Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Reading Bad Writing

It may come as no surprise that President Obama's recent inaugural effusions set your humble blogger on a tirade. You may, however, be pleased to know this tirade was strictly apolitical. In fact, the speech simply iced a cake which had been rising, layer by layer, for several months. The particular bugaboo this time was mine against bad writing. Now mind you there exist many shades on literature's spectrum and everyone has bad days and deadlines, but I'm noticing a downward trend. Maybe I'm just growing old and grumpy.

For my part, I am grateful to readers.  I assume that no content is ever so enthralling or persona magnetic that you can get away with a slight or cheap shot. I strive to please and thank all for coming back despite my literary mishaps. Every essay calls for a little persuasion, seduction even.

In fact, absent some linguistic enticement, writing takes on a strident tone. "You'll read me because I'm brilliant!" it insists. Salon seems to specialize in cultivating this self-important tone. You suffer through line after line of the author's indifference to clarity and style until you realize you labor more in trying to comprehend than the author did in conceiving. I find myself more and more often throwing my hands up and moving on. Unfortunately, I'm probably missing out on some good ideas which makes me even more surly.

So bad writing is ticking me off and it's everywhere. Let's look at a few ire-inducing examples.

1) Defective Cadence
"citizens who want to come to watch the state senate do things like" -Esquire
One wonders whether the author noticed the heavily iambic meter of this line, and how he builds up energy which crashes, without purpose, into the conclusion. Does he realize it reads like this:

"citizens who want to come to watch the state senate do things LIKE"

Of course one learns rhythm and meter in high school, but I first became aware of the need to avoid rhythms with unwanted effects or associations when I studied the prose rhythms of Cicero's Second Philippic.

2) What does it all means?
"He spoke in a soft voice, in an otherwise silent room." -Salon
You see how it's not really clear what's important in that sentence? Is it the softness, or the silence? After all, any sound would have shattered the silence. Also, isn't the construction sloppy? We want to make the two phrases with "in" parallel, especially because they're both indicating location, but the comma throws off the parallelism. The comma also puts the weight on soft, which as we established doesn't make any sense.

3) We Talk Like Dis

Another Silmaril from Salon:
"It’s like when you’re trying to decide on a restaurant with a new friend." -Salon
Choose, madam, the word you are looking for is choose.

4) Indirect Misstatement
even those for whom it is right can benefit from talking honestly about it. -Salon
On the one hand "for whom" is the indirect object of "it is right" and the subject of "benefit." Rectitude aside, don't Frankenstein your sentences. It is too easy in the name of efficiency to try to join clauses by any means possible. Sometimes, just make a compound: Even those who x, can y. Yay.

Similarly, from an opera blog:
[Her] unusual voice and compelling presence made Magda more interesting to me than I've found her in the past.
"More interesting" is shared between two verbs as the predicate of "made" and the direct object of "found." The result is an awkward shift in sense.

5) Participial Maze
by saying “these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he took a decided shot at Paul Ryan, || doubling down on Mitt Romney by adding in the next breath. . . -Vanity Fair
First, note how the ideas before and after my red break are unrelated and lay listlessly against one another. The participle doubling links the two phrases, however the speaker (President Obama) did not "take a shot" by doubling down, or at the same time as doubling down. The ideas are related forcibly by proximity, not logic. If you strip out the extraneous you see how disjointed the sentence is:

"He took a shot a Paul Ryan, doubling down on Mitt Romney."

That the author thought to squeeze in another quote at the end. . .

6) Chopped Up
"They spoke audibly enough that I had to work very hard to not hear them." -WQXR
  1. Too many short words makes a soupy sentence where nothing stands out, unless you make something stand out.
  2. The use of "that" to indicate the result that is logically unnecessary.
  3. There's too much junk cluttering the parallelism between to work/not to hear, which is why one does not feel the parallelism, which I believe is the point of the sentence.
Hence a broken sentence.

Perhaps instead, "They spoke so loudly [that] I strained. . ."

7) Apposedly Bad
"have shifted from youthful nihilism to pessimism to a less totalizing pessimism, one that leaves room for something approaching or at least nodding toward hope, change, possibility." -NY Times
This sentences loses momentum and grinds to a halt. Why?
  1. The phrase beginning "one that leaves" is simply in apposition to the previous sentence, mooching off of its energy.
  2. The phrases "something approaching" and "at least nodding toward" are too long. Also, they're too similar, only one is necessary. The author clearly couldn't find the word she was looking for,  meaning "acknowledges and leaves room for"
  3. The concluding asyndeton lets the sentence drip dry.
Instead: "have shifted from nihilism to total pessimism to a pessimism which admits some hope, change, or possibility."

8) It Burns!
"In my writing and podcasts, I’ve expressed my hatred of breastfeeding Nazis, my love of boxing, and my bafflement at arduinos. I have lots of opinions, but I’m not all that ideological, and my favorite stories I’ve written are the ones with the least bombast." -Hannah Rosin, Reddit AMA
  1. Syntactical Ambiguity: Does she hate [non-Nazis] breastfeeding Nazis or Nazis breastfeeding each other?
  2. She's not expressing emotion at the arduinos as in I'm angry at you, she's baffled because of them.
  3. "lots of" is not colloquial, like "a lot of," it's just wrong. Unless perhaps she has multiple lots full of opinions.
The boldface line is a doozy. She starts with the direct object, gives us the main verb and subject, then a predicate of the subject. The result is that:
  1. The "my" and "I" jockey for prominence to the confusion of the sense. Also, one of them provides redundant possessive information.
  2. The separation we noted above means she has to duplicate the sense of "my favorite stories" again after the verb with "are those with."
  3. After we're confused and exhausted, we finally get to the point at the end.
Instead: The least bombastic of my stories are the most dear to me.

In conclusion, bad writing is unpleasant reading and fruitlessly effortful work. I don't recall which pianist once said how much more difficult it is to play a bad piece of technically easy music than an excellent piece of challenging music. The same is true of reading. Write well, for the sake of your ideas and your readers.

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