How To Be A Bad Writer

The other day, someone asked me what makes for a good writer. We were discussing Jonah Goldberg’s new venture and I pointed out that the big challenge they will face is finding writers that are any good. It’s not so much that their opinions are banal and lacking in authenticity. It’s that the people writing for these sites are dull writers. The whole space is full of people, who should be writing technical manuals. Almost everyone with writing chops has been chased off by the loathsome carbuncles of Conservative Inc..

The question though, is why are some writers more interesting than others? Mark Steyn is not offering many unique insights, but he makes general commentary about the political scene fun and interesting. He is a great wordsmith. Steve Sailer is not a great wordsmith, but he often makes great observations about the world. In other words, you can be an interesting writer without being brilliant or a great wordsmith, but you better do something that gives the reader a payoff for having read your stuff.

Thinking about it, what often makes a writer good, is that they avoid the things that all bad writers seem to share. In this sense, “good” is not a state in itself, but simply not being in the state we call “bad.” A great wordsmith is further away from the state of bad writing than someone who is just an average writer. That average writer can appear to be much better, by offering keen insights and clever observations. The path to becoming a good writer, therefore, starts with avoiding the things that define a bad writer.

The most common trait of bad writers, it seems, is they write about themselves. Unless you are an international man of mystery, you’re not that interesting. No one is. Bad writers, always seem to think they are the most interesting people they know. This is what made former President Obama such a boring speaker. No matter the subject, his speech was going to be a meditation on his thoughts and feelings about the subject. It became a game of sorts to count how many times he referenced himself in a speech.

That’s the hallmark of bad writing. Instead of focusing on the subject, the writer focuses on himself, which suggests he does not know the material. Even when relating an experience or conversation, the good writer makes himself a secondary character in the story, not the focus. Bad writers are always the hero of everything they write, as if they are trying to convince the reader of something about themselves. Good writers avoid this and focus on the subject of their writing.

Now, in fairness, there is a division between the sexes on this one. Female writers only write about themselves. It’s why autoethnography is wildly popular with the Xirl science types on campus. They finally have a complicated sounding name for what comes natural to them. Presumably, female readers like reading this stuff, so there may be a Xirl exception to this rule. The fairer sex is wired to understand the world, particularly human relations, by observing the reactions of other women to that person or thing.

Another common habit of the bad writer is to use five paragraphs when one paragraph will do the trick. One of the first rules they used to teach children about writing is the rule of women’s swimsuits. Good writing is like a woman’s swimsuit, in that it is big enough to cover the important parts, but small enough to make things interesting. This is a rule that applies to all writing and one bad writers tend to violate. They will belabor a point with unnecessary examples or unnecessary explication.

Bad writers are also prone to logical fallacies and misnomers. There’s really no excuse for this, as there are lists of common logical fallacies and, of course, searchable on-line dictionaries in every language. In casual writing, like blogging or internet commentary, this is tolerable. When it shows up in a professional publication, it suggest the writer and the editor are not good at their jobs. A brilliantly worded comparison between two unrelated things is still a false comparison. It suggests dishonesty on the part of the writer.

Certain words seem to be popular with bad writers. The word “dialectic” has become an acid test for sloppy reasoning and bad writing. The word “elide” is another one that is popular with bad writers for some reason. “Epistemology” is another example, popular with the legacy conservative writers. Bad writers seem to think cool sounding words or complex grammar will make their ideas cleverer. Orwell’s second rule is “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” It’s the commonly abused by bad writers.

Finally, another common feature of bad writing is the disconnect between the seriousness of subject and how the writer approaches the subject. Bad writers, like Jonah Goldberg, write about serious topics, using pop culture references and vaudeville jokes. On the other hand, feminists write about petty nonsense as if the fate of the world hinges on their opinion. The tone should always match the subject. Bad writers never respect the subject they are addressing or their reader’s interest in the subject.

No doubt there are more complete and concise descriptions of bad writing than this quick list of observations. The pedants reading this sees all writing as bad writing, as everything they read violates at least one picayune rule they cherish. To normal people, though, good writing is mostly the absence of bad writing and bad writing is the violation of some basic rules of written communication. Therefore, if you want to be a good writer, you should first avoid being a bad writer. That gets you at least halfway home.

