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Traits of Bad Writers - Analysing Popular Authors
I realise that this question can fall in the scope of personal opinion but I am looking for something concrete.
Very often, not only on this site but other writing related sites, I find people constantly say that certain popular authors are, in reality, bad writers. These include the likes of J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Christopher Paolini, etc. Reasons range from minor plot holes to being too verbose. However, that should not exactly be true or should rather be minor insignificant things as otherwise the authors would not have been so popular (Correct?)
And (for e.g. on this site) this is not just the opinion of just any random users of the site but those who have been long term users, whose answers have been quite insightful, i.e. those appear to know what they are talking about. I could never understand why these authors are being branded as such.
So, to make it a concrete question, What are these popular authors doing wrong (or missing from their writing) that makes them a bad writer? Or what pitfalls should a good writer avoid?
I would say mostly breaking (or more bending) the plausibility of realistic speech, realistic reaction (physical or emotional), and telling instead of showing, or using too many nods and shrugs and adverbs (he said excitedly). It is relying too heavily on some same "formula" for description or exposition, to the point it becomes noticeable.
I should note that most of their critics have not made tens of millions of dollars in their writing!
As a result, I feel it is much more important to turn your question around. Despite their shortcomings (not failures, since they are published), what are they doing right? Why do readers overlook these shortcomings and buy their books? Why do producers overlook them and turn their work into blockbuster movies?
I think the answer is, these imperfect writers concoct compelling and original plots and settings, at least for their intended audience. That is what the movie producers buy, that is what the readers are looking forward to.
The lesson from this should not be "what pitfalls to avoid", because clearly you don't have to avoid them to get published! The lesson should be "What can I do right so I don't have to be a perfect writer, and can get published with all the imperfections of a strong effort?"
The answer to that is much harder work than becoming a good technical writer: You have to invent a good original story with something about it people (most of them) have not fully imagined before. Before JK Rowling, I would not have thought of a Wizard's school that would appeal to a children's audience. Before Dan Brown, I would not have thought of Christian artifacts, statues, buildings and manuscripts of having hidden clues to a major secret being covered up by the Vatican. Both of those are genius ideas, superb stories imperfectly realized.
So if you had to choose, which would you rather have produced? A blockbuster novel riddled with examples of cringe-worthy writing, or a technically perfect tome that sells a few thousand copies?
It might be nice to have both an awesome story with a compelling plot, and expert writing, but if you have the story, then "decent" or "serviceable" writing is enough to get it published. Just look at JK Rowling or Dan Brown, both have risen from the middle class to the 0.1% on the strength of original (and captivating) imagination throughout their first efforts.
P.S. As for their critics from the ranks of professional best selling authors: JK Rowling and Dan Brown are #1 and #2 in net worth of ALL authors with about $700M each, and this is after JK Rowling has given over $100M to charitable causes. Stephen King is fifth (400M). Rowling has sold 450 million books, Stephen King 300 million. Tolkien and Dan Brown are tied at 200 million.
P.P.S. A late additional note on the idea that great marketing can create a blockbuster. I am the sole author of dozens of best selling ads; brochures, coupons, ten page direct mail letters, full page newspaper and magazine ads that ran for years, getting two to four times the national average response rates. I know something about marketing. Check out this short Wiki link on Diffusion of Innovation, particularly on that page The Adopter Categories which are shown in order.
The summary argument is that most people in a potential audience, about 85%, will not buy a new product without a trusted recommendation from somebody else. Ads and paid celebrity endorsement are selling primarily to a small minority percentage of the audience, they only work for the rest if they get a trusted recommendation from a source they consider unbiased, which generally requires the source to be an unpaid friend or other social contact, or a professional critic that they believe does not sell their good recommendations.
