Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Bad writing

I’ve made a statement several times to several different people that what we call bad writing isn’t necessarily so. If we evaluate the writing based on its effects – its success at delivering an emotional message – then I find it hard to label a lot of it as bad. Not to my taste, of course, but bad? Hard to argue with it if it works.

The standard counterargument is that if we do that then we have to redefine everything popular as good.

Then I say that isn’t what I said, I specifically focused on the effectiveness of the writing, not its financial success.

Then they argue that I was effectively saying the same thing and the discussion goes downhill from there. The only people who tend to agree with me tend to be linguists.

So, in an attempt to short-circuit this process and prevent the inevitable slide, I’m going to try to deliver my argument with a little bit more nuance.

Y’see, you can blame it all on my parents.

When I was growing up me and my parents had an odd deal going on. It wasn’t until I was grown-up that I discovered that this deal isn’t a part of everybody’s upbringing, just mine and my sister’s.

I’d ask questions and they’d answer them without equivocation or simplification, explaining as much of the nuances and detail that I could handle. And since I have always been a bit obsessive and literal-minded, that usually involved a great deal of explaining.

When my mother played Bob Marley, I, ten years old, asked what the Buffalo Soldier song meant and my mother ended up explaining slavery, colonialism, and the U.S. civil war in mind-numbing detail.

When we got to the song ‘No woman, no cry’, I would ask and she would explain that he wasn’t speaking English but Jamaican Creole, so he was basically saying ‘woman, please don’t cry’, and then (prodded on by my questions) proceeded to explain the evolution from pidgin to creole to a fully fledged language with its own culture and whatnot. This also involved an explanation of how this was caused by the practice of throwing a bunch of slaves together, each with their own language, having orders in yet another language barked at them. A pidgin language is formed from the various language fragments. It solidifies into Creole. Then, as songs and books get written, it becomes a beautiful thing called a new language.

My mother also happens to be a linguist with a background in language acquisition research. (I think it was Applied Linguistics that she practiced before she became a journalist. I’ll have to ask her.)

And when she put on Marianne Faithfull, I asked, and got an explanation of ‘broken english’ and the entire history of how cultural elites use the label of bad english and bad writing to exclude the voices of minorities and other classes.

A legitimate regional dialect gets demonised as bad language and native speakers get labeled as dumb, their access to education limited, etc..

(My dad is more of a Pink Floyd and The Who man, which resulted in another set of interesting explanations, let me tell you.)

Most of you see by now where I’m going with this.

What we have defined, traditionally, as good english has almost always been driven more by ideology and politics than by an analytical effort to describe actual effective use of the language. Less ‘what problem is that language solving?’, and more ‘who are those people using that language and do we like them?’.

Those are two mutually exclusive philosophies. You can’t think of language as an adaptive problem-solving system and as an objective, concrete, thing with built in ideals that shouldn’t be deviated from. It’s one or the other. Never both.

Most of the prescriptions we are supposed to obey originate in the writing of men like Ben Johnson, John Dryden, and Robert Baker whose prescriptions are almost entirely based on Latin, not English. Rules such as that of not ending a sentence with a preposition are at a complete contradiction with actual usage and are based on the fact that such sentences are not possible in Latin.

I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life teaching in some capacity, almost always in art schools. Whether it was on a university or junior college level (I’ve taught in art colleges on both levels) most of the kids there weren’t expert readers or writers. A high proportion were actually dyslexic. Writing is not their thing, nor is reading. It is unfamiliar, different, and doesn’t represent the language they use day to day in any way. It is something entirely alien.

Most of them actually do write every day: IM, facebook, etc., so they definitely understand the basics.

My usual tactic was to assure them that I wouldn’t mark them for grammar or spelling or anything of the sort, it’s the argument that matters. Use the language you are familiar with, tell us where you got your ideas, and you’re covered.

Not everybody took this advice. Some plagiarised. Others aped what they saw as proper writing and did it badly (that’s actual bad writing).

It helped that I often warmed them up by asking them to write mission statements: ‘what do I want to do and how could this help me?’ (I was teaching interactive media.) It’s an easy way to get them started at forming an argument.

The ones that took the advice to heart handed in papers that were often ungrammatical, full of typos of the kind that spell-checks don’t catch, and sentence structures that would make most teachers faint.

The text, on the other hand, was often solidly argued and some of it was evocative and gripping. Concrete language. No flighty metaphors. Descriptions that, while clunky, were filled with imaginative (and ungrammatical) word constructions.

Badly written by most standards, but extremely engaging and effective. And fun to read.

A lot of what expert readers, critics, and editors, call bad writing is one of three things:

  1. Legitimate variations on English sentence structure and grammar that is in common use by one group or another.
  2. Overused idioms and cliches.
  3. Jargon.
  4. Sloppy writing.

The first is plain prejudice. If the variation in question is commonly used by the target audience there is absolutely no reason to bar or condemn it. In fact, it’s foolish to do so because using language familiar to your audience is much more effective than not.