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Wolf Barney
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Wolf Barney

I’m sure there are mixed opinions about Chateau Heartiste (Roissy). He’s certainly not for everyone, but he comes up with interesting insights, and I get a kick out of his made-up words and phrases.

Wkathman
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Wkathman

Heartiste is something of a master stylist. Even on the rare occasions when I disagree with him, I still enjoy his flair and bravado. In an age of NPCs, the sheer force of his personality is refreshing.

Apex Predator
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Apex Predator

He is a wordsmith, par excellence, and should be MUCH higher profile than he has been / is. Combination of biting acerbic wit, and using the right sequence of words about current events to deliver devastating rhetoric (or “rhetorical shivs / memetic killshots” in his own parlance).

Member

I’m going to turn that entire post into a syllogism

Bad writers write about themselves
Women always write about themselves
Women are bad writers.

How’s that for brevity! Though I guess technically I am writing about myself

Euterpe
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Euterpe

There are some creditable female writers. However, usually only women enjoy reading them and they occur less frequently, with only a handful rising to the status of “great.” Good male writers have more universal appeal. Men are also well represented in children’s literature. Women make excellent poets, imo, but again few have achieved the same stature as male poets.

Larkin Lover
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Larkin Lover

Has to with economics. Men are compelled to produce; in traditional society females can be supported by their husbands

Larkin Lover
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Larkin Lover

All the good female poets are lesbians anyway!

Member

“She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.”

TBoone
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TBoone

You sir, are no Jonah Goldberg. I like that in a writer….

Whom do you quote?

Member

Chris Wieloch

Range Front Fault
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Range Front Fault

Woof!

SidVic
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SidVic

Just to clarify. This is a example of BAD writing? Correct? Itghink the passage holds a certain amount of charm…

Yves Vannes
Member

Self absorption and laziness are certainly the main path to bad writing.

But dirtbags who have to obfuscate also makes for bad writing.

Lots of reasonably intelligent people often come across at dumb and deluded because they have to dance around the truth or have to embrace BS to fit in.

Toddy Cat
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Toddy Cat

This is the reason that I had to quit reading James Lileks. He’s a fine wordsmith, and has some amusing insights on occasion (despite his TrueCon opinions), but his level of self-obsession is genuinely astonishing. Does he really think that anybody, anybody at all, really cares about how he arranges the glassware in his cupboards? He honestly wrote about this once. I mean, for Lord’s sake…

johnmark7
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johnmark7

I used to be astonished at the originality and how evocative so many of his similes, metaphors, and brief descriptions were. Almost Shakespearean in their freshness and aptness, and yet all wasted, it seemed to me, on complete ephemera and very light humor. As I writer, I agonize for an apt and bright metaphor. They don’t come easy for me, any more than writing jokes or ad libing witty banter. Mark Steyn succeeds where Lileks fails. Steyn’s wit (in the humorous and genius sense) is astounding. I only wished he didn’t stutter so much when talking. It makes it hard… Read more »

Toddy Cat
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Toddy Cat

Steyn seems to want to be some kind of TV star, which is too bad. He’s a fantastic writer, only adequate on TV.

Truthspeaker
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Truthspeaker

How do you know if you are a good writer? You are one of those whose books have been banned from Amazon.

johnmark7
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johnmark7

Whoa, hold on there! I have yet to be banned on Amazon, but it will come as soon as the creeps hear about my novels: I Like the White World, and Aryndell, a Sci-Fi novel with an amusing twist.

I LIke the White World is about Orange County CA and how glorious it can be, and also about truth. Dennis Prager is a character in it.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1468199846/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2

Member

Some writers that I feel should be appreciated just don’t do it for me. Chilton Williamson of Chronicles always starts out ok but then I do my heavy skimming.
Need I mention William F. Buckley?

Our host here is of course excepted. Kevin Michael Grace needs to be encouraged into writing to augment his podcasts. Very insightful.

