More thoughts on good and bad prose

My most popular post on this blog, by quite a wide margin, is “What Makes Prose Good or Bad?” I’m not going to flatter myself by pretending this is because I have brilliant insights into prose writing. I think the post is popular because it’s a question that puzzles a lot of people, especially aspiring writers who are working to find a style that will resonate with readers.

My original post focused on prose that I enjoy. So what about the flip side of the coin? I decided to revisit the issue of good and bad prose and came up with a list of three things that I associate with “bad” writing.

To be clear: I don’t think any of these things make writing objectively bad.* Some of my favorite authors arguably do the very things that I’m going to complain about — Patrick Rothfuss, for example, uses a fair number of adjectives. This post is not intended as a concrete list of Things An Author Must Never Do. It’s just a list of things that I do not usually enjoy in prose.

So. With that disclaimer out of the way, here are some writing ticks that bug me.

1) Over-explaining

Naturally, when researching bad prose the first thing I did was Google “50 Shades of Grey quotes.” That yielded the following gem:

“Amy Studt is singing in my ear about misfits. This song used to mean so much to me; that’s because I’m a misfit. I have never fitted in anywhere.”

This is a prime example of one of my least favorite writing ticks: too much explanation. It interrupts the flow of a scene and I find it condescending. The character identified with a song called “Misfit” because she considers herself a misfit and never felt like she “fitted” in? Wow! I just couldn’t figure out why she might identify with that song on my own, so thanks for clearing that up!

Dan Brown is another major offender in this category. Here’s a line from the fourth chapter of The Da Vinci Code.

“As a boy, Langdon had fallen down an abandoned well shaft and almost died treading water in the narrow space for hours before being rescued. Since then, he’d suffered a haunting phobia of enclosed spaces – elevators, subways, squash courts.”

It’s not quite as bad as the 50 Shades sentence, but does Brown really think his reader needs three examples of enclosed spaces in order to understand Langdon’s claustrophobia?

2) Too many adjectives and adverbs

Well-chosen adjectives can help the reader picture a person or a scene more vividly. Poorly-chosen, voluminous, and unnecessary ones weigh down prose and deeply, utterly, and thoroughly bore the reader with excessive, mundane, and irrelevant detail. (See what I did there?)

For an example of how to over-use adjectives and adverbs, let’s take a look at my least favorite book ever: 1970s “romance” classic The Flame and the Flower,** which opens with the following paragraph.

“Somewhere in the world, time no doubt whistled by on taut and widespread wings, but here in the English countryside it plodded slowly, painfully, as if it trod the rutted road that stretched across the moors on blistered feet. The hot sweltering air was motionless; dust hung above the road, still reminding the restless of a coach that had passed several hours before. A small farm squatted dismally beneath the humid haze that lay over the marsh. The thatched cottage stood between spindly yews and, with shutters open and door ajar, it seemed to stare as if aghast at some off-color jest. Nearby, a barn sagged in poor repair about its rough-hewn frame and beyond, a thin growth of wheat fought vainly in the boggy soil for each inch of growth.”

To be fair, the paragraph does give the reader a clear image of where the heroine lives. But the number of adjectives makes the passage feel melodramatic to me.  Out of 131 words, at least seventeen are adjectives or adverbs, and many of them are redundant. Does the air need to be both hot and sweltering? Do we need a reminder that the air is humid in the very next sentence? The farm’s location is awful. We get it.

Contrast that with a passage from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

“On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix. Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks and on railway platforms throughout India, spilling from newspaper cones. Even now that there is barely space inside her, it is the one thing she craves. … She wipes sweat from her face with the free end of her sari. Her swollen feet ache against speckled gray linoleum. Her pelvis aches from the baby’s weight. She opens a cupboard, the shelves lined with a grimy yellow-and-white-checkered paper she’s been meaning to replace, and reaches for another onion, frowning again as she pulls at its crisp magenta skin.”

That passage is 164 words long and I count eight adjectives or adverbs (not including colors). And yet in my opinion Lahiri has done a much better job of setting the scene than Kathleen Woodiwiss has. Lahiri chooses smart nouns and verbs that do her descriptive work on their own. When I read the Woodiwiss passage, I can conjure a generic mental image of a crappy farm. When I read the Lahiri passage, I feel like I’m in that kitchen with Ashima, feeling my feet throb against the linoleum and peeling away the skin of a red onion.

3) Confusing sentence structures

This is something that I struggle with myself — any time I edit my writing, I find at least one baffling sentence with about fourteen randomly ordered clauses. So I often notice when fiction writers use over-complicated sentence structures and way too many words. Here’s another example from The Flame and the Flower.

“She could barely summon the happy times prior to that weary day she had been brought here, the softer days spilling over the years as she grew from baby to young woman, when her father, Richard, had been alive and she lived with him in a comfortable London house, wearing stylish clothes, having enough food to eat.”

Run-on sentence alert! The heroine used to be happy, but she’s not happy here, she lived with her father from birth to “young womanhood,” her father’s name was Richard, they lived in London, and she used to dress stylishly and eat well. That’s a lot of information for one sentence to handle even without the unnecessary explanation that days turn into years if you add up enough of them.

Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, has issues with awkward sentences too. I found the following example via the very thorough Twilight-mocking blog Reasoning with Vampires:

“The look she directed at me then was a glare.”

Why not just “She glared at me”? What is the purpose of turning a four-word idea into a ten-word sentence?

So, fellow readers and writers, do you agree with my list? Any egregious prose crimes to share in the comments? (Bonus points if they come from your own writing!)


* I’m not sure I believe there is an objective standard for good or bad prose. What I find purple and tedious, others find lush and transporting. To each their own.

** I highly recommend this review of The Flame and the Flower by guest blogger AJH at Dear Author. It is laugh-out-loud funny. It is also generous to Woodiwiss and her legacy while acknowledging the huge problems that the book has by modern standards. (See: rape as a prelude to True Love. Ick.) Plus, AJH loved Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, so he is clearly good people.


2 comments on “More thoughts on good and bad prose

  1. Peter says:

    Thought I’d try rewriting that paragraph from The Flame and the Flower.

    Somewhere in the world time was whistling by on taut wings, but here in the English countryside it plodded with blistered feet along the rutted road stretching across the moors. The hot air was motionless. Dust hung above the road, stirred up by a coach that had passed by several hours ago. A small farm squatted beneath the haze covering the marsh. The thatched cottage stood between spindly yews; with its shutters open and door ajar, it seemed to stare aghast at some off-color jest. A barn sagged about its rough-hewn frame nearby, and beyond a thin stalk of wheat struggled in the boggy soil for each inch of growth.

    What do you think? Great post, by the way.

    • That’s a huge improvement IMO! The sentences are much crisper and it retains the dramatic, poetic quality of the descriptions without making the sentences feel flabby.

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