Crossing the Equator 7: What Is Bad Writing?

Bad writing. I bring the topic up not to mock bad writing, because it’s rarely worth the time, and also because most of the sins of bad writing have also been committed by good writers, either when they were inexperienced or in quick first drafts. It’s useful to explore the topic, though. What is bad writing, and why does it exist, and why do so many people produce it? Even most intelligent people write more bad prose than good. Where does this come from?

Not (Necessarily) Bad Writing

Some tastes are arbitrary. Let’s take so-called “swear” words. Shit was once an unobjectionable term for feces; fuck, for copulation, and cunt, for the vulva. These words became objectionable because of the social classes and ethnicities of those who used them, centuries ago. Bloody is mildly profane in the UK, but laughable in the US. One of the worst German profanities translates as “pig-dog”, which would be insulting but not obscene in English.

Of course, sometimes profane words aren’t “bad words” at all. Sometimes, they’re excellent words. It depends on context.

In addition to these high-stakes word-choice issues, we have various shibboleths. Most people think that this sentence is grammatically incorrect.

There’s three people at the door.

Is it? Well, Shakespeare would have said no. If “is” must agree with the pronoun “there”, it checks out. “There”, in this context, is shorthand for “What is there”, which is always singular. “To be” can cross from singular to plural and there’s no consistent agreement on which side wins. Usually, it’s the prior/left side with which the verb must agree:

I found out that “she” was actually three people working shifts.

So, “there is three people at the door” is, although non-standard, defensible.

I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, so I frequently catch myself saying “Are you coming with?” instead of “Are you coming with me?” or “Are you coming along?” Prepositions are weird animals that make up their own rules and don’t transfer well across languages. Why is along better than with? It’s arbitrary.

Another Central Pennsylvania usage that is frequently called wrong: “needs fixed” as opposed to “needs to be fixed”. How bad is it, really? It saves two words and communicates the same idea. On that note, let’s talk about a word-saving usage that is without controversy but was probably considered wrong at one point: the modal verb used to.

I used to cook.

This is a fine, grammatically correct sentence. Everyone knows what it means. But, it probably made grammarians twitch at one point. It looks colloquial, imprecise, and incorrect, because used to has nothing to do with used or to.

If I had to guess, the used to modal verb came from the wordier “I am used to”, where used is a past participle and “am” is the archaic device where “to be” instead of “to have” is used for the tense (e.g. “I am come”, “she is gone”, “he is dead”; two of those live on as adjectives and are rarely thought of as participles). In Shakespeare’s time, you would say “I am born in 1983” rather than “I was born”. This still lives on in some of the Romance languages. I’d imagine that “I used to cook” is a shortening of “I have been used [for] cooking”. It’s politely servile in a way that, like “my lord”, is now anachronistic.

For another interesting note, many people believe that “will and shall” is a dead distinction. It’s not. It lives on, but with less rigidity. The contraction forms (“I’ll”, “he’ll”) are descendants of shall most of the time. People still say “I will” when they mean (according to the older rules) will and use the contraction when they mean shall. “I will go to the store tomorrow.” “If they can’t cure me, I’ll die.” There are exceptions, the most notable one being when people de-contract for imperative emphasis: “you will show up on time”. The commanding shall tends to be de-contracted to use will, while the matter-of-fact neutral shall (which was far more common than the commanding usage) is left contracted (“I’ll be at home tomorrow”).

Don’t try to argue that contractions are incorrect either. That’s bullshit. Shakespeare used more than we do today. Contractions are excellent.

At any case, when I talk about shitty writing, I’m not talking about “different than” or “try and” or even “towards”. Even “irregardless” is embarrassing, but it doesn’t really block communication or bore the reader or spawn undesirable resentments. It has two extra letters and it’s ugly, but people know what’s meant. I couldn’t care less about it. (Yes, that was intentional.)

For extra fun, let’s take “Where are you at?” Some people hate this. In the right place, it’s excellent. The at is superfluous, but it’s a jab. It isn’t uneducated; it’s exasperated. It’s jarring, but it’s supposed to be. There’s impatience in that usage.

Dangerous Good Writing and Rhetoric

There’s an amusing sub-category of writing that I’d like to talk about. There are places where good writing is more dangerous than shitty writing. Corporate America is one such place. For one thing, you might still get in trouble for using a contraction in a corporate memo. You don’t want a human touch; you want formality and stiffness.

It has come to our attention that you have been viewing inappropriate material during working hours. Under these circumstances, we cannot continue your employment.

