On Bad Writing

February 28, 2014
By

We get all kinds of submissions at the Metro Times offices from aspiring scribes. Some of the writing samples, as you might imagine, are laughably, horribly bad. We couldn’t post them here in good conscience (unless, say, our readers clamored to see them), but that’s not what we want to talk about today.

What’s on our mind is writing that is merely bad. Not stupendously, outrageously bad, but just writing that is inert. What is that odd quality of writing that may get the job done but doesn’t sing? We believe we have found a way to identify it. If it seems you can remove the nouns and still not understand what it’s about, it’s just provisional, workmanlike writing that strings ideas together with a bunch of clichéd constructions. Behold this blurb we found:

There are at least _______ good _______ to pop into _________ near the _________ of _______ and _____: 1.) the _____ and 2.) the ______. The _______ just celebrated its _____-_________ _______ in _______, but that hasn’t stopped the _______ from  coming up with new ______, such as the ____ and a _______ of ______, ______, _____ and ___. But _______ makes _______ a  _______ is the  ________ and the genuine _____ the ________ show.

See what’s going on there? There’s nothing there but nouns to do all the work. Switch around the nouns and the place could be a tennis shoe store, a pizzeria, a whiskey bar, a trap house or a bordello.

What would “trap house” version sound like?

There are at least two good excuses to pop into Leroy’s Trap House near the intersection of Cass and Henry: 1.) the heroin and 2.) the cocaine. The drug-den just celebrated its six-month mark in February, but that hasn’t stopped the criminals from  coming up with new schemes, such as the rabbit punch and a menu of uppers, downers, sidewinders and goofballs. But what makes Leroy’s a  gem is the  product and the genuine disregard the dope-dealers show.

I think that illustrates the point nicely.

OK, so, every once in a while, we’ll let something like this through, but only if it was hours past deadline and there was nothing but a press release or website to go on and nobody to interview.  Even so, this kind of “Mad Lib” writing is additionally degraded by filler. Why the windup of telling us the reasons to pop in are two in number (and why only two?). The clumsy indexing is a trick that doesn’t really work very well. [Why? The reasons are two: 1) We can count already, and 2) we can add too.]  Also, the business having been established seems an odd counterpoint to the business coming up with new anything. And if whatever is shown that makes something something, is it really worth to say that it’s genuine? Most things worth mentioning are, so to mention it seems somehow insincere.

In short, take out all the nouns and you have no freaking idea what is supposed to be written about. Compare with, say, a line of the Gettysburg Address:

… ______ are engaged in a great civil _______, testing whether that ______, or any ______ so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

See the difference there? Even without nouns, you have an inkling of what old Abe is talking about! You might not be sure what it’s about, but you have a tone, a sensibility, in which the structure of sentences are bent to their purpose of conveying some meaning. That’s great writing.

As for this original blurb we found, if there’s one thing you can say, when you remove nouns and can’t tell what the heck the writing is about, the author of those words … didn’t really care about the thing being described. Had the author cared, wouldn’t the writing have used descriptive, evocative adverbs and adjectives? Wouldn’t we be tantalized by those blanks, wondering what they were? Instead, we’re treated to a sloppy piece of writing that comes off as phoned in and insincere.

And maybe that’s the problem with bad writing: It lacks sincerity. Which calls to mind George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” in which he said:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

 

 

  • Mark Kurlyandchik

    Orwell’s essay pairs nicely with Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style,” which recommends quite the opposite. See rule no. 4: “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” Be careful what you advise, or soon your submissions will be exceedingly overflowing with unnecessary adverbs and ornate adjectives.