What is “Bad” Writing?By Jamie Iredell
January 22, 2012
My sister-in-law is a neurolinguist and my wife is a lawyer. I’m a writer and college professor of writing and literature. To say that we don’t bump heads when it comes to what constitutes “good” or “bad” writing is like saying that clichés aren’t the repetitive iterations of the indoctrinated. Better yet: we don’t “bump heads”; we smash each others’ brains into metaphorical food processors and whip up some semantic taters.
The discussion is not new. We’ve talked about it over the years. In particular, it’s an ongoing fight between me and my wife. Our most recent battle took place one night while my sister-in-law was visiting with us. Afterwards, I talked to one of my writer-friends. This pal brought up what seemed at first a good point: since it is our profession to be writers, can we not “own” that craft? Are we not able to determine what is and is not good writing? As an analogy, my friend offered, “It’s not like you’re telling your wife that what she practices is ‘bad law,’ or that what your sister-in-law does is ‘bad science’; but they’re telling you what they think is ‘good’ writing.”
At first, this sounded right on. But the next morning, after I resumed the intellectual battle with my wife, armed with this new analogy, my advance proved short, and was ultimately repelled. I didn’t stump my wife, even if the analogy made her think for a moment. I had to consider her counter-argument: just because “writing” is not the main component of her profession (since, as a lawyer, the intellectual understanding of the law and its processes is her foremost skill), in almost every instance at her job she cannot articulate her ideas without writing them. The same goes for my sister-in-law. So writing is central to both their occupations, yet neither would consider herself a “writer.”
This all comes after teaching David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present,” or, as it appears in his collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, “Authority and American Usage,” in which he laments, among other things, Academic English and other abominations, like legalese. Wallace, I feel confident in arguing, cannot stand Academic English (he calls it “a cancer”) or legalese, and I admit his point of view was enticing, especially since, like me, he was a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction.
In his essay, both of the above-mentioned uses of the English language come up as asides–mentions in an essay that concerns itself with the “Usage Wars” between Descriptivist and Prescriptivist linguists and other language nerds. Think of these as the Democrats and Republicans of how people use English. Descriptivists might say that “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” is perfectly valid English, not unlike a Democrat might argue that everyone equally deserves the same basic human rights, whether black or white, man or woman, straight or homosexual, etcetera. Obviously, people do speak this way; and if people speak this way, how can we ignore that this is one way that the English language is used? Descriptivists can explain what’s happening in the language as Standard Black English dialect with elided vowels and dropped consonant endings. They would also claim that Arnold’s now-famous Diff’rent Strokes (note the spelling as appropriate to the show’s characters’ dialect) punchline is just as valid English as the Standard Written English equivalent of “Whatever might you mean, Willis?”
The Prescriptivists, on the other hand, do not ignore the multiple uses of language, but prioritize the Standard Written English dialect over others as the language of commerce and discourse, kind of like the Republican economics of the “trickle-down” philosophy that favors the fiscally-privileged. Consider another example that compares Standard Written English and California English (my own native dialect): “Dude, this is hella good guacamole,” as opposed to its Standard Written English equivalent: “My friend, this guacamole is exceptional.” Thus, Prescriptivists care about Standard Written English and argue its supremacy in socio-economic discourse (i.e., talking or writing to one another, especially when it comes to the finer points of advancing one’s business goals, or “winning friends and influencing people”). Of course, realistically, there exist rhetorical situations in which the use of such a dialect as Standard Black English, California English, and/or others specific to particular groups of speakers remains preferable to SWE, which Wallace likewise admits.
So, a problem in my claim that AE and legalese are both examples of “bad” writing is my wife and her sister’s central argument: that within those professions there exist both “good” and “bad” writers. There are writers who take AE and legalese to their extremes, and there are writers who employ academic and legal terms but who, for the most part, use SWE to convey their ideas. Compare the following
“I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss in the above entitled matter; the same being duly executed by me”
To–while on the same Google search of “bad legalese”–this from The Wall Street Journal.