Thus, it is effectively impossible for Marketing to create a best seller out of a book that is not very entertaining to actual readers, even excellent ad writing and production isn't going to cover the gap of "word of mouth" marketing. Innovators (which would include critics) and perhaps very Early Adopters may buy the book because of the ad, they are willing to take the risk on a new author or new style, they can afford to buy a bad book and laugh it off and drop it in the trash. But most of us are wary of ads and stingy with our time and money. So we count on first readers (including critics whose reputation is at stake) saying, "Buy this book," or "I just read a great new author." Marketing can light a fuse, but the fuse fizzles out if the First Readers are disappointed, or start a negative buzz.
Marketing is similar to a free video that goes viral on social media and gets 100K views. Even though they are free, 99.9% of videos never get there, because they evoke no strong visceral reaction (positive would be laughter or surprised astonishment or disbelief at some feat, negative would be horror or anger or empathetic pain). Without that strong reaction few people feel compelled to share it, and the virus fizzles.
A heavily marketed book works the same way, but the threshold of "visceral reaction" before passing it along is much higher for the first readers than even a free video, because now money is at stake, and we don't tell our friends (or fans) to spend money unless we are pretty sure they will be glad they did. We don't want to be known for making lame recommendations.
On the flip side, even if we love our friends (or celebrities) we ignore the buying recommendations of those that have fizzled out on us too often.
The route to a blockbuster is a chain reaction of free word of mouth when most readers are "moved" in some way and believe their friends will be moved, too. Marketing is necessary but not enough on its own: Content must have delivered on the promise. It is "original" content in my view, else some previous published work would have evoked the visceral reactions needed to fuel the viral sharing and complete the chain reaction. Then the previous similar work would have dominated the market.
P.P.P.S. A note on "viral marketing" due to a comment below. It is possible an advertisement has all the qualities to go viral. We have all seen great commercials that made us laugh, or had a great jingle or dance, or a twist ending. It isn't easy to pull off, but it happens, the ad does something creative and memorable and worth passing along. So if it is easy to pass along we might do that, or at least mention it.
But ads are free, and it still doesn't make us buy the product being advertised. Sometimes we can't even remember the product being advertised! (Which brings up the conundrum: If an ad is memorable, but you cannot recall the brand it was selling, is it good entertainment but a bad ad that didn't do its job?)
A viral advertisement creates a lot of free air time, and that should increase exposure and sales to Innovators (the few that don't need a recommendation). The ad might prompt the rest of us to inquire about the product it is selling and seek a recommendation. But even a viral ad will not magically take away the need for a recommendation from the 85% that won't buy without a positive review. A viral ad (free, short and easy to share via a link to a video or image) will not result in blockbuster sales of a product people don't like.
That includes a book that is boring or not worth the money or time to read it. Especially if the Innovators that can afford the time and money to buy it with no recommendation then tell people it isn't as good as the ad makes it look. Bad word of mouth is passed along ten times more readily than good word of mouth.
That differential is because it is always worth saving your friends time and money, and complaint is your reward in a way, a bit of vengeance for feeling ripped off, and your friends (if you are not a constant complainer) will appreciate the heads up, even if they decide to spend the money anyway: Nobody blames you if you thought something was terrible and said so.
On the other hand, it is always a risk to recommend anything to your friends that will cost them time and money if they don't like it. It indicates you don't know their tastes very well, and it can feel to both of you like you have made a mistake and they would have been better off if you had just not said anything. So unless the enthusiasm is very high, most of us do exactly that: We don't volunteer information about "okay" products we tried, and if asked about something that did not produce a great experience we tend to tone down whatever enthusiasm we DO have and offer tepid endorsements. "I kind of liked it, but it may not be for everybody..."
Viral marketing is very effective if it advertises an equally good product. It can backfire if it advertises an imperfect product, the popularity of the ad can mean people rush to **dis-**endorse the product, to do their friends a favor by warning them about a rip-off. Thus, it is not a route to turning a mediocre book into a blockbuster.
Put another way, viral marketing can increase the amount of talk about your product, but you have no control over the content of that talk in texts, tweets, emails, reviews, blogs, comments and up/down votes on the sales venues. You may be amplifying harsh criticisms.
Since you mention Rowling, let's talk about criticism of Harry Potter.
