Reading and writing “broken” text can teach an appreciation of what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to great writing.
If you had to write truly, terribly, unreadably-yawnful-awful text, how would you do it? How might you truly botch it? Is it about going full-hog for dis-clarity and deliberate obfuscation — complete with mixed metaphors and large tracts of nonsense?
Luckily, the design principles for producing poor writing have been explored and exposed.
The principles of poor writing
“The Principles Of Poor Writing” is a satirical essay by Paul Willard Merrill published in 1947. It goads students to adhere to these poor principles in the hopes they will abandon them.
Here are a few examples of Merrill’s “principles of poor writing.”
- The cardinal sin of poor writing is to be concise and simple.
- Use plenty of deadwood.
- Adjectives are frequently used to bewilder the reader.
- Write hurriedly, preferable when tired.
We are used to hearing things like “be concise and simple,” “murder your darlings,” and “write carefully and thoughtfully.” Thus, these reverses strike us as fresh and funny.
How might you write an essay on what not to do when writing?
How not to write a novel
While Merrill’s essay is satirical, it is beautifully written. Another approach might be to craft awful writing, using Merrill’s principles at face value, for the purpose of humor-filled teaching. If you were to eat a slice of cake where the cook used salt instead of sugar, you’ll have empirical knowledge of why you should never do this.
So, how about this illustration of over-complicating your dialogue tags to show why not to do it?
“What do you think of my fiction book writing?” the aspiring novelist extorted.
“I cannot publish your novel!” the editor hectored, in turn. “It is full of what we in the business call ‘really awful writing.’”
The writer tossed his head about wildly, exclaiming, “But how shall I absolve this dilemma? I have already read every tome available on how to write well and get published!”
“It might help,” opined the editor, helpfully, “to ponder how NOT to write a novel, so you might avoid the very thing!”
Certainly, you don’t want to write mis-examples inadvertently, but could you write some for fun? Instead of being told just to use “said,” it can be helpful to see how tone-deaf text reads when it is packed with too many unhelpful words.
In How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them — A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, another satirical work that teaches sound writing principles via bad examples, Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman provide more advice on all aspects of writing a great novel.
A great many plot problems that show up in unpublished manuscripts can be resolved with a single strategy. Know what the chase is, and cut to it. Furthermore, it should be something of broad interest. One of the first stumbling blocks a novelist must overcome is the misapprehension that what is of interest to him will necessarily be of interest to anybody else.
Of all known ways of killing an editor’s interest in your book, style is the swiftest and deadliest: the literary equivalent of a fast-acting poison. While a tiresome plot and wooden characters may take paragraphs or even pages to kill an editor’s interest, a droning or inarticulate voice can put a stop to all reading in a single sentence.
You’ll laugh out loud at these parody texts, and the more you understand about writing craft, the funnier it will hit you.
Failing on purpose
So, how do you produce unreadable text on purpose? How about designing a whole book – badly?
A book synopsis is a mirror of the design of your book. This summary document is your chance to show off your substance and style, which makes it easy to break in countless creative ways.
Can you find the heart of this book from its synopsis? Can you even understand what the book might be about?
Synopsis of “Untitled Book”
In Chapter 1, I introduce lots of characters. I have four protagonists and another 20 fantastic strangers moving in and out of this chapter. Don’t worry, there are tons more to come! I frame the opening as a 10-page description of the weather and the bog where the story is not set… it’s a big red herring so readers will be super surprised when they find out it takes place in San Francisco.
Chapter 2 is a hoot because it’s almost all dialogue. It’s really razor sharp because some of the characters get into a fight, but don’t actually fight. Low-key tension. Wow. Are they happy to let loose — just a bit — before they have to tackle the BIG PLOT in this book. I made a bunch of arcane references to comic book characters that only a few people will know to add an aura of mystery.
Chapter 3 is where the action starts to pick up. Things happen — fast, fast, fast! You’ll love this chapter. I was thinking about UFOs while I wrote it, so I threw in some references, but the 14 mini-scenes are all about different peoples’ views on the value of cable TV! Mixing it up!
Chapters 4-11 is where the action really heats up. I have so many things going on in all directions I can’t even remember it all! You’ll just have to read it! Quick, quick, quick. These 900 pages FLY BY.
Chapter 12. Okay, I was sad during this time, but I plowed through anyway. It’s the wedding scene of a brand-new character, but I just couldn’t help being a touch morose. It just crept in and I ran with it!
Chapter 13. So, the four, well, now eight, main protagonists are back front and center! I purposely kept them away so you’ll really want them back again. We’re not even certain where they went. MYSTERY! This book has something for everyone. We are edging into the home stretch here. There’s a storm of action leading up to this, so I purposely slowed things down, like fish peacefully swimming around an aquarium. You can just hear that filter bubbling away gently in the background, can’t you? There are three different meal scenes to show how every day this really is.
Chapters 14-66. Piranha! Ah! Tricked you into thinking all was well, right? But it’s not! Serious peril. Bet you didn’t see that coming! I mean, not a real piranha, but well, you know what I mean! Fierce! Not just one, a flock of flesh-eaters descend all over the plot and cause CHAOS. You will not BELIEVE what I did in these chapters. I CAN’T WAIT for you to read them all.
Chapter 67. Whoo. Finally, the end. I was exhausted by this time, but I hope you think it was worth it!
Dawn Field (July 20, 1969 – May 2, 2020)
In late 2015, Dawn Field submitted her first post to the BookBaby Blog. A molecular biologist, Senior Research Fellow of the NERC Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, guest professor at the University of Goeteborg in Sweden, and co-author of the book, Biocode: The New Age of Genomics, Dr. Field came to us hoping to find a forum to share her experience and love of language with an audience of writers. While many unsolicited submissions don’t quite meet the needs (or standards) of our readers, something about Dawn’s writing stood out. I posted the article, and to my grateful amazement that initial contribution flourished into a five-year collaboration resulting in nearly 100 posts published on the BookBaby Blog. Sadly, on May 2nd, a voice that was an inspiration to so many of us in the self-publishing community was lost when Dr. Field suddenly and tragically passed away at the age of 50. We will continue to publish the pieces Dawn had submitted (she was always months ahead of schedule) in honor of her commitment to teaching and to the craft of writing. Rest in peace, Dawn.
Counterintuitive Advice On The Craft of Writing
Let your dialogue do the talking
The value of a great book synopsis
A Stellar Book Opening… It’s Not About The Weather
What writing rules do you live by (and which ones do you break)?