Change “cannot” to “can’t”, and you add a slight bit of human touch. In this firing letter, though, that’s exactly what shouldn’t be there. The adverse decision must be presented as impersonal, civilized, and inevitable. You say “can’t” when you want to come across as a vulnerable human; you say “cannot” when you want to suggest an objective limitation that is out of your control.

One of the biggest differences between corporate writing and real writing is in the role of passive versus active voice. English teachers hate passive voice and strike it out with red ink. They’re right, if they’re teaching people to be writers. Novels are slowed the fuck down by passive voice. The ball being thrown by John puts focus in the wrong place, unless the narrator is a cat, because the cat’s eyes are glued to that ball. (You thought they were in the sockets, didn’t you?) Yet, in business writing, the passive voice is often mandatory. Use active voice, especially around the pronoun I, and you sound like you’re trying to be an impatient executive. If you’re not an executive, you can get in trouble for that.

Shitty writing thrives in the corporate world, and it’ll never go away. Executives can use active voice, but most people are not executives and will need to acquire bad habits if they want to be employable.

Let’s talk about rhetoric. This is such an abused word today. So many people complain about “politicians and their rhetoric” with a note of vomit on that last word. What is rhetoric? It can be quite beautiful. I use it all over the place, and most people do, often without realizing it. Rhetoric is the art of designed speech or writing. Thought was put into it, to make it more clear, persuasive, or invigorating. Marc Antony keeps coming back to “Brutus is an honorable man”, assassinating his character with the repetition. Parallelism (“see the sights, hear the sounds, smell the odors”) is rhetoric. It can be odious, or it can work very well. Some of its rules are odd but work, such as the principle of threes (tricolon). “Friends, Romans, countrymen” is far more effective with three synonyms than two or four. Why? I don’t know. There are many plausible theories, but no one really knows what is magical about three but not four.

Rhetoric has an aesthetic purpose and a voice. You can inflate yourself, or show humility, or form a sense of commonality. (“Who among us has not sinned?”) You can use the imperative mood liberally. Sometimes, you break rules or even use multiple layers of meaning. “Now is the winter of our discontent” is a great example. Let’s look at Richard III’s original speech:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Contrary to how the opening line is remembered, Richard wasn’t declaring it to be the winter of discontent. In fact, he was saying that the sun/son of York, Edward IV, had ended it. Of course, as a Lancastrian, he hated Edward. So, Richard cleverly speaks well of Edward in a way that’s amenable to being taken out of context.

To see how hard this is to pull off, note what changes with the truncation. In the original form, he’s using “Now” to justify a word-order inversion that occurs in conditional statements, i.e. “Only after eating your vegetables may you have dessert.” He’s therefore saying that the winter of discontent is over. But, truncate it at the first line, and the function of “is” changes. In the full passage, “Now” modifies “is” to suggest progression (rather than equality, the usual function of to be verbs): the winter of discontent is over, and has been made glorious summer. (This also exists in computer science statements; X = X + 1 is invalid mathematics but an assignment statement, valid under a progressive interpretation of “=”.) After the truncation, “is” becomes the regular equality statement and “Now” becomes not a modifier but an operand. He’s equating “Now” to the “winter of our discontent”, and the meaning becomes opposite to what he’s formally saying. It’s brilliant.

There’s a beauty to rhetoric, but it injects a personal voice, and persuasive desire. It reminds the audience that there is a speaker. This is also an area where many fiction writers fail. Should a novelist use rhetoric? Yes. But, in general, it should be that of the character. (Omniscient POV, I won’t cover here.) Otherwise, it becomes author intrusion. Impressing readers with cumbersome locutions went out style almost two centuries ago. It can still pass, but only when narrating in a certain kind of character that is so tedious in real life that it takes exceptional work to pull it off. Ignatius Reilly comes to mind.

In corporate prose, the objective is not a specific voice but no voice. The machine is supposed to look like a machine. Why? Because it’s not a machine. Every decision that “it” makes has human motivations behind it, but often those are socially unacceptable, and the people making those decisions are often self-serving scumbags. Therefore, corporations have to create an objective, mechanical voice that hides their true intentions. “I’m firing half of you and putting the budget into my ‘performance’ bonus” will get an executive’s car set on fire. Instead, it’s “Due to difficult business conditions, we have been forced into an uncomfortable blah blah bullshit blah.”

It’s a fun experiment to switch up and use active voice in business communication. I enjoy it. However, I’m also insane. You’ll be surprised how many people find that they “just don’t like him” (or her) where “him” (or her) equals you.