SidVic
Member
SidVic

Having a hard science job, I come at it from a perspective of precision of meaning. Sometimes the high falutin word better conveys the idea and adds. Most usually simple and clear is better. I like Hemingway and Steinbeck’s writing. That stated, one of my proudest achievements is getting the phrase “hunkered down” published in hard science cell biology publication. I do have occasion to write with graduates students. Some of their writing is so atrocious that it shocks (for native english speakers, you expect from the chinese) . With practice, and lashing, it does improve. I learned to write… Read more »

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James LePore

Your language becomes clear and strong not when you can no longer add, but when you can no longer take away. Isaac Bashevis Singer

johnmark7
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johnmark7

That’s how I edit my writing now. (If I have time, and I always do in my fiction.)

SidVic
Member
SidVic

yeah, one must be a ruthless self editor. it can be soul-destroying to pare a good turn of phrase, but sometimes necessary. Also, one can easily come to hate editors, especially the good ones.

Stina
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Stina

So good to know I’m not the only one who thinks JG is a bad writer.

I’m a horrific writer.

Hendrick
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Hendrick

Don’t believe it; Stina writes well.

johnmark7
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johnmark7

Around 2001 when The Corner got going, I used to enjoy Jonah in small doses along with Lileks. Had an exchange with him when I was blogging and my beloved white GSD died. He had a white dog, too, back then. I thought some (a lot) of his Star Trek references and such were jejune but I had twenty years on him; chalked it up to Gen X attitude and manner.

The Babe
Member
The Babe

I note that he didn’t mention typos, LOL. But seriously, one thing I do like about Our Guys is the relentless push for new coinages. The War on Noticing. Magic Dirt. Browngeld. Pozz. Redpill. DR3. Et cetera. There are a lot of new realities bubbling up in our Brave New World, and our guys are trying to capture them. “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see.” –Joseph Conrad (From his novel with the gloriously politically incorrect… Read more »

Member

My latest favorite is ‘think-tank grifter’

PawPaw
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PawPaw

“Pistachio Kotex” [from Heartiste, I think]

LULU
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LULU

I liked this description of AOC’s eyes: “involuntary commitment eyes”.

johnmark7
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johnmark7

That’s good. I like Sarah Hoyt’s: Occasional Cortex

joe
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joe

I don’t understand why “cry bully” didn’t catch on more. It really catches the essence of the left. Perhaps writers are reluctant to use it, fearing a bunch of “internet tough guy” responses -ugh.

I think the word “cloaca” is even more appropriate, although the vulgarity distracts from the point somewhat.

Member

“I don’t understand why “cry bully” didn’t catch on more”
You don’t?
Are you honestly unaware of its derivation from :
“The Jew cries out as he beats you”?

Alzaebo
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Alzaebo

Another great rule, learned here:

Respect your reader.

(Write as if you would be the one reading it for the first time.)

Clayton Barnett
Guest

In my current virtual book tour I finally had to complain to management that too many of the questions were about me and not my novels. I paraphrased Pope Pius XIII: “I am nobody! Only my stories and characters are important!”

Being a woman she admitted she did not understand what I was saying.

Member

i’m in the midwest where Jews are few and far between, at least relatively speaking. So in my experience, I have never met a Jew that didn’t tell me they were a Jew within the first few minutes of discussion. I don’t care if you are a Jew, but apparently, if you are one, you care if I do. My point is what you said about women writers applies to Jews also – like Jonah Goldberg.

Toddy Cat
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Toddy Cat

Vegans do the same thing. What vegan Jews do probably doesn’t bear thinking about…

Member

Read articles by Natalie Portman and you’ll know.

Hebrew headache
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Hebrew headache

I grew up in a part of the country with a lot of Jews, and I noticed this as well. Indeed, I’ve known a couple of Jews who couldn’t go more than 10 minutes or so without bringing the conversation back to Judaica.

Da Booby
Guest

“The most common trait of bad writers, it seems, is they write about themselves. Unless you are an international man of mystery, you’re not that interesting. No one is. Bad writers, always seem to think they are the most interesting people they know. ”

Shhhhh…. don’t let generation princess hear you say this. Just think of what it’ll do their self-esteems!!!