Almost nobody uses ‘wrong’ English in their writing, even novice writer. They write text that’s built using the language structures common to their speech and are then told that it is wrong and that they are dumb for using it. ‘Write proper English.’

I hope you see what message teachers are delivering when they say that.

The second is a matter of exposure. Those idioms are only cliches to those who have read a lot. Anybody encountering them for the first time is liable to find them extremely effective. After all, there is a reason why they became popular in the first place.

The third is simultaneously an exclusionary tactic (keep the outsiders out) and a shorthand that allows specialist groups to address complex problems in their problem area with a minimum of fuss. Again, if that’s the target audience, arguing against it is rather dumb. Use the language that is appropriate for your audience, grammar and sentence structure be damned.

The fourth is a valid point and common in critiques of self-published books. Again, how relevant it is depends on the context. If it’s informative and the sloppiness doesn’t get in the way of the message (like on a news website) then it’s forgivable. If it gets in the way of the target audience’s reading, then it’s a problem.

Bad storytelling is a slightly more complex issue. Characterisation, pacing, plotting, and structure aren’t – strictly speaking – a question of writing. Text is the medium, sure, but you can have writing that’s bad by anybody’s standards that is still well-paced, structured, and with an interesting plot.

These are higher level structures that are built on text.

Dan Brown, for example, is many people’s poster child for bad writing, but his writing is objectively well paced and the plot, while non-sensical, engages.

(Or, so I’m told. I’m relying here on what people around me have said about him.)

Another popular writer today, Stieg Larsson, is only available in English via a horrendous translation where no sentence has remained un-mangled.

(My sister tells me that the Icelandic translation, in contrast, is quite excellent.)

However, almost any critic out there and most readers find Stieg Larsson’s plot, characterisation, structure, and pacing to be entertaining and engaging, if unrealistic.

(I find him unreadable for other reasons, but that’s neither here nor there. I dislike him much in the same way, and for many of the same reasons, as I dislike Lars Von Trier’s movies.)

So, bad writing is a simplification that doesn’t really help us discover what’s going on.

Some of what is called bad writing is good storytelling wrapped up in non-standard writing (standard here being writing that follows prescriptive grammar, not descriptive). Some of it is bad storytelling in serviceable English. Some of it uses cliched storytelling wrapped in over-exposed idioms, which means that it’s probably going to be fantastic to a new reader unfamiliar to the cliches and idioms.

Not just fantastic, mind-blowing. Imagine experiencing all of those ideas and concepts for the first time, all packed together in one book?

That brings me to popularity.

As should be obvious from what I’ve said above, some of these books are popular for legitimate reasons:

  • Some are bringing a set of ideas – over-exposed to expert readers – to a new generation of readers.
  • Some use a language more familiar to their readers than what you find in most other books.
  • Some are crap language but manage to deliver a story and characters that have mass appeal.

Of course, you also have the crap that panders to the lowest common denominator and is rubbish through and through (i.e. celebrity biographies).

Popularity isn’t the lens we’re using, but effectiveness. It’s worthwhile to investigate what it is that makes a popular book appealing. Celeb books are easily explained, but stories that catch on like wildfire and explode in popularity, even before the publicity engines begin to pimp them to the mainstream, can’t be dismissed as handily. Books that managed to get enough popularity for them to be picked up by the mainstream hoping to cash in on a growing trend have something else going on. There’s something in them that appeals.

(OTOH, a lot of it is just the Matthew Effect which the web seems to have a tendency to strongly reinforce.)

You can’t argue that Transformers is a good movie just because it is popular. Nor am I saying that Twilight is good because it’s popular.

But books differ from movies in several ways.

Almost every moviegoer is an expert viewer. We don’t live in a literary culture, we live in a cinematic one. Every living westerner today has been raised on a constant diet of movies and cinematic tropes. Anybody with the same level of knowledge and understanding of literature as a teenager has of movies has a M.A. in comparative literature, at the very least. Moviegoers know Transformers isn’t a good movie. It’s a cool movie to them; a case of visceral enjoyment. Even the biggest, least educated, fan of the movie is going to know that it isn’t a brilliant cinematic accomplishment. Moreover, they’ll know exactly why and be able to talk about it with their friends, in detail, over a cheeseburger and fries. They’ll be able to go over the nuances, visual references, character archetypes and compare it to its antecedents. (At least its immediate antecedents. The slow disappearance of pre–70s cinema from the zeitgeist is a very real issue and a subject for another time.)

People today know movies. They don’t know books. So, different rules apply.

Books differ in another way: Language is much more adaptive than visual representation.

When most users of the English language use the language in a specific way, that’s what the language becomes. English is how it is used, not how grammarians prescribe it.

A popular book is, from this perspective, proper English when it either represents the language as it is commonly used, or when it changes it.

If, after a few years, we find that the bad writing in many popular books more accurately represents the way English is used, then that ceases to be bad writing. No matter how many ipse dixit pronouncements you pile on people, if nobody speaks or writes that way except for the literary crowd, then it isn’t English.

We are what we do. English is how it is used.

Or, we shouldn’t be talking about bad versus good writing, but ineffective versus effective writing.

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