There are times, like switches of magnetic poles, when these expectations invert. For example, Donald Trump used a limited vocabulary and coarse style, presenting his more prepared, polished rival as “establishment” and therefore phony. She wasn’t. Her speaking style wasn’t corporate. It was precise, as you’d expect from a politics wonk. Trump managed to turn her style, which would usually be more authoritative and therefore superior, into a negative… and a lot of people “just didn’t like her”. (Okay, 90 percent of “just don’t like her” was sexism, just as the corporate world uses “culture fit” to justify its own sexism and racism; but the other 10 was an unforeseen switch in the rhetorical expectations of politicians.) In the corporate world, there are times of crisis in which active voice becomes preferable. In times of acute crisis, no one wants to hear “It has come to my attention”.

Corporate writing is also deliberately slow. This is because 95 percent of corporate writing exists to tell people why actions adverse to their interests have been taken. Good news is delivered verbally. Bad news is delivered in writing using templates of boring, cover-your-ass prose that unfolds slowly. Take this generic form rejection letter:

Dear Candidate,

Thank you for your interest in the position of Associate Hitman for the Global Company. We had a number of highly qualified candidates for this opening, and unfortunately we will not be moving forward with your application at this time. We wish you the best of luck with your job search.

Aside from the obvious bit of information (“no”) there is no information content, but the slow rolling is an expected bit of politeness. The passive voice encourages the recipient (*cough* rejectee) not to take the news personally, not that it matters if he does.

Shitty Writing

What is shitty writing and where does it come from? This is hard to answer.

Let’s talk about weeds. See, weeds don’t really exist. It’s not a botanical term. It’s a word that humans made up for plants they don’t like, or that are in the wrong part of the garden. It’s the same with writing and speech. Passive voice is expected in corporate communication. Never say “do” when you can say “deliver”. Always add authority to what you’re saying with the prefix, “At the end of the day”. That’s shitty writing, though. Let’s be honest about it. Outside of the intentionally soulless context of office writing, no one with a soul uses “deliver” intransitively unless talking about food. Pizza Hut delivers. If you’re a programmer, you write code. If you “deliver solutions”, then fuck off and die.

Much shitty writing comes from the mismatch of styles. Office writing should be adverb-heavy and verbose and, most importantly, that it must be be non-committal enough to allow exits and bland enough to be safe even when read half-heartedly and taken (either by negligence or malice) out of context. For a contrast, fiction should be punchy. Characters should do things. It should rain. John should not “come to a point at which life processes cannot continue”; he should die. Different styles. Fragments OK. Adverbs are acceptable in fiction when they add precision but very bad when used for emphasis, insofar as they diminish authority, unless of course the author wants a less reliable narrator. If I sound inconsistent and full of myself, that’s because there are no rules. But, there are styles. Some work and some don’t.

The simplest kinds of bad writing (grammar errors, misspelled words) will tank an office memo or a novel, but for entirely different reasons. In the office memo, they add character that is not wanted. They suggest that an errant human, rather than the mechanical beast that is the company, wrote the memo. For the novel, readers want a human writer. There, the issue is that bad grammar slows the reader down. Not by much, I’ll point out. Reading is about 20 percent slower for the worst kinds of misspelled or grammatically awful writing as opposed to crisp, good writing. It might feel slower, in the same way that driving 50 mph on a 70 mph road feels like crawling, but it’s usually 10 to 20 percent. Now, in an office memo, that 20% difference wouldn’t matter, because office writing is supposed to be slow, vapid, and imperious with the reader’s time. It can kill a novel, though. If you write a 100,000-word novel in 120,000 words, you’re dead unless you’re an exceptional belletrist. Agents and editors have a hair-trigger sense of wasted words and for good reason; they suggest other weaknesses in the writing (or story) that are more subtle and require a long form read (which agents don’t have the time for) to pick out. Small differences, information-theoretic margins of a few percent, make the difference between best-seller and perma-slush. If you’re a novelist, you want to have few grammatical errors because they slow the reader down with unimportant details… not because you’re trying to achieve a mechanical aesthetic. We get to the same general rule (“use good grammar most of the time”) along two very different paths.

Similarities between those two styles end there, though. Active voice or passive? Active for fiction, passive for office. How about rhetorical questions? Okay for a novel (suggestive of inner dialogue) but inadmissible in office prose. When can you break the rules? Even stiff business writing (which invented the non-word synergize) breaks rules of good writing all the time, but you have know exactly which rules you can break.

A good novel convinces the reader to suspend disbelief and invest her time and emotional energy in a 100,000-word account of events that never happened. The promise is that this story, technically a lie, will tell a deeper truth than many of our actual experiences. It’s hard to convince a reader of one’s authorial stature; there are many who try, but don’t merit it. Rhetoric is a big part of that.

