Saturday, 22 March 2014

How to Avoid Bad Writing – Part 1


We’ve all been guilty of bad writing at some point during our writing careers, more so at the start of our writing journey, when it’s all new and daunting and we lack the experience. In fact, bad writing is all part of that journey. We all have to write badly in order to improve and become better writers.

That said, there are many aspects of storytelling that writers still haven’t got to grips with, the kind of things that are easily rectified, but more importantly, are easily avoidable. Unfortunately, many writers just can’t be bothered to correct bad writing or, worse still, they ignorantly think it’s okay. 

Bad writing may be okay for an oblivious writer, but not for a discerning agent or publisher.

And because there are so many misdemeanours where bad writing is concerned, I’ve collated together some that I have come across from time to time while critiquing.

Sequence of Actions

Writers constantly ask me about this. It seems to foil a number of beginners, which is understandable, but more experienced writers fall foul, too. 

Once you understand the principals behind correct sentence structuring, however, the mistakes become avoidable. There are no excuses for getting this wrong.
Firstly, writers should be aware of and recognise that the fictional world differs from the real world in many different ways. One such way is the way we portray actions.
In the real world, we do several things at once – we pick up a phone to make a call while eating or moving things around a desk, while at the same time chatting to someone nearby…all done without even consciously thinking about it. These are multiple actions carried out unconsciously.
In the fictional world these multiple actions can’t take place.  I know this doesn’t make much sense, but there is a good reason why: it’s because of the way fiction is written. The structure and order of actions needs to be clear for the reader to follow, and more importantly, it needs to be sequential, rather than a jumble of actions, and especially so if they are reading about several characters in one scene, all doing various actions.
Clarity is always key to writing, and so sequence of actions are important to maintain that clarity.
The reason we don’t have characters doing a dozen things at once is to avoid lack of clarity, ambiguity, reader confusion and ultimately, bad writing, for example:
John heard the doorbell and walked over to the door and answered it with the toast halfway out of his mouth, which he was chewing, and he gestured to the woman on the front doorstep to enter, licking the butter off his fingers and moving aside to let her in...
The character is doing too much for the scene, which means the writer can’t relate these actions clearly, (not without adding a few extra paragraphs of exposition). It becomes too busy, disjointed and confusing. It’s also ambiguous.
Now compare it with a version that leaves out the nonsense and concentrates on sequential actions.
John heard the doorbell. He finished the last mouthful of toast walked over to the door and answered it. He gestured to the woman on the front doorstep to enter and moved aside to let her in…
This version is much better. It’s clear and ordered and doesn’t carry any confusion or ambiguity in the character’s actions.  His actions happen in a specific order. That’s precisely why characters should really only do one thing at a time in fiction.
Separate Your Character Actions
Another example of sentence muddling is where writers unwittingly create ambiguity with multiple actions, where actions are not clearly defined for the character. Writers must remember that characters should not do two things at once in fiction. This goes against what we do in real life and doesn’t make sense, but as already pointed out; character actions must be sequential or ordered.
For example:
Liz knew time was of the essence. She called the ambulance and drove to the hospital.
Liz managed to do two things simultaneously. She called the ambulance and drove to the hospital. While in our minds we can logically make sense of this – we understand she called the ambulance and then she drove to the hospital – but the way it is written causes confusion and ambiguity for the reader.
To avoid this, the sentence might be better structured as follows:
Liz knew time was of the essence. She called the ambulance. Afterwards, she drove to the hospital.
Here’s another example of what I see all the time.
She kissed him and raced to the door.
Again, we know she kissed him and then raced to the door, but it doesn’t read well because of the way the sentence is structured. But improving the structure brings clarity.
She kissed him. Excited, she then raced to the door.
There is one common denominator at work here – the word ‘and’. This is what causes the actions to become simultaneous. Remove the ‘and’ and rearrange the structure of a sentence and you will find the simultaneous actions will disappear, as the examples above show. By removing ‘and’ from both examples, they become clearer.
Wherever possible try to avoid simultaneous character actions, and think carefully about the sequence of character actions if you want to eliminate bad writing and improve sentence structuring.
They really are simple errors and yet so many writers still write like this.
In Parts 2 and 3 we’ll look at a few more examples of the kinds of things that lend to bad writing and ways to avoid them.

Next week: How to avoid bad writing – Part 2

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