Learning from Bad Writing

I recently read the first chapter of a poorly written book which shall remain nameless. My first instinct was to delete it and move on, but then I remembered you can always learn something from other writers, even if it’s what not to do. So I read the first chapter again and tried to pinpoint exactly why I thought it was poorly written.

The first thing that jumped out at me is the overuse of exclamation points! There’s nothing wrong with using exclamation points when they’re called for! Just don’t throw them around willy-nilly!

The second thing that bugged me was the numerous unexplained references. A little confusion is a good way to hook a reader and keep them reading. Who is this character? What are they doing? How did they get here? Why are they being chased? We continue reading, hoping to find out the answers. But when there’s too many references to things that haven’t been explained yet, the reader isn’t drawn in, they tune out.

Thirdly, the writing was repetitious. The same phrases got used over and over. When a particular phrase is used over and over, and the reader has to read the same phrase over and over, the reader tunes out. Writers, please don’t keep using the same wording over and over.

Cliches are used, which kind of ties into the third point. Readers are bored when characters says things they’ve heard before. There’s only so many times you can come across a saying like, “I’m a doctor, not a miracle worker” before you chock it up to lazy writing. Try to say something new.

The fourth thing that jumped out at me was a sudden switch from third person to first person. It was supposed to be the thoughts of the character, so maybe I’m being nit-picky here, but when you switch from first to third person, or change from past to present tense, or something else like that, it reminds the reader they’re reading a story. You want to do that as little as possible. With good writing, readers often forget they’re reading and become absorbed with the story.

The fifth thing that made me think this was bad writing was how abrupt it was. There’s a scene in which a character turns into an animal, which is fine for horror/fantasy, but the transition happened too fast. He was a human, then suddenly an animal. That sort of thing is jarring for readers. Spend some time describing the transformation. Does it hurt to transform? Is it strange to be in a different body? Was it hard to transform at first, but seems normal now, or is it one of those things that’s always jarring?

Related to the fifth point, there’s another scene where the character takes a deep breath and dives underwater. Then, suddenly, he’s about to run out of air. This happened too fast. I believe the average person can hold their breath for about two to three minutes. The reader needs to feel like a couple of minutes have passed, not a couple of seconds. Slow down. Don’t be in such a hurry to get the scene out of the way.

So anyway, I stopped reading after the first chapter. Maybe the book ends up getting better later, but as a writer, you’ve got to grab the reader from the first sentence and don’t let them get away. The first chapter is the most important, so spend the most time on it.

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