out "flabby" and "passive" writing. We may see awful examples(as the complaints about The Da Vinci Code seem to suggest), that get published, and are even popular, but we don't have to copy them. All writers need to be true to themselves, and do everything they can, to produce the best possible result of their efforts.
Anne G

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