Member

Jonah might be a decent writer in a different setting but everything he writes now is clearly written with someone (that pays him) looking over his shoulder. The best kind of writing tends to be from people who are not worried about blowback and are not writing for clicks.

JohnTyler
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JohnTyler

“The most common trait of bad writers, it seems, is they write about themselves.” An interesting comment from Mr. Z. In perusing the biography section of Barnes & Noble you will see that it is chock full of autobiographies of folks that nobody knows or gives a rat’s ass about. TV/movie actors and “news” types are well represented , which illustrates their conceit and ignorance; they are totally unaware that nobody cares to read about their lives and “struggles,” and are not important to anybody other than to themselves and perhaps to their tiny, cloistered club of equally unaware and… Read more »

Rcocean
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Rcocean

WFB was an excellent writer, which is why he sold so many books. Too bad people didn’t like his use of “Big words” – but that’s a minor flaw. Its impossible to figure out what standard is being used by Conservatism Inc. to hire writers. Its not wit, an interesting viewpoint, or prose style. Pretty much every writer at the Bulwark, or NRO is nothing more than adequate. And nobody thought – 20 years ago – that Lowrey or Jonah were “great thinkers” who were going to lead NR into a new Golden age. They were just placeholders, until we… Read more »

Toddy Cat
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Toddy Cat

Buckley was good when he was young. After about 1985,he started to become a parody of himself.

LULU
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LULU

Well said. The use of big words is often showing off. Buckley probably knew he was doing just that. (“Let’s wow them with this baby!”)

Rcocean
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Rcocean

Let me say more about “big words”. WFB defended his use of obscure words by saying he didn’t use a “big word” – he used “The right word”. And I think that’s about right. There’s a big difference between using cant phrases like “racism” fascism” “the free market”, impenetrable jargon, or meaningless labels like “trumpism” or “authoritarianism” – and obscure words. BTW, ever notice how the Left and Conservative Inc. are ALWAYS labeling their opponents some sort of “ist” or “ism”? Its an old commie trick, designed to short-cut thought, a sort of sophisticated smear job. Again, this is completely… Read more »

Member

Another bad trait is trying to be overly funny. Or capping each thought with something cute. Call it the Goldberg crutch. There’s a few talented guys who can write in a constantly humorous style and pull it off. But unless you’re of the caliber of a young P.J. O’rourke it shouldn’t be your go-to style. Problem is these naturally funny guys make it look easy, so everyone thinks they can do it. Time magazine shouldn’t be trying. Women, old men and Jews should tread carefully with the funny. Women’s ‘wit’ either lags 7 years behind or is so current it’s… Read more »

PawPaw
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PawPaw

Frip! Get off our lawn!

A B
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A B

Glad you said “young P.J. O’rourke”. I loved Parliament of Whores. But he ceased to be funny years ago.

Don’t know what happened to him.

Member

He got old.

johnmark7
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johnmark7

He did me a big favor in the mid-2000s so I’ll always respect him and be grateful, but he kind of fossilized. He should he dissident right by now if he followed his instincts, but maybe having a late family did something to him (but not to Peter Brimelow).

I mean, Tom Wolfe was clearly diss-right among his friends, but kept it as private as he could.

Nomennovum
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Nomennovum

Is constant name-dropping a characteristic of bad and boring writing?

SidVic
Member
SidVic

Yeah. Steinbeck told me that personally one time.

Toddy Cat
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Toddy Cat

O’Rourke sold out on immigration. The Irish are almost as bad as the Jews when it comes to Ellis Island romanticism, I mean, look at the Kennedys. As a recovering Irish American myself, I understand the impulse, but it’s utterly wrongheaded. The argument “Because the United States was good enough to let my ancestors in 150 years ago, we have to let Somalis destroy the country because feelz” is not exactly a coherent position. Also, to be fair, O’Rourke had cancer a few years ago, and that would tend to knock the humor out of anyone.

