Adopt-a-Peeve: Bad Writing

It’s Adopt a Peeve Day here, so I’m throwing one out for you.  You know, just in case you didn’t have enough of your own already.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve taken on some new responsibilities.  I’m editing at a couple of web sites where people post their original fiction.  There are many fine writers out there.  I’m really enjoying getting to know their work.  It’s also helpful for my own writing.  I can always tell when something is what I consider “good,” but often I’m not sure why.  It’s not about whether a story is interesting or intellectually stimulating.  It’s not about the pacing or the characterization or the unique voice of the writer.  Those things matter, certainly.  But there’s always this something underneath it all that can make or break a story.  Each time I read a new story, I understand a little more what separates the amazing from the significantly less so.

That aside, there are definitely a few things that just plain irritate me from minute one.  If I spot one of these problems, it won’t matter how awesomely awesome the rest of the story is.  I won’t be able to stop myself from reading it in Cringe Mode.  I can deal with spelling and grammar errors, as those can be edited out.  It’s the Sucky Writing Technique that bothers me.

So I’m offering, as a one-time deal, the following peeves for your consideration:

1. Writers who don’t use their characters’ names.

This can take many forms.  Sometimes, it’s a blatant refusal.  The writer simply uses pronouns instead.  This seems to be most common when the writer is young or inexperienced.  (I don’t mean inexperienced as in, “not published”; I mean as in, hasn’t written much of anything, even as a hobby.)  I’ve read entire stories where the main character (MC) is referred to as “he” throughout.  It’s damn distracting.  Even when the MC is the only person of note in a given chapter, there is something off about never seeing his or her name in print.  It always seems as though the writer is shy or embarrassed about the character names he or she has chosen, or even the character him- or herself.  That or the writers fancies this style to be poetic.  Trust me, it’s not.

Another (equally annoying) version of the no-name thing is when characters are referred to by some physical feature: “the blonde”; “the blue-eyed girl”; “the tall man.”  This is perfectly acceptable when the person in question is a stranger to the reader (and usually to the MC).  For example, if a detective is under cover in a bar, he might keep his eye on “the blonde,” who has been acting suspicious all night.  A mother watching her son on the playground might take note when “the blue-eyed girl” offers him half her peanut butter sandwich.  Someone waiting for a blind date might wonder if “the tall man” who just walked in is the date.  But if the blonde, the blue-eyed girl, or the tall man are established characters, especially if they have main roles in the story, it’s just plain silly to describe them this way.  That detective probably wouldn’t refer to his partner as “the blonde.”  If the blue-eyed girl is her daughter, the mother doesn’t refer to her by her eye color.  If the tall man is in a relationship with the MC, the MC would call him by his name.

2. Writers who switch point of view (POV) in the middle of the action.

This drives me nuts.  Wait, I have to say it again.  This drives me absolutely freakin’ bonkers!  Although I don’t prefer it, I understand when writers choose to allow the reader full omniscience.  I think it’s better to keep to a single POV, but that’s personal preference.  This peeve, however, is something else.  This is reading the thoughts and feelings of one character and then…all of a sudden, you’re in someone else’s head.

Tragically, J. K. Rowling is guilty of this in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I know, I don’t want to think ill of one of my favorite authors either.  Sadly, it’s true.  The series is from Harry’s POV throughout, with a few exceptions (mostly prologue-style introductory chapters in later books).  Even those aren’t bad, since they are separate chapters and always occur before the main action of the book starts.  But in Sorcerer’s Stone, it happens right smack in the middle of a chapter.  (For the curious, I don’t have the book on hand and can’t give page/chapter, but the scene in question is in the middle of Harry’s first quidditch game.  It switches from Harry’s POV to random omniscience.)  Fortunately, I think it’s an isolated incident.

Unfortunately, it’s not an isolated incident for some writers.  Some people literally switch mid-paragraph.  It gets confusing, trying to figure out whose thoughts I’m reading.  For the love of all that’s literary, please don’t do this to your readers.  Trust me, the best writing leaves some mystery because the MC doesn’t know what everyone else is thinking, and therefore neither do we.  Frankly, I’m glad we don’t have to slog through everybody’s brains in most stories.  Can you imagine how long Harry Potter would have ended up being if we’d been privy just to what Hermione was thinking?  Seven books wouldn’t have been anywhere near enough!