- Harold Bloom complained about "clichés and dead metaphors". A S Byatt spoke of "intelligently patchworked derivative motifs", and described the books as "written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip". Byatt's complaints clearly overlap with Bloom's, but also speak to how the works could be flawed yet popular: the "problem" may be appealing to certain features of modern readers Byatt dislikes.
- Such criticism may smack of elitism (and Charles Tayor has objected to Byatt's take on this), as may Sameer Rahim's complaint about how it's no Oliver Twist. But the argument that Rowling's work isn't as original as it's cracked up to be doesn't, and comes from not only Bloom and Byatt but also (as you'll see in that link) Michael Rosen and Usula K Le Guin. Of course, "it's unoriginal" isn't necessarily a good criticism. Works always use old tropes, but it's what they do with them that counts.
- Meanwhile, Stephen King has said, "Rowling's never met an adverb she did not like" (but let's not revisit here the are-adverbs-all-that-bad debate frequently seen on writing.se). Funnily enough, statistician Ben Blatt has shown "good" authors such as Stephen King don't use fewer adverbs; they use fewer -ly adverbs. King, unfortunately, is prone to misspeak on these issues.
I'm sure you can not only dig up but also assess analogous complaints about other successful authors; I'll leave that to you. I'll just mention some trivia on the is-Rowling-original front. For reasons that are probably beyond sociology's understanding, several UK authors had near-identical HPish ideas in the 1990s. It wasn't plagiarism; there was just something in the culture that was ready for this story. That's probably why it sold so well.
But how can "bad" writers be popular? Is the rabble just ignorant of what the good stuff looks like? Well, we can offer a less ivory-tower way of thinking about it than that. If you ever watch a Cinema Sins video criticising a film you like, you'll realise there are countless kinds of things you could judge a work for but usually don't. (If you do, the problem may not so much be the aspect you complain about as the fact you were bored enough to spot it.) There are, let's say, a thousand things to judge a work on, and everyone cares about each one to a greater or lesser or no extent, and you could easily be too hard on a work or not hard enough on some front. With everyone's calibration unique, there are bound to be individual works a large percentage of people assess poorly.
There are many rules of writing. They're worth learning, not so much to stick to rigidly as to make an informed decision as a writer. (What effect, for example, do you have on readers when you use a said-bookism?) I recommend reading a few guides to see what it does for your writing style. Don't let the lesson here be, "Given how much money these people made, I needn't worry about X". The lesson should be, "They had the right qualities, or at least the right luck, to compensate, but don't unnecessarily hinder yourself."
The novel is one of the most complex pieces of art that humans create, and the enjoyment of novels can be based on many different characteristics. Without trying to be exhaustive, we could distinguish these five elements in a novel that may satisfy readers to different degrees:
- Prose: the ability to put words together well
- Storytelling: the ability to spin a good yarn
- Theme: at the right moment, anything about vampires will sell
- Politics: affirming the prejudices of the audience
- Truth: presenting an authentic and honest portrait of human life
Under the right circumstances, a novel can prosper on one of these alone. It it can hit the middle three, it has a very good chance of doing well. Many of the best selling authors who are criticized for bad writing will fall into this category: a good story on a popular theme that affirms popular prejudices. Both Rowling and King would certainly fall into this category, as would most of the best seller list.
And all of these writers can be justly criticised both of a lack of good prose style and for a lack of truth. Both of which faults can justly be described as "bad writing".
You are pretty much never going to find a book that has all five. It will be a rare occasion and a rare book that will be both political and true, for instance.
It is probably fair to say that the average reader does not care very much about prose style, and cares even less about truth. But over time, as politics and popular themes change, it is the books that are great prose, wonderful stories, and profoundly true that will emerge as great classics. (And this is why neither Rowling nor King will be classics, however popular they may be in their day.)
I recently read a good article called "Teaching Bad Writing" by Paul Williams on how to get students to recognize it, not to mention emotionally accept that their favourite authors lack certain qualities.
One of the suggestions is to study an author's style and then emulate and exaggerate it. As you try to capture the nuances of their voice, he says, you get a sense of what works and what doesn't.
