When Good Writing Goes Bad

We are as individual about our reading choices as anything else.  As unique within our talent for writing as the strands of DNA that make up who each of us are.   What makes a story good?  What makes writing good?  Geez, I don’t know.  It’s totally subjective.  Sure, there are those who might share some of our tastes for certain books and/or writing styles, but, one thing I can say with some sense of certainty is this; when it comes to what’s classified as good writing, or not, will kick up heated discussions and fuel passionate positions.

This is what makes writing a bestseller such a huge deal.  I mean, you have a “load”  of people who liked the story, who liked the writing.  And all those people can’t be wrong – can they?  What makes a bestseller (to me) is when someone writes the sort of story I wouldn’t ever read, but I still find it good.

Here’s a good example of what I mean.  I read a chapter of a story recently that was SciFi (keeping in mind, I don’t read SciFi) but it was really good.  It was from an excerpt, online – some site where you could post a bit of your story and get feedback.  I recognized that the author hooked me right away, even though the story involved strange and bizarre terms about creatures who don’t exist, along with a lifestyle intended to be “alien,” and technical jargon for explaining how their rocket booster worked – or something.  I.  Didn’t.  Care.  It was good writing, a good story, and when that happens, no matter the genre, the author has certainly achieved a goal.

Then I read another story, and it too was an excerpt.  It would be classified as literary fiction, which I  love, yet…, I couldn’t love this one.  I couldn’t even like it.  It was a simple enough story, yet there were two areas where I cringed.  I cringed even though what was happening within the story was perfectly fine, but there was this unnecessary detail.  Like a beautiful face with a big scar in the middle of a forehead.  There seemed to be this obsessive sort of focus on a particular action.  It was a turn off because the writer could have easily chosen to structure the sentences in such a way as to get the point across without seeming like they were trying so hard.  It came out all wrong – at least to me.  It came out as good writing gone bad.

I’m not talking about the kind of writing that takes description to the “nth” degree.  I’m not talking about slips where someone might write she nodded her head.  Or, they were swimming in the water.  Or that he clapped his hands.  Not that sort of thing, although it was centered around the action of a character.  Something the writer chose to make them do twice, under different circumstances, as if the author was struck by this particular detail and decided to repeat it.  A “yes!  the story needs this to happen…, and everyone who reads this will say, wow, this author is in tune with the characters emotionally.”  Not me.  My reaction?  I was like GAH, don’t like it, don’t like it at all.  And the thing is…, the image that surfaced by choice of words was more than likely intended to be something completely different.

I got it, I did, except not in the way the author wanted.

Funny, because the story would have been fine without these strange, awkward details.  The story would have been better, actually.  I probably would have liked it.  I went back and read it again, at least twice, and had the same reaction.  It’s a shame, because sometimes, this is all that it takes for writers to be rejected.  A minute detail.  Readers are smart, while writers tend to get too close, try too hard, and when we do, it totally stands out.  Our works screams at us to back off, or more like back the f— up,  and re-write it.  Re-write it without any melodrama, without concerted effort. (well, we know there is real effort, just don’t make yourself look like a total slack ass)

Write it without throwing yourself on a sword, all for the sake of trying to stir up emotion.  There’s nothing that stands out more than writing loaded up with the effort of trying.  With my own writing, sometimes I can see it, sometimes I can’t

How do you know when you’re pushing too hard?








“There’s nothing that stands out more than writing loaded up with the effort of trying.” This is so true!!!


Because I’m stuck with getting my point across in 600 words I don’t get a chance to push too hard. But when I get too wordy reading aloud raises my flag. Hey, once I get rid of the extra cheese I get to add more meat.


    Lucky you with the columns to practice the technique of less equals more -at least in that case, right?? That’s another reason I loved JR’s flash fiction. But, reading aloud is a definitely a great way to recognize awkwardness in words, or simply having too much. If I think “Oh, Lord, get over yourself Donna, while reading….the I DELETE.

    Okay, now I’m hungry for a good, “Northern,” grinder!


“…but, isn’t there ever a moment when you go back and read something you’ve written – even before it gets to those editors and beta readers, and you know it’s a bit much? It’s overkill, wordy, taken one step too far?”

Constantly. Lately, every day.
Every day lately I’m writing anything from 600 to 2000 words, and huge swathes of it are overwritten and wordy and too much, and I know it. Every day, when I begin, I go through and revise the previous day’s work, fix a lot of that stuff. Some of it doesn’t feel true, so it has to go — but I leave a lot of it in too, and even add more of it some days.
I feel very free to write outrageously bad first drafts now, as long as I get a story written down, because no one is going to steal it off my desk and publish it before it’s done. I think the more free we feel to write a bad first draft, the more open we can be to write the deepest truths within, those bastards we hide from ourselves. That’s where the best stuff is.

I suppose a better answer to your original question would be that I know I’m pushing too hard when I read the work aloud, using each character’s voice, which is what I do sometimes while I’m writing and always when I revise the next day.
But still, it works better for me to leave it as Too Much, wait for beta readers and editors to attack, and judge it for myself once everyone’s had their say. Because, for me, the closer we get to Too Much the better. It’s a fine line.
I’ve also edited a couple of very good books, and in the end, what I apply to other people’s work is the same as what I apply to my own. If it feels true — for the sort of story it is — then it stays. But of course, it’s always going to be more difficult to judge your own work.


    Funny you say this – this meaning where you allow yourself to write the bad draft…and where you leave some of that Too Much in…and wait for beta/editors. I say funny – because just yesterday, when my husband asked how the book was coming, I said, “sometimes I think I’m too close to it, and stuff I want to take out maybe should stay. I should let my readers and editor tell me.” So it does get to that point b/c we’re so close to it, right? And yes, it is SO hard to judge one’s own work…who knows, it’s possible I’ve ripped out some of the better stuff and left crap in. Speaking of crap, it’s really a crap shoot, isn’t it??? XO


      Yes, I think it kind of is.
      All we can do is keep choosing the best we can. I don’t think there’s ever been a book published that the writer wouldn’t change if they reread it later — it’ll never be perfect, but when you get to the point you’re putting something back in that you took out after putting it back in after taking it out, you’re pretty much done.
      I got to that with Midlife, and with another book I edited — and while I’d still change them if I could, I also think some of those changes might make them worse.
      We just do our best, and we hope… but it’s important to eventually call a book done and move on, because the next book’s going to be better.


Probably, I always push too hard. But for me, that’s okay, because I find it easier to back pedal, take stuff out, make the 2nd draft more subtle, than to add Something to where there was Nothing.
And I have two good editors, plus other good early readers, who are not afraid to tell me when I’ve written shit.
So I push as hard as I can, knowing it all can be fixed, and for me that seems to be working. I have stories on their way that I’m very happy with. Whether they’ll sell or not’s another matter…
Time tells that story.


    Yeah…, but, isn’t there ever a moment when you go back and read something you’ve written – even before it gets to those editors and beta readers, and you know it’s a bit much? It’s overkill, wordy, taken one step too far? I do understand that we all push for those perfect word choices and sentences, but I also recognize when I’ve overdone it, and when others have too. I’ve read a lot of Larry Brown a writer from Mississippi who died much too young. Either way, he’s been compared to Faulkner, but there have been a few of his stories where I could “see” him reaching, and as a reader I don’t want to notice.


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