“Bad Writing” versus Style

I think about this one often.  There are so many rules out there, like “Never use anything except said for dialogue attribution” or “Always avoid verbs that end in -ing” or “Remove words that weaken a sentence.”

And I get why the rules exist.  I get that having dialogue where everyone exclaims and proclaims and does anything except simply say what they have to say is a problem.  But…

There’s a time and place for having someone shout or scream.

And, I’m sorry but “I almost turned away” and “I turned away” are not the same thing.  Now, maybe in this example the answer isn’t to remove almost, but it’s to change it to something like “I flinched.”

But I see these discussions over and over again on writing forums.  Someone can have an incredibly successful book, one that connects with readers and sells well and has good word of mouth and someone else will come along and say, “But they’re really a bad writer.  Did you see how many adverbs they used?”

To which I want to say, “Oh bullshit.”  If they can sell that many copies of whatever it is they write, then they are a good writer.  In the sense that they’re good enough at telling a story to draw in readers.  How many of us can say that?

And I honestly think that if everyone followed the rules like some religious practice, we’d lose the unique voice of each author.  Because much of what’s unique about each of us is the words we choose to use, the emphasis we choose to place, and the way we arrange things.  And much of how that’s accomplished is through breaking the rules.

Sure, the rules exist for a reason.  My favorite one to discuss is show vs. tell.  I get it.  I do.  Better to show people than tell them.  But you can’t show them everything.  You have to tell some things. And the choice between what you show and what you tell is what makes that story yours as opposed to someone else’s.

I’m sure my opinion on this will evolve over time.  But I can say this: As a reader, before I started writing, it never even occurred to me to put down a book because someone used too many adverbs or had a character describe themselves in a mirror.

I did put down books that were boring.  Or that weren’t internally consistent.  (Well, actually, I didn’t.  I just hated them as I finished reading them because otherwise the stupid, idiotic story would continue in my head until I did.)

So, my opinion for now is this:  If your story isn’t connecting with readers, then look to the rules.  If people read what you write and love it, then screw the rules.  Whatever you’re doing works and you should keep right on doing it regardless of what any of the haters have to say.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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