Bad writing ?

Recently I read the blog of an agent I admire because of her no-nonsense advice on querying and general writing tips and I was somewhat taken aback by what she believed was bad writing. While I agreed with 3 out of the 4 examples she gave, I found myself pondering 1 of them. The agent said the following was just plain bad writing:

“A scream escaped her throat.”

She preferred the minimalist:

“She screamed”.

Now, I do understand why she included this, as it certainly feels awkward, but leaving that aside … it does in fact convey something much more than simply “She screamed”.

It infers that the screamer attempted to hold back the scream; thus, the scream just couldn’t suddenly come out, it had to escape her throat.

This raises more questions: was she choking or being choked; was she so terrified to make noise that she wanted to hold in the scream but couldn’t?

In essence, the writer is trying to convey something more than a simple scream, and to generate reader engagement with the screamer’s predicament.

So, is this truly bad writing or simply writing that the readers of today won’t accept, because it may seem too literary in composition and therefore hard to read?

I personally believe the latter.

I mean, Charles Dickens was a fabulous writer of words, providing incredibly rich descriptions. He was a literary giant, but his style of writing would fail miserably today. No one has the attention span to slog through the verbiage. Elmore Leonard rules, Dickens drools. Which is mildly funny, since Leonard had been called ‘the Dickens of Detroit’.

I get it. A writer must go with the flow and realize that his / her writing must be as spare as possible to allow the reader of today to access it. This is or presumably will be your audience after all.

However, perhaps a better example of what the agent was trying to convey might be this: (Full Disclosure: I plagiarized this from in a guest blog of advice by Leslie Wells)

“Meticulously and carefully, Dr. Pedantic graded the exams.”

Edited sentence: “Dr. Pedantic graded the exams meticulously.”

Meticulously and carefully convey similar meanings, so the writer needs only one of them to get the point across. Here, the first sentence certainly contains too much verbiage and adds nothing to the sentence or to the story.

Do you agree, disagree?

Do you have more examples?

If so please comment below.

(BTW, if anyone is interested in writing advice and how to self-publish in today’s market, I am just delving into the website mentioned above by Joe Konrath and it looks full of information and good advice ferom someone who has gone that route. Another excellent site is Hugh Lowey’s .)


4 thoughts on “Bad writing ?

    1. colinjkeats Post author

      Yes indeed, Ursula, I think that would work nicely; however, in the interest of spare writing, the one word either ‘meticulously’ or ‘carefully’ might sum it up. It depends what the author is trying to convey, doesn’t it? (Which is why I took issue with the agent’s assessment of that one sentence in the first place). When I think of someone being careful, I also receive the impression of a slowness behind the action. So in your example ‘carefully’ could be used in the spare version. If slowness was not necessarily to be implied by the writer, then ‘meticulously’ might be used instead. I know many people who are meticulous but very quick at what they do.
      There is the common belief in today’s writing that adverbs should be done away with altogether, in favour of choosing the strongest verb possible. Which I agree with to a certain extent; for example, “The ghost scared him badly.” as opposed to “the ghost terrified him”, but adverbs … oh adverbs … can be SO delicious when used properly. It would be a shame to do away with them, wouldn’t it? Thank you for commenting!


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