He also offers the advice that teachers relinquish authority over what good and bad writing is, and prefer "effective" vs. "ineffective". J.K. Rowling is obviously an effective writer, accomplishing what she had in mind better than most people with the same aim — even if writers and critics of literary fiction find her craftsmanship lacking.
As for concrete criteria, I'll offer some speculative ones based on writing, editing, and teaching. Generally ineffective writing...
Lacks simplicity. Overwrought writing is wearying. Don't be Amanda McKittrick Ros with her "faultless fabrics of flaxen fineness". And if a writer has trouble distinguishing that phraseology from Shakespeare's, he should probably focus on strengths other than poeticness.
Lacks subtlety. Being too on-the-nose with your message alerts the reader to the didacticism and they dismiss it. Conveying a message indirectly, making it slightly hard to grasp, or telling it through imagery tend to make it hit harder.
Lacks clarity. On the other hand, writing that deliberately obfuscates its meaning is also unattractive. (That said, critics often warm to a challenge. Take Ulysses, for example.)
Lacks specificity. Writing about the end of the world is often less compelling than writing about the breakdown of a family. This is a point Williams makes.
Lacks originality. This ties into the specificity point in that specific stories are more likely to be unique. Also, the use of your own clear voice tends to add uniqueness. For this reason, derivative works can be original. Wide Sargasso Sea is perhaps more original than Jane Eyre.
Lacks a voice. Speaking of voice, if it's impossible to make a good guess as to the author of a given piece of writing (even with natural language processing techniques!), it's probably weak. Note that this criterion demonstrates the value of using "effective" rather than "good". Sometimes nonfiction is better when the author disappears behind the message, for example.
Lacks intentionality. A poetry professor once told me that the semicolon has no place in poetry. We've all heard similar injunctions: Avoid to be, avoid adverbs, avoid repetitive sentence structures, etc. But the truth is that the only rule about such things is: Know what you're doing and why. Writing that doesn't come out of such a knowledge appears random. Intent precedes control, which precedes style.
Lacks a guiding vision. This is my own weakest area. I can write lovely sentences that don't seem to add up to anything, or anything of value. Note that overuse of subtlety can make it hard to tell whether a piece has no guiding vision or it's just hard to see. But writing that has a vision, disguised or perceptible, will cohere and feel right. This is probably the aspect that rewriting changes most.
Lacks an ear for the natural. Even though we don't write as we speak, somehow our prose can still ring false! This happens most often in dialogue. You must be able to say it out loud.
Lacks humour. Humour is not the same as comedy, but is the willingness to see the world as funny. Even in the most solemn situations one can have that. Also, the more serious the thing you need to say, the more appropriate it is to make the audience laugh first. Ineffective writing treats laughter as having no place in serious stories and vice versa.
Lacks beauty. This may be old-fashioned of me, but I always look for the phrase that makes me pause and reread, that lodges itself in my mind because it's worded so perfectly. A little edge of strangeness often contributes a great deal to beauty, as it does to humour (another way the two are cousins). "This was the most unkindest cut of all..."
Most of these qualities interact, and some are even in conflict — in which case we can add that ineffective writing lacks balance. But I hope this is a more or less comprehensive matrix you can apply to writing to help pinpoint what might make it "bad".
Is there bad writing that is popular? Many people would argue yes. Is there good writing that is popular? Maybe the numbers agreeing aren't so large.
What is good writing and what is bad writing? Do we mean literary fiction and popular fiction? What then do we mean by literary fiction?
Perhaps an analogy will serve to clarify the issue: classical music versus popular music. I think, quite reasonably, some people rate Bach and Handel as being better than most popular music. The two named composers wrote some amazing works that have stood the test of time. Many popular tunes last just a very short time. Combined with considerations about form, harmony, etc. this leads some people to say that all popular music is rubbish and all classical music is good. However, this isn't true. Some 'classical' music isn't very good and some popular music is good -- depending on how you define good.
