The 7 Deadly Sins of Bad Writing

Courtesy of Flickr/TGKW

CORRECTION: The event is on Feb. 6 (not 7). If there’s time, I’ll add another sin of bad writing — inaccuracies.

Clichés, adverbs, flowery language and other deviants get sent to the Stanley Milner Library’s basement for one last breath before we banish them forever. Bring your laptops, tablets and notebooks for a fun workshop about common writing and storytelling mistakes.

 Here’s a preview of the seven sins. Come to the free workshop to find out how we’re getting rid of them (Feb. 6 7, Centennial Room, Stanley Milner Library, 7 pm). I’m seeking examples of bad writing that are your own (don’t be ashamed, I’ll be showing some of my sillies, too) or have been published OUTSIDE of Edmonton. Email them to omouallem@epl.ca.

Sin #1: Waiting to be inspired

Writing is a craft, like soapstone carving, and it is a skill, like accounting, and if you want to be good at either it takes practice. And practice shouldn’t be at the mercy of your moods. The next time you have “writer’s block” or are “waiting for the right words,” just put your butt in a seat and write. What comes out will most likely be bad, possibly dreadful, but you must get in the routine of writing to get better, and not to mention stronger-willed the next time you’re “not feeling it.”

Sin #2: Beginning at the very beginning

It might feel natural to start a story with “once upon a time,” but it also sets it up for a drawn out introduction that sucks the air from your story before it’s actually begun. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, start with a poignant moment. An awkward interaction, a thrilling encounter, a mysterious package – there’s always time to unveil the background after. Leave chronology to the historians. You are a storyteller.

Sin #3: The story is in the “words”

If that headline doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because I struggle to describe something I see so often, and that’s stories – if you can call them that – where the characters do nothing, want nothing, and therefore are nothing but devices to string together pretty words. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

Non-fiction writers like me are not off the hook; even in essays, the topic – like, say, helium depletion – should have a life of its own and struggle with factors threatening to hold it back, turn it into something it’s not, or dethrone it. But stacks of facts on one topic? However beautifully crafted they are, they don’t tell a story.

Three books on writing you should check out from EPL right now:

Sin #4: Going above and beyond…with clichés

All a cliché does is make your writing predictable and show you didn’t take the time to think an original thought. Some get so caught up in the plot and characters of their stories that they forget the pleasure of reading a thought that’s never been had before. Have you noticed how nothing is “rocket science” anymore? How everyone is careful not to forget about crossing Ts and dotting Is? Well, it’s not rocket science. It’s lazy writing.

Sin #5: High-calorie, zero-nutrition words

I don’t ideate. I imagine. Nor do I interface, implement or facilitate. Not when I can talk, do or make something easier. Business professionals are not the only sinners. I see this in newspapers, nonfiction books and hear it on my own lips when I have no idea what I’m talking about. Just look at this interview I did about the relationship between poetry and rap, when I know nothing about poetry, and tried to bluff. “Synergetic quality” haunts me to this day.

Sin #6: Cluttered sentences

We hear these things in conversations all the time – “essentially,” “to be fair,” “currently,” “a bit,” and other buffers – but they have little place in writing. Sometimes (or “from time to time”) you can employ them if you’re being conversational, but don’t underestimate the power of writing to the point. Be concise. Be clear. And if you can break a sentence into two or three, try it! Don’t forget to murder your adverbs and layoff half of your adjectives. You can conflate sins #3 and #4 with this crime, as well as innocuous little turds like “up” (as in, “check up on me later”) and “myself” (as opposed to “me”).

Sin #7: Calling first drafts final

If there’s one I commit the most, it’s this. The rush of finishing a story, a chapter, an outline, an email, is pleasant. Of course, it is. You started with nothing and now you have something. But it’s not complete and even the best drafts could be tweaked. Give yourself time to revisit your work before giving it to a reader. And give yourself even more time to shorten sentences, restructure paragraphs, scrape passages, and add telling details before it’s read. You must learn to love rewriting and, trust me, you can.

5 thoughts on “The 7 Deadly Sins of Bad Writing

  1. This. Is. Great.
    Why aren’t I at your *free* seminar right now? Oh yeah, because I thought it was tomorrow;)
    Kudos to you Omar for sharing your sillies (including that “synergistic quality”). Maybe you could follow up (delete “up”) er, follow this with something like the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Writers. I’d suggest that you demonstrate one habit well in this post: the ability to laugh at yourself, learn from faux pas and move “onward and upward.” (to end wth a cliche)
    P.S. One thing I do enjoy in writing is seeing cliches turned on their head, e.g. “It’s not rocket surgery …”

  2. Sorry about that… I did my best to fix it within 24 hours and make sure everybody knew the date changed.

    I think I might host it again toward the end of the year. A whopping 17 people showed up, so obviously there was lots of interest.

    I too enjoy turning cliches on their heads. It’s a good technique.

  3. I am interested in attending a workshop on 7 deadly sins of bad writing, when is it?
    I so identify, love and hate the word ALAP( As late as possible)

    Raminder

  4. Hi Raminder, this event already happened in February – sorry you missed it! Natasha has the summer off from her writer-in-residence duties, but she will be back at SCL in the fall, so please stay tuned for more information about her programs closer to September. Thanks, Jocelyn (Strathcona County Library staff)

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