Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bad Writing

I tried to start reading a book earlier this week, and I just couldn't get through the first half-dozen pages. It usually takes a lot for me to put down a book without giving it much of a chance, but this one destroyed many of the rules writers are told not to do. I'm not going to name the book or author, but I figured it'd be a good chance to go over some things to avoid when writing.

The first thing that screamed out at me was the banter between the two characters. The author feels the need to get some background information out to the reader, so he has the characters using the "As you know..." method. This writer doesn't come right out and have the characters start their lines with those three words of death, but the intent is the same. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it means the characters feed each other lines that are common knowledge to each other. If these characters were real, they would have no need to say these things to each other, yet there they are in the book, spewing common knowledge. It does work at getting the information to the reader, that's for sure, but it shows a lazy writer.

I also had a few other problems with word choices and techniques that forced me to put the book down. Believe it or not, some words are basically invisible to the reader, something the author can sometimes struggle with. As a writer, we are taught that we should not repeat certain words too often. Some words, however, are okay to use over and over. One of those is "said," as in showing who is speaking in dialog: "I didn't like this book," Eric said. Said can be used over and over, and it won't be overused. The sign of an amateur is one who uses describing words instead of "said." (For example, "I didn't like this book," Eric grumbled.) Even better, of course, is using action to let the reader know who is talking, and I must admit the author of this book did that quite often in the few pages I read. (An example of this is: Eric closed the book without marking his place. "I didn't like this book.") But remember that "said" is just fine. You won't lose readers over using it, while you run the risk if you substitute adjectives and other describers for it.

One other thing that jumped out at me to mark this author as a lazy writer was the use of adverbs. Adverbs can be helpful and even add something to some writings, but fiction isn't one of them. The author should find other ways to show what those adverbs are showing. If a character says something joyously, sure we get that she is thrilled, but actions and word choice would be a much better way to show this. Having said that, though, know that this isn't a deal breaker. I might not even have noticed if the other two things above hadn't grabbed me by the throat and made me look for reasons to stop reading this book. Even authors who profess that adverbs are evil in fiction have at least one or two of them in their stories (I've looked). If they are not overused, they'll go unnoticed (or might even gain power they shouldn't have), but if they're in the story often, they show amatuerism and lazyness.

Honestly (adverbs are fine for blogs, in my humble little opinion), if the characters hadn't employed the "As you know..." dialogue, the non-use of said and the adverbs wouldn't even have phased me. Once I saw the author being incredibly lazy, though, other things popped up into my consciousness. I believe this is a great lesson for me and anyone else who wants to write. You can get away with little things if bigger things are done right. Remember, a reader is more likely to put a book down after the first few pages because he or she is not invested in that story and characters yet. Deeper in, the reader will likely stick with it to see how it ends. Of course, that same reader may not be happy with the writing and may not pick up another of your books if the middle was lazy, so the lesson here, I guess, is to take the time to make sure the finished product is good all the way through. Adverbs and other lazy techniques are fine for a first draft, but make sure you get rid of them in the revision process.

That's all for today. I hope this article helped you; I know it helped focus me a bit more on the importance of strong writing. Until next time, keep reading and/or writing.