Destroying Bad Writing Without Destroying Spirits

Because you can’t always say “this is the worst thing I’ve ever read in my entire goddamned life,” sometimes you have to get creative.

1. Find a glimmer of better writing, one place where you stopped throwing up long enough to take a breath. This is something you compliment. “It’s interesting [or rather less barfworthy than what came before] how you describe flowers as baby kittens, maybe you could talk more about that?”

2. Take the worst repeating offense and offer clear and concrete examples as to why it doesn’t work. “When you said that she has legs of steel and abs of ripped granite, I get confused. I can’t quite picture how granite might be ripped. Could you use another example there?”

“When you say ‘her skin was a creamy cafe au lait,’ I feel as if this is an image that is used a lot to describe women of color. [or if you don’t know that they understand the term woman of color *ahem, my college students* then use the following] I’ve seen it before. Can you think a new way to describe the character?” (No, really, click on that link. You will laugh so hard that your cafe au lait will go up your nose, no matter what color your nose is.)

3. Take something you hate and come up with some scenarios to make you hate it incrementally less.

“What if you took the second stanza, which reads ‘the school/ was by the pool/ I stared at the tool/ it was a wrench/ from my bench/ that was once held by Judi Dench’ and varied the rhyme a little?”

“Maybe you could explain circumstances earlier that lead up to the arrival of an alien spaceship in the last chapter of what is otherwise a Regency romance.”

4. Vent elsewhere, like here for example.

What’s the worst writing you’ve read recently?


13 responses to “Destroying Bad Writing Without Destroying Spirits

  1. With beginning students, I try to find something to lavish praise on and then slip in a suggestion for improvement. Or I try to channel their own tendency for self-criticism and ask what they don’t like about their work, and then offer techniques that will help. But pottery is much easier than writing, and bad pottery is usually transparently, stunningly bad. I see a lot of bad pottery. I divide it into: 1) they asked me what I thought and 2) they did not ask me what I thought. Tip to novices: do not ask me.

  2. don’t talk about essays. I have 38 five-thousand worders to mark by next week. And that’s not the bad part. As soon as I finish with these, I have 40 more. But, then it’s summer where I am, so it’s not really that bad.

    I’ll never forget a skin colour description from an 18th century French thing about beautiful womanhood. It was something about green-tinged milky complexion. You know, chlorosis and female frailty…

    The link was good.

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