Business writing is anti-rhetorical. In part, it wants voicelessness because the American business environment is so militantly anti-intellectual, and voice is something that most businessmen can’t hack. (So, get it out of here! Burn it with fire!) Corporate writing is bland because bland writing doesn’t make middling minds insecure. The fiction writer must convince a reader to read the next thousand words of prose. She must motivate her readers to continue with the difficult activity of staring at patterns made with chemicals on decaying plant matter. Business writing, for a contrast, tries to remove convincing and the reader and the writer; everything must dissolve, and this document must be accepted as objective truth, freshly printed by the machine, with nothing that suggests voice or character because those introduce the subjective and intimidate the less intelligent.

Rhetoric, done well, can be beautiful. Almost every well-remembered line of prose or poetry had some rhetorical device, perhaps used subconsciously, behind it. Hemingway’s deliberate use of short, bare sentences (the man was not limited, and wrote some great long ones, too) is what rhetoricians call parataxis. It worked very well for him. Is all rhetoric good, though? No. In fact, much of the shitty writing that comes from competent grammarians and orthographers, who’ve mastered the basics but still inflict low-quality prose on us all, is… badly-deployed rhetoric.

Rhetoric tends to have music to it, and music is repetitive. Repetition can be obnoxious. Or, it can be memorable. Rhyming, in poetry and song, probably became fashionable for purely practical reasons: it made it easier for actors to remember their lines precisely. Rhyme and rhetoric have the same effect on readers. They make words and phrases memorable and quotable. That can work very well, or it can fail.

Let’s explore diacope. What’s diacope? It’s when you use a word or phrase twice, with an intervening element.

 It is what it is.

“Love,” she said. “Love.”

Tom only cares about what is good for Tom.

“You got me! Oh, you better believe you got me.”

“Bond. James Bond.”

There’s a “rule” of grammar or style that is not really a rule about never repeating words. (See how I repeated “rule”, and it worked?) Most languages can’t afford this, but English has a ridiculous number of words and so a lot of people go to ridiculous extents to avoid repetition. (That repetition of “ridiculous” didn’t work quite as well.) This aversion to repeated words can lead to actual errors, e.g. “amount” as a synonym for “number”, which is it of course not. The truth is: repeating words can be very powerful. Or, it can be clunky. It depends on what word is repeated and how it is used. It draws emphasis. You actually can start twenty sentences in a row with “I”. You should do that if you want to write a self-centered character in first-person. You can tell that if you’re telling a single-person, direct story. You shouldn’t do that if you don’t know what you’re doing, though.

If you say, “She had a blue coat, a blue hat, and blue shoes”, you are drawing attention to “blue”. This may or may not be (fun tautology, there) what you want. It depends on context. Let’s say that it’s not what you want, and that this emphasis of blue is undesirable. Changing her hat to “azure” and shoes to “cerulean” isn’t going to fix the problem. It’ll make it worse.

Rhetoric is memorable. It’s catchy. It sticks out and can make a line memorable. Sometimes, it’s great writing. And, sometimes, it’s absolute shite. Bad writers often don’t the difference. It can be hard, because it’s usually contextual, the determination of whether a rhetorical device is useful and when it’s jarring or ugly. In fiction, it can depend on the character who is narrating. Some people have cliché minds and would totally narrate like this:

At the end of the day, Erika just wasn’t delivering. It was time to give her the axe. He would have to speak with the team about it on Monday, after the dust had settled. Next week, the team would need to fire on all cylinders.

If your POV character is a soulless corporate drone destined to plateau in middle management, that’s great writing. If you want the reader not to wish for your POV character to die in a copier fire, then it’s poor writing.

For this reason, it’s very hard to come up with snippets of bad writing. For anything that I can point at and say, “That’s bad writing”, there is a context in which it would be good writing. It takes a few hundred words to really know, and yet there’s a point where it becomes obvious. As in Jacobellis v. Ohio, I know it when I see it. Sometimes, the sin is author intrusion: a writer trying too hard to push a message or just trying too hard to be clever. Sometimes, it’s an introduction of one style or form into another that doesn’t work. It could be too many styles (flipping back and forth between business cruft writing and journalistic prose) or it could be the lack of one.

I think rhetoric is often at the core of it, though. Rhetoric accentuates. It adds a musical dimension. When used well, it’s powerful. When used sloppily, it’s terrible. Most people aren’t aware when they’re using it. That, I think, is the problem.

