Bad Writing and the New Yorker

Have you ever noticed that when people talk about poetry, they feel compelled to qualify it with the words “good” or “bad”? As in “I like to write poetry, uh, I mean, you know, good poetry.”  I’ve never heard someone qualify practicing, say, mathematics in their free time: “I like to work with formulas, uh, you know, real equations, not fuzzy math.”

My writing has killed cockroaches. 

Over winter break, I had the opportunity to watch the documentary “Bad Writing” and work through my stack of unread New Yorkers. Here’s what I’m taking away from this wacky adventure:

Bad Writing’s discussions include but are not limited to:

  • random capitalization and punctuation
  • writing a work that only you can unlock/access
  • overuse of the thesaurus
  • over-the-top alliteration
  • self-indulgence
  • trying to write in someone else’s voice (George Saunders says that he once tried to write like Hemingway: “Jake stepped into the Walmart. It was pleasant.”)

One New Yorker article I read was a profile of a ghostwriter, Lynn Vincent. This author of “Going Rogue” recommended several ways to write well:

  • don’t include history or many descriptions
  • keep your paragraphs about one sentence long
  • have short chapters
  • in fact, you should make every scene it’s own chapter
  • end each chapter on a cliffhanger

According to this informal and tiny study of two sources, it would seem that the difference between bad and good writing is that while bad writing often fouls up on the line level, with combinations of words terrorizing your reading experience, good writing adheres to a type of breakneck structure that would make Vonnegut proud.

Maybe we feel compelled to qualify poetry because it forces you to slow down and drink in these combinations of words that if read hastily would leave someone lost in a tangle of history and description?


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