Saturday, May 30, 2009

Good Writing vs. Bad Writing

It's very easy to spark a debate over writing quality. What makes it good or bad?

Throw a popular novel into the mix, like TWILIGHT, THE DAVINCI CODE, or HARRY POTTER and you are certain to stir the pot.

Now as fond as I am of the pot (wait, did that come out right ;-), I'm going to shy away from popular fiction and instead use an example I discovered today while I was watering my lawn. Someone from our home owners' association stopped by handing out flyers. It seem we have the option to convert our gas street lights to electric. That's not the critical issue. I'm all for the change.

The problem is this sentence:

"The builder with the intention of providing nighttime illumination, since we do not have streetlights in our community, installed these lamps."

What's wrong with the sentence? There are no misspellings. The comma placement is appropriate for an appositive, so the punctuation is correct. The information provided is complete, I can read it and understand what the implication.

The problem is the syntax. The information does not flow properly. Technically it is not wrong, but it could be better. It should read:

"The builder installed these lamps with the intention of providing nighttime illumination, since we do not have streetlights in our community."

All I did was move "installed these lamps" to after builder. The clause that follows, "with the intention of providing nighttime illumination," relates more to the installation of the lamps than the builder.

When people gripe about bad writing, issues like this are usually prevalent. This has nothing to do with the plot or characterization. It's the way the story is told.

For those of you that say "So what? I read this blog for your smart-ass observations on life and your family, not to learn about writing. Show me the funny, dammit!" Please do so in the comments section, so that I may dole out smart-ass replies in turn.


Vodka Mom said...

honestly, that shit just makes me shake my head.


Cause frankly, that's all it really takes. Ya read what ya write. THEN make a bazillion copies and pass them out.

Rick Daley said...

I'm ok with a typo. I just re-read the post and found a couple of my own. It's different when the entire sentence structure is wrong. That's when you meaning can get skewered. And not in a savory grilled shish-ka-bob way. I mean skewered in a dagger-through-the-heart kind of way.

Lady Glamis said...

Sadly, that reminds me of those Japanese manuals-in-English for a camera or DVD player where NOTHING makes sense. I've read books that make me feel the same way. I'm not naming titles or authors. ;)

Crimogenic said...

Yup, when I read the sentence I was thinking uh, this is bad, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense as written. However, when I'm writing I don't have the brain to figure out when my sentences don't make a whole lot of sense. Go Figure.

Weronika said...

I agree with Vodka Mom (;))--why don't people just take a moment to go over the written portion of a poster?

So many of my blog posts will have a typo or a missing word, but messy syntax is pretty significant, I think.

Thanks for another thoughtful post!

Tara Maya said...

Funny, but true. If you have to read the sentence three times, or it sounds like it was transliterated from German, it's bad writing.

I do think there's such a thing as objectively bad writing. But I agree, once you start throwing down extremly successful novels, it undermines the point that some novels are a matter of taste and others are universally panned.

Anonymous said...

You wrote:
The builder installed these lamps with the intention of providing nighttime illumination, since we do not have streetlights in our community."

How 'bout:
With the intention of providing nighttime illumination, the builder installed these lamps because we do not have any frickin streetlights in our cheap-o town.

Rick Daley said...


That could work except for the town part. The lights were just for our neighborhood. But if we agree that mincing words is just too much of a hassle, I'll accept you suggestion as-is.

And I would like to point out the underlying irony that exists between our tax rates and the town's cheapness, as there is a marked disparity.