We’ve all seen bad writing. And I don’t just mean a piece that could use another draft; I’m talking about legitimate eyesores. Stuff that makes you (me) think, “This writing is problematic.”
What exactly is bad writing? I won’t get too into it, but for the purpose of this essay, these are the red flags to keep in mind:
Essentially, it’s what you’d expect; it’s just plain bad. And before anything else, I’d like to take a look at why it exists.
We’ll start with the easy case: maybe the writer is new to writing. It’s a skill that takes practice, which is something they might not have yet.
Note: Because we’ll to be referring to a good-natured writer and a writer who’s a jackass, I’ve decided to steal the names Goofus and Gallant.
Now, in a thread similar to the easy case, maybe Gallant is trying something new. Maybe he usually writes drama, but decided to try his hand at comedy. Maybe he’s a fan of Hemingway’s blunt, repetitive, painful-to-read-for-more-than-a-paragraph sentence structure, but wanted to go for something more possible for human beings to enjoy. Even for an experienced writer, venturing into new territory can lead to challenges that they weren’t prepared for.
Alternatively, maybe the bad writing is just Goofus having fun. There’s a good chance that some Goofus or another is responsible for any low-effort trollfics you might see. So just keep in mind, not everyone is trying to create a masterpiece with everything they write—even if that’s how you approach your own writing.
Here’s where the “In Defense” part of this essay’s title comes in. Starting again with the easy case: maybe Gallant really is trying to get better. And odds are that although his story may be severely flawed, it isn’t physically hurting anybody. Well, aside from some mild headaches from applying so much facepalm.
Moving on to a more specific case: maybe Goofus enjoys producing bullshit, and maybe he has an audience who enjoys reading it. If you don’t believe such an arrangement can exist, I have one name for you: ComicsNix. This man is an artist, and his medium is fanfiction. And if you look at the comments on any of his stories, you’ll see there are people who absolutely adore him.
So if Gallant is still working on getting better, then he’s already working on fixing his own bad writing. And if Goofus is shit but everybody is happy about it anyways, then hey, there’s really nothing to be too upset over.
Unfortunately, here’s where the “Some” part of this essay’s title comes in. Let’s revisit the easy case one last time: Gallant is bad because he’s new, but he’s trying to get better. So we don’t get mad at him. But, a problem arises when Gallant finds himself with an audience who doesn’t speak up about bad writing.
This is a frequent problem with Wattpad and similar “communities.”
I put communities in passive-aggressive quotes because nine times out of ten, Wattpad is as much of a community as r/CircleJerk. See Awk’s essay on crowdsourced critique, which tangentially relates to this tangent. Essentially, very few people on Wattpad/FanFiction.net/FictionPress actually get to know each other, and very few people are interested in changing that.
Fortunately, r/ShutUpAndWrite has minimized this problem. A community actually exists here outside of sharing stories; there are discussion threads, events like W3, and a chatroom available 24/7. Not to mention, a rep system that encourages you to review other people’s stories, instead of only expecting others to review yours. Ten out of ten, would subscribe again.
Back to the point: many Gallants of Wattpad are afraid of being mean, so if they don’t like a story, they won’t comment to explain why. And, many Goofuses on Wattpad actually enjoy amateur-style writing, because as it turns out, that’s what the Goofuses are writing too. But regardless of the reasons for it, these communities have a staggering tendency to produce blind praise. And there are two problems with that.
Problem 1: No Really, Tell Me What I Can Fix
Blind praise creates an environment where useful feedback withers and dies. Destructive criticism is mean, and constructive criticism is just the critic not appreciating the writer’s brilliance. If not in the eyes of the writer, then at least in the eyes of some other reviewers.
To the writer who wants to get better, not having useful feedback is like being lost in the woods with a map and no compass. You can still figure out where you are and where you need to be, it just takes longer, requires more effort, and is generally a pain.
Problem 2: Shut Up Flamers, Everyone Else Thinks My Story Is Perfect
Maybe the writer is a Gallant, and is trying to get better. Or, maybe they were a Gallant trying to get better, but then everybody told them they were perfect in every way, and eventually this Gallant had no choice but to believe it. So there, mission accomplished, Gallant has been perfect all this time and he never even realized.
Now somebody comes along and mentions that there’s a problem with Gallant’s story. Outraged, Gallant tells this critic to fuck off, and continues to write in the exact same way he did before.
But wait—this is no longer Gallant. This writer went full Goofus. And this is, perhaps, the biggest danger of being in a community devoid of negativity.
It’s happened to me before. I thought I’d written a masterpiece, and in hindsight I uh, hadn’t. It’s a long, angsty story. But whether they were Gallants trying to be nice or Goofuses who didn’t know what bad writing smelled like, people still praised my 2edgy4u wangst. Until one day, when somebody mentioned that my dialogue was punctuated wrong. Did I try to figure out whether or not they were right? Hell no. It would have taken ten seconds to google, but my immediate reaction was, “Wow, screw this guy, what does he know?”
The Answer: More than I did about punctuation.
To be fair to the site where all of this happened, they did get me hooked on writing. But I didn’t improve as a writer until hackers (who I suspect were actually me from the distant future) threatened the site’s security, and the admins decided to shut the whole place down. If I had found my niche on Wattpad instead, I might still be trapped there to this day.
To help aid the decision making process, I’ve made this handy chart.
Basically, if something covered in this essay is affecting you, do something to change it. But if you’re not the Goofus writer or the Goofus audience, then try not to worry about it too much. Try to accept that bad writing exists, remember the reasons for it, and move on with your life.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, September 2015