What writing peeves would you like to add to the list?

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7 thoughts on “Adopt-a-Peeve: Bad Writing

  1. You should try reading some of the police reports that come across my desk. Trying to figure out who is doing what because the officer uses pronouns for everything can get rediculous. I don’t think I have ever read one police report that wasn’t full of spelling and grammar errors. It is enough to drive you mad. These aren’t the victims writing these reports, it is the officers. A basic writing course should be a requirement at the academy.

  2. By a stunning coincidence, I was just this morning reading an utterly brilliant story* that violates both of these – two unnamed main characters who are only “he” and “she” throughout, with a brief moment of head-hopping in the middle. Which I take not as repudiation of your points, but that there are things that are workable in the hands of a master craftsman which the rest of us should maybe not try at home. Or not try lightly, in any case.

    Incidentally, I can’t recall now if I’ve pointed you towards Making Light in the past, but this post and discussion is, I think, at least somewhat germaine to your interests here. (Oh, and look, there I am in the comment thread, lo those many years ago. Along with Neil Gaiman and the late Mike Ford. Gosh, I love the Internets.) TNH doesn’t do as many editing-related posts these days as she used to there, but the archives are well worth looking through, if you don’t mind crossing over the event horizon of your available free time. 🙂

    *”–30–,” by Laird Barron. Not for the faint of heart.

    • Hm, I think you’re right. Done well, even those elements I criticized can make for an interesting story. And it wasn’t horrible in HPSS, either, just a bit jarring. If Rowling hadn’t written it that way, we wouldn’t have had the scene where Hermione lights Snape on fire.

      We ordinary folk need to be mindful that we’re not creating crap by writing that way, though. Where I’ve seen it is in the context of newish writers putting their work on the ‘net for free. The rest of the writing isn’t good enough to compensate for the issues I mentioned.

      • Absolutely – and that was the point I meant to make: that when you have the chops (and, to a certain extent, the earned respect) of a Laird Barron you can get away with stuff that writers of lesser skill and quality cannot. And there’s a universe of difference between writing a story like “–30–” and making a stylistic choice that’s going to reinforce your themes of disorientation, loss of self, and degeneration to a primal state, and doing the same thing unintentionally because you’re not paying enough attention to the work.

        Elizabeth Bear, who I think has said some of the smartest things about writing I’ve yet come across, has written on a couple of occasions now that “There are no rules. There are techniques that work, and techniques that don’t work.” Which is which depends a whole lot on context, style, the skill of the writer, and the expectations and reading protocols of the audience. And being able to consistently tell one from the other is a lifetime’s education – at least.

        • “I agree with you more.” “No! I agree with YOU more!” Hee hee.

          Seriously, though, I love that quote. I’m finding that the only way to see what works and what doesn’t is to try it. There are some generally bad ideas (as above), even if they work for some people/in some circumstances. Otherwise, most of it depends on the story, the characters, and the style. So I do lots of experiments. Most of them fail, but a few come out like perfect chocolate chip cookies (which are also hard to get exactly right, by the way).

          • Jim Macdonald (who is one of the front-page posters on Making Light, and had a long-running thread on Absolute Write about the techniques and business of commercial fiction) has a couple of excellent similes about novels and short stories.

            A novel, says Jim, is like a wooden crate: you get a bunch of planks that seem to be about the right length, and if you nail them together and the first try doesn’t make a crate, you can take ’em apart again, trim some, add new boards, and put it back together until it’s right.

            A short story, on the other hand, is like a key lime pie. You assemble your ingredients, mix them together, pour in, and bake, and it’s not until the whole thing is done until you find out whether you have delicious pie or lime-flavored egg soup. If it doesn’t work, the only fix is to start over and try again. And the only way to get consistent good results is to make a whole lot of pies.

            It’s not an entirely true model, but it’s an incredibly useful one.

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