You may have written your first draft of a story or novel and have to face the fact that you feel your writing is, in fact, bad. You had such great ideas, but your draft was far from what you imagined when you tried to put them in writing. You might ask yourself why your writing is so bad when you have so many great ideas.

Your writing may be bad because you may have neglected to learn the ins and outs of the writing craft. You tried so hard to be writerly that you bogged your story down in superfluous details, and you indulged in cliches. Most lousy writing also shows a lack of proper editing. 

Don’t be discouraged if you feel your writing is terrible. You can learn to improve your craft. Below are some of the leading causes of poor writing and some solutions to this dilemma. 

1. You Haven’t Done Your Homework

It’s a popular misconception in the non-writing world that anyone who can speak a fluent language and type can easily be an author. You could look at writing like taking up the violin; just because you can hold a bow and move your arm doesn’t make a maestro. If you’re serious about improving your writing and writing well, you need to put in the time and dedication.

It would be best if you had some understanding of the inner workings of the writing craft before you expect your prose to shine. You don’t need to join expensive writing courses or have a college degree (although this may help.) Much of the craft of wiring can be self-taught by reading extensively and learning from the masters who came before you. 

Solution

  • Read books on the craft of writing voraciously and learn from some of the greats.
  • Read extensively from the classic and modern masterpieces, first for pleasure and then with a pencil and a critical eye in how the novels achieved their fame. 
  • Short story writing and poetry are a great warm-up to your potential novel and teach you much of the art of expression and characterization in an intensive form. 
  • Learn the art of editing your work and rewriting, as even great authors aren’t always brilliant in their first drafts of writing. 

2. You’re Trying Too Hard

Often newbie writers fall into the trap of trying to be ‘writerly’ and bog down their prose with adjectives and archaisms. When you’re overly conscious of your writing, the result is often stilted.

For instance, if Larry walked up the hill, let Larry walk up the hill, for Pete’s sake! Don’t let Harry ‘perambulate peripatetically; his bony shoulders slumped o’er the graveled turf.’

There’s a place for more flowery prose in the parts of your story that are pivotal, and you need to draw the reader in for a closer look. But if you let your writing become a showpiece for your extensive descriptive vocabulary, you might just end up losing your readers. Ultimately, your focus should arguably be on the story, not on your masterful writing skills.

Solution 

  • When you find yourself in love with your erudite turn of phrase, kill your darlings. Your reader wants to experience the story, not a showcase of your writing ability. 
  • Don’t bog your writing down with superfluous descriptions and asides, and allow your story to move. 
  • Watch out for adjectives and adverbs in your writing, as they can be hallmarks of lazy and cluttered writing.

3. You’re Indulging in Cliches

Cliches can bog down prose like a ton of bricks (see what I mean?). When writers indulge in often said prosaic cliches, they lose the readers’ interest. After all, readers seek new and fresh experiences hungrily and are soon put off by reading tired and often used sayings. 

You should be constantly aware of cliches in your writing, and instead of using tired old adages, you should use the opportunity to make your writing fresh and original. So instead of ‘he punched him so hard he saw stars, why not ‘he punched him so hard his brain flared up like the fourth of July’? Okay, that’s awful, but you get my gist. 

Cliches don’t just exist on the sentence level. Your storyline and characters can also be cliche. The dark and brooding ex-policeman carrying a torch for his ex-wife and the blonde vixen with breasts straining against her shirt is done to death. The bad boy who changes his ways for the pretty and intelligent girl next door STOP!

To make engaging stories with characters that a reader falls in love (or hate) with, you need to find original ways of expression. You can’t out-Anne Rice Anne Rice, no matter if you call your vampire Rudolf instead of Lestat. Use your life experiences to create something new and engaging.

Solution

  • Try and avoid cliches in your writing as they make your text unengaging and bore your readers.
  • Don’t follow too closely on often repeated plotlines, especially in genre fiction.
  • Make well-rounded and conflicted characters and stay away from two-dimensional archetypes. Each villain should be a bit of a saint and vice versa.
  • Try and create your own engaging and original analogies whenever you come across ‘like…” in your writing.

4. You’re Not Taking the Time To Edit Your Work Properly

Stephen King uses a 10 percent rule when he edits his work. After each spell at writing, he lets his writing sit for a day or two and then takes out at least 10 percent of his written draft. You’d be surprised at how many famous writers’ first drafts are actually fairly awful until they edit and rewrite their prose into a fine sheen. 

It would be best if you were quite ruthless with your writing when you turn to it with an editor’s eye. If it’s not paying rent, it’s got to go. Any writing, no matter how well written, has no place in your story unless it drives the action and serves a purpose. 

Many experts agree that Gordon Lish created Raymond Carver’s success by his ruthless editing of Craver’s work. There’s no doubt that Carver was a great talent, but Lish put Carver’s writing on the map and secured his place as a literary giant. If you haven’t discovered the wonders of Carver, I highly suggest you read his masterful art of fiction. (https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3059/the-art-of-fiction-no-76-raymond-carver)  

Solution

  • The editing process can turn your prose from a frog to a prince. By eliminating all the prose that weighs your story down, you can breathe life into your work. 
  • Don’t be afraid of a mediocre to bad first draft. The first draft is where you let your imagination run wild, and you leave your inner critic picking his nose somewhere. 

There are some great books on the editing process to learn to refine and rewrite your own work. Here are a few I found really helpful on Amazon:

Conclusion

Don’t be too hard on yourself if your writing seems terrible. Recognizing that you need to improve your writing is the first step on your journey to becoming the writer that you want to be. Remember that a writer who doesn’t write a word is far worse off than a bad writer on the road towards improvement

And try to have fun! 🙂 Ask some friends for feedback on your work. Maybe your writing is brilliant and you just don’t realise it. A helpful and positive writer’s community can make the lonely times and the doubt much more fun!

Sources


Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.