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What Makes A Bad Writer (And How To Avoid It), by Lia Weston

I realise I am playing with fire with the title of this blog post.  I also realise that at least one person has already probably protested that “there are no bad writers”.  I will address this only briefly: You could be wrong.

This post is not addressing bad writing, by the way. Such a beast definitely exists. (See: Bulweller-Lytton Fiction Contest, The.) The issue, however, is how subjective it is. Everyone’s tastes are different. Your sublime treatise on the delicacy of the human condition is your friend’s snore-fest. So today’s topic is not a ‘This book is a total piece of crap/No it isn’t. You wouldn’t know good literature if it was shoved up your Kindle’ slanging match. (On that note, I have seen people almost come to blows over whether Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a superb piece of modern American literature or the biggest pile of wank that $34.95 can buy. Seriously; it almost derailed a whole dinner party before the pudding had even hit the table.) Today I am concentrating on the bad writer, not what they produce.

Bad writers tend to have one thing in common but it’s probably not what you think.

  • Writing without a word count does not make you a bad writer.
  • Having no idea who wrote The Life of Pi does not make you a bad writer.
  • Arguing that there is merit to a Jilly Cooper book does not make you a bad writer.
  • Neither does writing while drunk, refusing to shower, and taking up Cuban cigars but all of these habits will make you less pleasant to be around.

What makes you a bad writer is refusing to deal with criticism.

Part of the whole process of this insane creative pursuit is to constantly try to improve your work. You never want your first novel, draft or stanza to be the best one, because where else is there to go from there but down? We should always be looking for footholds up the creative rock face. Sometimes they appear by their own design, such as those moments when you realise that your heroine should actually be a neurosurgeon, not a pilot, because then it makes her pathological fear of needles rather more pertinent to the plot line. Other times, however, you need someone else to point the footholds out to you.

Other people can see a plot hole to which you were somehow blind. They can also mention politely that your main character’s dog has changed name and breeds several times and now it sounds like they are running a canine shelter. Some may pick out the fact that you use the word ‘rumpled’ far too often. (Not that that’s happened to me. *cough*)

An exterior eye can also point out your particular writing weaknesses; the ones that persist from work to work. You probably know them deep down, even if you don’t mention them out loud. They are the bits of your novel that you skim over or, if faced with the prospect of having to revise them, are suddenly gripped with an overwhelming urge to go and sort out your sock drawer or trawl YouTube for Benedict Cumberbatch videos.

In the face of critical feedback, what does the bad writer do? They bluff and rebuff. You may recognise the catch-cry: “They just didn’t get it.” “You don’t understand art/genre-bending sci-fi/me,” they’ll say, a Teflon-coated Godzilla with a pen in their stubby ten-foot hand, brushing off every apparent sling and arrow as they stomp back to their desk to continue murdering prose.

The tragedy of it is the fact that bad writers do not understand this very important point: constructive criticism is a gift to writers from their readers. It is something to be extremely grateful for. “This is great!” and “This totally sucks!” are both equally unhelpful if no further explanation is offered. What every writer should be asking is, “But why?” The ‘why’ is the gold you’re looking for.

This is not to say that you should act on every single piece of advice, or take to your bed for days if someone gives your work a resounding “eh”. Some people may just not click with your particular sense of humour, or have an inherent distaste for your subject area – there’s nothing you can do about that. However, if different people are consistently pointing out the same areas of concern, listen to them. There is probably a good reason why they’re telling you this.

So there it is. How to not be a bad writer in one easy step: don’t ignore feedback that can teach you something. Be wary of waving a paw in a reader’s direction and speculating that they just don’t “get” you. Your job as a writer is to communicate. Make sure you do it.