Just because the public at large like it doesn't make it good or bad. Just because writers competing for the same market don't like it, doesn't make it good or bad.
The fourth book of one phenomenally popular author contained punctuation errors and hadn't been properly edited -- that seems unforgiveable, but people still read and loved the book. A film was made of it.
Plot holes are not just a problem with modern popular fiction. Consider the basic premise and plot of 'Twelfth Night'. Shakespeare isn't regarded as just 'popular'.
In the end, if people read and 'enjoy' (I don't always get a lot of pleasure out of reading things like 'The Grapes of Wrath') novels, doesn't that make them 'good' writing? Do you want a million people to pay to read something some people regard as bad or five people to read something you regard as good?
It's not quite as simple as how you seem to view it. All authors (that I am aware of) are humans, and therefore have limitations and weaknesses of some sort. So, if they are rally good at something, they will likely be really bad at something else.
So, like all things in this world, there will be pros and cons. Some value the pros enough to ignore the cons. Some focus on the cons and ignore the pros. And sometimes it's only about hype, and that irritates people.
Sarah J. Maas, and her Throne of Glass series. The fact is, she is really good at what she does: writing fantasy romances. What she is horrible at is writing believable characters, and strong romantic interests. So, in point of fact, the main romantic pairing (ignoring the poorly written love triangle) is toxic together. They'd be great at being just friends, but as a romantic couple, they suck.
J. K. Rowling didn't think her magic system through, has plot holes the size of planets, and didn't consider her audience at all in one book that no one even talks about. But she is a master storyteller. She dances from one scene to the next, seamlessly switching from summary to scene, and brings the world of Wizarding London to life in a way few have managed.
Jenna Moreci (less known Indie author, published Eve the Awakening, and has The Savior's Champion coming out soon), suffered from what a lot of authors do in their first book--she figured that she can gloss over her weaknesses, but playing into her strengths. And her strengths really do shine in her book, but in the totality, it wasn't all that good (if you look at technical stuff, believability in contrast to the suspension of disbelief, etc).
Or how about Christine Feehan. She's a prolific Erotic Fantasy writer. Her work is detailed, and draws you in, and frankly she knows how to turn even handling a flower (a literal flower) into something erotic and sexy. But she's given to insta-romance (no matter how her mythos in Dark Lycan explained it away, insta-romance is beyond suspension of disbelief).
Jon Skovron (I've only read Bane and Shadow, which is weird, given it's book 2 of a trilogy, but that aside). He brings this gorgeous world to life, offers it culture and customs and politics and brainwashing (all the good stuff). But what he utterly failed at, is making me believe the two main characters are good for each other. Even though they never meet in this book, which is a good thing, they clearly know nothing about the other beyond surface mannerisms. If they'd met up and fell back in love, I would have hurled all over the book. Sorry.
Then there's Lynsay Sands and her novel (using the word loosely) About a Vampire. Now, don't get me wrong, she has her strong points. I'm drawn into the world, and the world building is... decent (for Urban fantasy, she's really skimpy on doing much of anything about this, other than mentioning airplanes and city names, and having the crew drive to this one location before I stopped reading). Where she succeeded a little too well, is making the main character (not even kidding) the love interest that does the inciting incident and is supposed to be 'the perfect man' for the female lead... she makes him an utter ass. He's vain and egocentric and...
Anyway. She also gave me literary whiplash, repeatedly. I have this thing (and I'm hyper aware of it in my own writing) where if the flow and rhythm of the story is easy and relaxing, and something that doesn't challenge me intellectually. Say 6th grade reading level. Nothing wrong with it, and it makes for an easy time to just unplug my brain and enjoy the book. Then suddenly there's talk of bouncing up and down an erection, or getting octogenarian wrong... That skyrockets my blood pressure. That isn't what I want in an easy-going read. So yeah. That happened.
The point is. People get some thing right in their book. Sometimes they get it so right, their focus is so enthralling, that everyone wants to read it. But there are always flaws. All you need to do is look hard enough to find it.