Or consider the most esoteric of articles written for the journal Discourse and Disclosure, such as the recently published “HILDA: A Discourse Parser Using Support Vector Machine Classification,” by Hugo Hernault, Helmut Prendinger, and David A. duVerle.
But just because these experts do not write the kind of prose that I think makes “good” writing, it’s preposterous of me to think that all members of these professions ought to write in the clear but flowery language of the literary ilk.
I confess my inclination to argue that the academies which have produced the linguistic ticks of prose in the scientific and legal worlds (not to mention a thousand other jargon-laden professions) ought to revise their strategies and take classes on writing clear and deliberate prose. But such a thesis is impractical and asinine. To argue such only serves to piss off my wife and sister-in-law–and others in their respective professions–and in the interests of maintaining decent familial and romantic relations it’s best for me to consider alternatives.
This is, ironically, what DFW argues in his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: that rhetoric is an element that traditional linguists have failed to consider in the majority of their arguments, either for or against prescriptivism. Language itself is, after all, something all humans use, either speaking, in sign-language, or in writing, and just because my artistic medium is the language itself does not give me leeway to judge all uses thereof. That would be like Picasso telling a house painter he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.
In hindsight, now that I’ve taken the time to think through these thoughts and write them here, and after revising said thoughts and the writing thereof on numerous occasions, and after the badly planned morning assault on my wife’s position in this argument–the result of which was said wife, in her bathrobe, picking up her laptop and stalking out of the living room where we’d previously sat together, peacefully enjoying our coffee and checking our email accounts–I have decided that when considering the immediate audience of my lawyer wife, and, by extension, my scientist sister-in-law, it is best to agree: lawyers and scientists can be pretty good writers.
First up, I never new I was a Prescriptivist. Secondly, I agree – good writing is dependent on and should be judged by the audience for whom the writing is intended.
Thanks for the read, and the note, Gloria. You very well could be a prescriptivist; you avoided ending your second clause with a preposition by its construction (i.e., you could’ve said “good writing depends on the audience it is intended for”). Wallace calls himself a SNOOT (and you can check out the original essay here: http://harpers.org/archive/2008/09/hbc-90003557), but even he would say that that preposition-ending rule is a rather ridiculous one.
Enjoyed this! 🙂
I’m glad for it, Heather!
Forgive me the long quote, but there’s a passage from Gary Snyder I often include on my syllabi that I really like as a way to think about “good writing”:
That’s a great Snyder quote, Steve. From “Language Goes Two Ways”? I saw that on yr website. Is that in A Place in Space?
Yes, it’s from “Language Goes Two Ways,” in A Place In Space. It’s also in the anthology The Alphabet Of The Trees: A Guide To Nature Writing, which you might pretty interesting, if you haven’t seen it. I think that’s where I read it first.
Academic English is to literature as Fox News is to reality.
Real critics don’t use it.
Nice analogy. Poignant right now.
First off, I don’t see why Descriptivists and Prescriptivists can’t coexist in perfect harmony. I accept the value of people who record and study the way language is actually used. Descriptivists are in the position of ethnologists who, for example, might study the dances of different cultures. On the other hand, there is also room for the dancing instructor: the person passionately committed to the Polka – there are such people, believe me – whose helps people reach the highest peak of Polka-ing they are capable of. I’d like to be a dance instructor of the written word: I am not abashed to say not only do I know what good writing is and what bad writing is, I can usually tell one from the other.
Good writing achieves the purpose of the author and is also original, elegant, and clear.
I know there are different disciplines which require specialized vocabulary and that some ideas cannot be expressed without a certain labyrinthine sentence structure. Take for example, this doozy from the opening pages of Being and Nothingness. I re-read this sucker so many times trying to parse its meaning, I ended up memorizing it:
“Can the phenomenon of being be reduced to the being of phenomena? No, the phenomenon of being while coextensive with phenomena is not subject to phenomenal constraint.”