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Lia Weston’s author website: www.liaweston.com

Lia Weston’s bio page

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The Fortunes of Ruby WhiteThe Fortunes of Ruby White     The Indigo SkyThe Book of LoveBurning LiesHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeod

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Simone #

    I’d agree with that. I think all writer should endeavor to write with other people. Workshop groups are one of the best tools in a writer’s arsenal, and one of the best reasons to decide to pursue creative writing in Uni. Technically you don’t NEED to have a degree to write, but if you don’t have that feedback network to help you out, your writing won’t live up to it’s potential. Not to mention you’ll get a bunch of free editors to help polish your work up so that a real editor/publisher will actually look at it.

    April 12, 2013
    • Lia #

      Since joining a writing group of my own, I heartily agree with you!

      September 13, 2013
  2. Some great points in this. I wholeheartedly agree — thoughtful feedback is a gift. Good writing has everything to do with redrafting. If you bring a good attitude to redrafting then you’re far more likely to grow and enjoy the process.

    April 12, 2013
    • Lia #

      Thank you! You’re absolutely right – the redrafting is where the actual story comes out, I think.

      September 13, 2013
  3. Good post Lia. I had eight tea drinking scenes in the first ten pages of a mss – too many an editor gently pointed out to me. How did I miss that! Totally agree with the need to accept constructive criticism. It’s important to get beyond that first emotional urge to stab the critic with whatever comes to hand and stand back, put the dagger down and think carefully about the criticism. It is the only way to grow as a creative person in any endeavour.

    April 12, 2013
    • Lia #

      Thank you! Heh – that’s a lot of tea. Mind you, in my current book I’m paranoid that people are always eating. Soon I’ll start finding random places for the characters to meet (a forest, a carpark) where they can’t possibly start putting the kettle on. But you’re absolutely right – you can’t get better if you don’t listen to constructive feedback.

      September 13, 2013
  4. Oh how timely was your post. I’ve received several critiques this week and I am carefully evaluating them all. The first category is subjective – it’s personal preference . The second is house style – it’s more than subjective. It is an objective measure based on what works for that publisher. The third is an objective examination of writing style and story telling ability. All criticism is valid but wisdom comes from determining what criticism to take on board.

    April 12, 2013
    • Lia #

      Thanks, Jacqui! (And apologies for the serious lateness of my reply, by the way.) It can be so tricky to determine what to take on board. I think the fact that you can distinguish so clearly between the different types of critique, though, is great, and it will stand you in very good stead!

      September 13, 2013
  5. Jack Hughes #

    Great piece of advice. Yes, I admit it, I have often been a literary diva, guilty as charged, but there comes a time when you run out of ideas on how to proceed. People often talk about writers block, but what about ‘submitters block’? When you’ve approached every agent in the book and all you ever get is ‘not fallen in love with it’, how constructive is that? How is that going to help you find which fence your magnum opus is falling at? Approaching agents is like trying to do a 100m hurdles sprint in a blindfold, you know how to run, but you can’t see what you’re falling over when you do and nobody is telling you when to jump. If nobody tells you what’s wrong with it, just says ‘that’s great’ after every chapter, how are you ever going to get it right? A very useful article, thanks for sharing.

    April 12, 2013
    • Lia #

      Thanks, Jack! Ugh, submitter’s block – you have all my sympathy. Vague ‘not for us’ feedback is incredibly frustrating. I hope you’ve managed to get a foothold since your comment! (And apologies for my ridiculously late reply.)

      September 13, 2013
  6. Viv Hamilton #

    Absolutely agree. I beg my readers to give me ‘honest’ feedback. The last thing I need during the writing process are readers who are worried about hurting my feelings. Mind you, I also need to know the great parts! If 3 or more readers love a scene or character, it helps me to know what ‘not’ to cut on the final revision. Critique? Bring it on, I say!

    April 12, 2013
    • Lia #

      Yes, indeed. Knowing what’s bad is critical, but it’s so lovely (and also useful) to know what people enjoyed! 🙂

      September 13, 2013

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  1. Not Being A Diva - EE Carter
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