Bad writing is what happens between the blank paper and the not-bad writing. And, with a bit of luck, the not-bad writing is what happens before the good writing. Bad writing is a start.
Bad writing comes in all sorts of forms, but two categories we can divide it into are overwriting and underwriting.You can tell which you are when you edit your work - if you have to add to it, then you're an underwriter; if you have to cut out a lot, then you're an overwriter. I must be lucky, because I'm both.
Are you an overwriter or an underwriter?
When I read back through a first draft, I often find it's rushed and garbled. I've left the reader no time to appreciate one situation before moving on to the next. So I have to add depth and details to give some breathing room and to move from bad writing to not-bad.
Once I'm trying to move from not-bad to good however, I'm an overwriter. I don't mind that.When you put in too much, you have stuff to cut out. However, overwriting is the most glaring sign of an amateur. At school we were taught to use as many different words as possible and to describe everything in painstaking detail. Fine. But we're not at school now. We don't need to show off our vocabulary; we need to write prose that flows and enchants and never, never makes the reader work harder than the writer did.
I've been really enjoying a fabulous series of posts on Suzi's blog, The Literary Engineer, where she shines a light on the words she overuses. A recent post of hers reminded me of my own chief flaw - what I like to call the 'Double-Action Overwrite'.
The DAO is when a character does something simple, but I've used two verbs to describe it. I first noticed this in my children's novel. I was editing it and came across the line,
"Rowan reached out and picked up the sword."
It occurred to me that reaching was unnecessary. If Rowan picked up the sword, we can assume he reached for it. Something clicked in that moment that I've tried to carry with me into all my editing since then. Rowan now picks up the sword, he doesn't reach for it - or if he does, he keeps quiet about it.
There will be plenty of occasions when two verbs are acceptable and even necessary, but plenty more when they're not. Does your main character need to 'appear to be thinking'? Can he not just be 'thinking'? Do you need to say he puts the bag down before picking up the plate? Is it not obvious?
At the risk of making this post ridiculously long, I'll share with you my least favourite sentence in literature. It comes from a series of books that I really like (if you ignore the awful sex scenes). Earth's Children by Jean M. Auel are great for anthropology geeks like me. But you have to love the story because the writing is so over the top. This sentence nearly had me throwing the books across the room:
"She beamed a grin at him."
Really, Jean? Did she? Could she not have beamed at him? Or grinned at him? Or, if we're going to be radical here, could she not just have sodding smiled at him? My opinion is irrelevant as the books have sold in their millions, but then so has Fifty Shades of Grey... Oh, and don't get me started on Raymond E. Feist and his constant use of phrases like, "he had little wish to..." and "she had scant need for...".
I'd like to say this post is too long and therefore overwritten in an ironic sense. Alas, it would be a lie. Instead, its just another example of bad writing!
What words or phrases do you overuse? Are you guilty of the Double-Action Overwrite?