Mcleod
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Mcleod

It’s rare that I will automatically buy a book based on the author. Exempting authors that have been dead for sixty years. One exception is Victor David Hanson. I have enjoyed all of his books, and I’ve yet to read one of his articles I could disagree with.

Apex Predator
Guest
Apex Predator

“Orwell’s second rule is “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” It’s the commonly abused by bad writers.” This is how you can easily deduce that the left, SJW/NPC left in particular, are intellectually bankrupt to go with their moral bankruptcy. You won’t FIND an article written by them that doesn’t use multi-syllabic nonsense words to seem more erudite when in reality they could have said the same sentence with probably 1/4 the amount of syllables. It is the hallmark of the intellectual charlatan in fact. For an absurdly egregious (there are my big words) of… Read more »

Dutch
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Dutch

Try listening to NPR for a few minutes. A verbal vomitorium.

Member

I can’t listen to NPR anymore because their unctuous voices make me want to punch someone.

Seattle Guy
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Seattle Guy

Didn’t you violate your own rules with the word “picayune” or am I just a lowbrow?

Larkin Lover
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Larkin Lover

I found a used copy of Buckley’s Jewlers Eye, and I do not remember being distracted or impressed by the vocabulary, but rather simply found the ideas blah, just blah.

Tykebomb
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Tykebomb

Is picayune really a highbrow word? I always thought it was a provincial throwback to something like Huck Finn. I’ve only seen it used to hint at a low class background but it’s so archaic that it actually comes off as refined.

wschurchill
Guest

Re: Jonah Goldberg’s new venture … isn’t the primary problem finding readers? How big is the market for Steve Hayes/Jonah Goldberg opinion-writing?

wschurchill
Guest

Re: Jonah Goldberg’s new venture … isn’t the problem finding readers for the venture? How promising is the prospective market for Jonah Goldberg//Steve Hayes political writing?

TomA
Guest
TomA

It’s also helpful to note that good writers are frequently motivated by a desire to inform or educate, often with the aim of conveying wisdom, which is beneficial to all. The worst writers are propagandists who merely wish to infect the weak-minded with agenda-driven messaging and ultimately achieve a hive mentality in the victims. The former should be encouraged, the latter should become extinct.

Lance_E
Member

Interesting inversion of the common trope about families. All good writers are different, but all bad writers are the same.

Jonah Goldberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates may write about wildly different things, but they do both have the same soporific style whose defining characteristic is navel-gazing.

Member

Z: “A brilliantly worded comparison between two unrelated things is still a false comparison. It suggests dishonesty on the part of the writer.” For the person with even a moderate knack for words the temptation to manipulate is everpresent. It really takes a solid character not to dupe people when it’s so easy. And if a writer is too obvious about it, there’s always an editor to fancy it up proper.

SidVic
Member
SidVic

I’m not sure following. Got an example?

the Russians
Member

How to be a bad writer? Write about gender studies… In their vernacular.

LULU
Guest
LULU

Jonah gets lost in the woods of his own self-perceived cleverness. One almost wonders if he has a mirror in front of his laptop as he writes. And his preoccupation with coprophilia is disturbing.

Member

This is a wonderful example of the kind of bad writing Zman has described…

https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/10/william-f-buckley-1965-new-york-mayor-campaign/

Vegetius
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Vegetius

Eric Hoffer once said something to the effect that there was no idea that could not be expressed in 200 words or less.

jbspry
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jbspry

Good writing is simply speaking – with do-over privileges.

SidVic
Member
SidVic

Actually writing like-they-speak is a common mistake of rookie writers. I take your point however.

Sean Detente
Member

Now I’m really curious, Z – did you ever read Instauration back in the day?

Allen
Guest
Allen

Read your work aloud, if it sounds off to you it’s probably bad writing. If you wouldn’t say something that way, don’t write it that way.

Mac
Guest
Mac

Never use a sesquipedalianism when a laconicism could be substituted commensurably.

Gerard Van der Leun
Member

Not to be pedantic but… “The pedants reading this sees all writing as bad writing, “

Member

Take a gander at the writing of Linda Alcoff for the quintessential example of unreadable litter box lining.