Overfitting

I’m going to bring in a concept from machine learning, which is overfitting. Machine learning, broadly speaking, is the attempt to simulate decisions considered intelligent (that is, those that traditionally required an expensive carbon-based organism instead of a machine to perform them) such as image recognition by turning it into a hard math problem that, while impossible without data (or, as we say, a priori) becomes tractable given massive data sets, a few well-studied algorithms from operations research, and time. Explicitly programming a computer to recognize hand-written characters would be so time-consuming and error-prone (there are about a hundred thousand characters in the Unicode standard) that it wouldn’t be worth doing; it’s better to train a machine to learn from millions of labeled examples.

Of course, the machine isn’t actually intelligent. It’s just doing a very complex rote computation involving lots of data, and it can easily infer things that aren’t true. Incidental artifacts can be incorporated into the model. Let’s say that an agent is being trained to recognize men from women based on facial photographs, but that the men’s and women’s pictures are taken in separate rooms with different lighting. Then, the machine might learn that men have brighter faces. It isn’t true, but the machine doesn’t know that. It’s very easy to build a machine learning system that learns everything about its training set, but does so by incorporating incidental artifacts of the data that don’t represent the real world, and therefore performs poorly on new cases. That’s called overfitting.

How does it apply to writing? Well, when we write, we draw on what stuck with us as readers. Those lines tend to be rhetorical. Behind most memorable lines is a rhetorical device. If these devices taken into a context where they don’t belong, they fail. If they’re overused, they’re just clichés, even if they worked when originally deployed. They’re also hard to modify without breaking. Let me give a famous example, from A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

This is a great opening line. You can’t use it, because it’s been done. Now, let me just show how sensitive that line is to something that most of us don’t think about: inflection.

Let’s assume that the language English’ (pronounced “English-Prime”) is exactly like ours but with the words “best” and “worst” swapped in meaning. Nothing else changes. Now, in English’, could you start off with this? It would mean the same thing.

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times (English’)

I would say no. Here’s why. Even though “worst” in English’ means “best” in our English, you’re now inflecting downward, because that’s how the line is read. “It was the woooorst.” Bass. Hear those vibrations in “worst”? Then, you have “it was the best of times”, with the treble of “best”, but in a language where “best” is negative. What worked as an expository note on contradictory indicators at a time in history is, instead, made dissonant and sarcastic.

Actually, in English’, the words “best” and “worst” would be likely to fade for the same reason that “pulchritudinous” (a not-beautiful word meaning “beautiful”) has become uncommon.

In English’, the same exact opening line wouldn’t work and it has nothing to do with the words or their meanings, but with how we say them. What makes that line work is an artifact of English, in the same way that “veni vidi vici” exploits a Latin artifact for alliteration, but becomes the clunky tricolon “I came, I saw, I conquered” in English.

Bad writing, then, I would argue to be a form of overfitting. It’s when one takes an example of good writing, learns the rhetorical device, but ignores the artifacts that make it work. This is an error that we’ve all made. We take what’s memorable and don’t fully know why (when we’re inexperienced or immature and still figuring things out) and misuse it. The result is rhetoric out of place, often deployed without cognizance.

In my experience, as one who wrote a few million words of it before I wrote anything good, bad writing tends to be either inscrutable or too-obvious in its intentions. The obvious cases are the trying-too-hard examples. If someone goes into hard-core hypotaxis and drops 265 words to describe a character waking up and having breakfast, that’s archaic because people don’t write like that anymore. It may have been impressive in a time when books were so expensive and rare that you read every one you got your hands on, but in 2017, the reader feels that her time was wasted, and she goes off and starts something else. The inscrutable often comes from imprecision. A rhetorical device goes off, but it’s not clear whether it was meant to be there, or whether it planted itself via memetic infection and writer overfitting. Or, to be less pretentious about the whole thing, it’s “Did she mean to repeat that word, or was she in a loop?” I wrote a short story in high school where I used the word auspicious seven times in 2,900 words, and used ostensibly as a “smarter” synonym for obviously. Yuck.

On that, misuse of a “big” or “educated” word is just unforgivably terrible. It’s the penultimate sin of writing.

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6 thoughts on “Crossing the Equator 7: What Is Bad Writing?

  1. There is not a pronoun. It is an adverb modifying where the man is insofar as the man is there. In other words, the sentence “there is a man” is an inverted sentence, which produces an odd case in the English language.

    • It’s actually debated which part of speech “there” is. For “There is a man”, many people would agree. But you have other sentences where “there” refers not to place but existence, i.e. “there’s no fraction whose square is 2”. That’s not an inverted sentence in the classical sense. Because you wouldn’t say “No fraction whose square is 2 exists there”, because there is no “there”.

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