I’m certainly not trying to insult Sartre by saying he’s a bad writer. And I don’t expect scientists to do without terms such as “dimensionless parameters” or lawyers to ditch “pari delicto,” even if I have no idea what these terms mean. Bad writing is not constituted by the fact I don’t happen to understand it.
Bad writing is exemplified by Calvin, a sweet-hearted ambitious student of mine, who has picked up the mistaken notion that good writing is a matter of putting a bunch of big, important-sounding words, into long, important-sounding sentences. Since what he considers important-sounding words are invariably words he doesn’t happen to understand, trying to read one of his essays is like picking your way through an especially brambly thorn bush. I wish I could say people like Calvin grew out of this tendency when they leave the tenth grade, but they don’t. I’ve heard educators – and actually, this kind of crap is rife among educators – who throw ten-dollar SAT words into their conversation like confetti, often with bizarre effects. I knew a teacher who loved the phrase “per se.” I have no idea what she thought it meant, except that she thought it sounded polished. She could be counted on to drop a “per se” after at least one noun in every sentence. “Thank God it’s Friday, per se,” she’d remark, and something inside me would die a little. Another one loved the word “whereas.” Again, I cannot imagine what she thought it meant, but she would throw it into sentences in a way calculated to jar the nerves of anyone who expects words to have meanings.
This is what makes bad writing (and bad speaking by the way). It isn’t clear or elegant because of superfluous and misplaced words, and it’s not original because like so many human diseases, it is spread by apish imitation. And what’s truly hilarious, it doesn’t even achieve the writer’s purpose, but just the opposite. People who say “price point” when “price” is what they mean, or throw in “whereases” or “per ses” at random, are trying to sound intelligent, educated, and sophisticated – but to anyone who isn’t at least as big a fool as they are, they sound worse than stupid.
Here here, per se
whereas, what I meant was “hear hear.”
Perhaps the criteria for “good” writing is that it clearly communicates an idea with the fewest words, whether those words are prescriptivist, Standard American English, or colloquial California mish-mash emoticon whoo-ha (of which I am fond). Of course, I find clear-cut pieces of writing that lack a distinctive voice to be boring as hell. Regardless of how good writing is defined, I wanted to say that I think this essay is an extraordinary example of it; love your analogy to Republican trickle-down economics. More, please!
Thanks Julia! And, yes, I’m, like, hella into some California English, or the Southern American variety I’m more often exposed to now here down South. Clarity, voice, distinctiveness, it’s all part of the bag.
By definition, “proper english” is nothing more or less than the best spin you could manage, on cue?
but, dualist entendres have been fought at nines…with all the subtlety of billiards or hand grenades. Chalk it up to inertia.
Winston Churchill, when reprimanded by an editor not to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, responded: “This is the kind of impertinence up with which I will not put.”
Three months later and I’m back because I saw this article and it made me think of your essay:
I read this in glee.
I think you’ve tried to philosophize something that is much simpler than you’ve made it sound. Good writing is just bad writing that has been stripped of cliche, arcane and old-fashioned vocabulary, too wide generalizations, clunky self-importance, plagiarism, grammatical errors and excessive ego. For instance, if I read another piece of non-fiction with the phrase “from whence it came” in it, I will kill myself. I read a news article with the idiom “lo and behold” today. A news article! And then I punched my monitor. Writing is putting one word after another word, after another word, after another word. You just pick the words. Alright, so that’s good writing. Oh, and of course scientists can be pretty good writers.
Like Wallace you misrepresent descriptivism. Descriptivists do distinguish between StE and what is non-standard, and they do accept that most languages will have socially prestigious dialects. But most of the silly claims made about descriptivism are scarcely worth commenting on. All modern scholarly study of linguistics is descriptivist. And prescriptivism and descriptivism can co-exist, they are not opposite ends of a spectrum.
But I thought that what was considered good writing was the writing of those writers acknowledged as the greats of the language.