So it's really about, do you like this story, crafted with tender loving care from the bosom of the authors and writers who breathed life into it one word at a time. Do you like it enough to overlook the flaws? If yes, you have yourself a great book. If not, then you have to find one that does.
Context is important
What are these popular authors doing wrong (or missing from their writing) that makes them a bad writer?
It's too simplistic to say a piece of writing is "good" or "bad". It may be good or bad for a specific purpose.
JK Rowling writes novels which are easy to read, appealing to an extremely wide audience, and filled with whimsical fantasy.
Hilary Mantel writes novels which are complex, demanding, and filled with meticulously researched historical detail.
Both have been outstandingly successful at what they do; but they are setting out to do very different things. To say that Harry Potter is "bad" as literary fiction, and Wolf Hall is "bad" as a children's book, is technically correct but entirely misses the point.
Nobody is good at everything, and you can find things to criticize in everyone from Shakespeare to Tolstoy. What typically happens in the case of popular, but critically panned authors like Christopher Paolini (Eragon) or EL James (50 Shades) is that they have a particular pattern of strengths that appeal to the mass audience, but weaknesses that stick out like a sore thumb to writers and critics. (Critically acclaimed, unpopular books have the opposite pattern.) Such books are often weak technically or structurally, yet resonate with an audience that resembles the author closely (teen-aged boys, for Paolini, or bored housewives for James).
As Amadeus indicated, however, you're better off hunting strengths than avoiding weaknesses. Good writing is never the result of just avoiding mistakes. If a book appeals to you personally, try to identify what you respond to in it. If it doesn't, try to figure out what it is that others see in it.
The one thing you want to avoid is to excuse your own weaknesses because you share them with a successful author, or to think that imitating an author's weaknesses is a route to their strengths. Just because you may think you can write "as well" as James doesn't mean you can achieve her successes that way.
My complaint about Paolini was that he took a reasonably generic plot idea and... wrote it generically. His worldbuilding wasn't original, in any capacity. His characters were boring. His elves were cookie-cutter, if you'll pardon the phrase.
It particularly ticked me off because he was writing about "boy finds dragon egg, hatches dragon, raises baby dragon" and it was just. so. generic. I threw the dang thing across the room. The book I had finished prior to Eragon was the gorgeous Joust by Mercedes Lackey, which is also about "boy finds dragon egg, hatches dragon, raises baby dragon," but with thoughtful worldbuilding and distinct characters and beautiful descriptions and a real sense of time passing and an actual plot and real stakes.
There's the old saw that there are only like forty plots in all human literature, and what makes any particular telling good is whether it is original and relatable. Paolini's sin was that his version was neither.
I think the author's ability to help the reader suspend disbelief is important and that reader's will overlook "bad writing" if the over all story is good. The actual language used by an author can pull the reader out of the story. If sentences are awkward or dialog stilted that will distract the mind's eye causing the audience to focus on the actual device (words) as opposed to the story. When that happens readers may dismiss an author as a "bad" writer.
Good stories need to be "realistic" enough that the audience can suspend disbelief; even in fantasy or science fiction. Even the hidden magic world of Harry Potter followed conventional "muggle" rules. There was the typical governing bureaucracy, kids still had to go to school, witches stayed hidden.
Personally, I got tired of Dan Brown because I felt like all his books are essentially the same and it really irked me that they all began with Robert Langdon having a nightmare and being awakened by some authority figure. I thought Christopher Paolini's books were well-written in terms of accessible language but felt it obvious that he "borrowed" his overall plot points from already established works. The one that springs immediately to mind is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider books. Adults who criticize the writing in Children's lit probably forget the language needs to be geared to kids and most times will have simple sentences and be less sophisticated.
I also notice the books listed in the original question enjoyed a great deal of commercial success. I've known people who are mildly pretentious and think any book that has mass appeal is not good writing because its not literary (I say artsy) enough.
In the end I'd say defining Good writing is like defining Art: "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it." Yes, that is subjective and ignores the "technical" execution like good grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure but in the end I think we all tend to label books we like as good writing and books we don't like or fail to "get into" as bad writing.