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How to Write: Weak Writing (and How to Recognize It)

Updated on February 9, 2017

Introduction

The comedian Jim Jeffries has a bit where he asks the audience: who, in this audience, sincerely believes that he or she has a stupid child at home? Nobody raises their hand, to which Jeffries responds that nobody having a stupid child is statistically unlikely (it's funnier when Jeffries goes through it. Linking it here is impossible, as Jeffries' language is a bit harsh at times).

The point being: people are willing to overlook the faults in their own children while at the same time holding other children to a different standard. It's easy to recognize when another child is misbehaving, but it's harder to recognize when one's own child is misbehaving.

What does this have to do with writing? Writing is the same way. It's easy to recognize the poor writing of others, but it's easy to overlook one's own poor writing. In this article, we're going to go over a couple of common poor writing habits, and we're going to examine what we can do to fix those habits.

In his comedy, Jim Jeffries points out that people are less likely to apply the same standards to their own children that they apply to their own. Writers tend to be similar in regards to their own work.
In his comedy, Jim Jeffries points out that people are less likely to apply the same standards to their own children that they apply to their own. Writers tend to be similar in regards to their own work. | Source

Before We Start: Making this Easier

There exists a common belief that basically boils down to "I am what I do". What does this mean?

People will look at the things they do and use their actions as a means of evaluating themselves. In this case, if we point out a poor writing habit, the common progression of logic goes something like:

"I do this. This creates bad writing. Therefore I am a bad writer."

This belief is as widespread as it is idiotic. You're not what you do. If you're doing something unhelpful or counterproductive, applying a label to yourself only ensures that you're going to keep doing it. A better way to handle these suggestions is to recognize that what we're pointing out are things you're DOING. By recognizing that you're DOING these things, you're able to DO something else.

No labels needed. Nobody is a "good" or a "bad" writer. There are writers who write effectively, and writers who write ineffectively. With time and patience, anyone can go from writing ineffectively to writing effectively.

And if you just said to yourself "Not me, though. I'm a bad writer", then you've just proved the point about self-labeling!

Weak writing doesn't make you a bad writer, it just means some of your tools are "square wheels". Replace these ineffective tools with better ones and your writing will improve.
Weak writing doesn't make you a bad writer, it just means some of your tools are "square wheels". Replace these ineffective tools with better ones and your writing will improve. | Source

Recognizing Weak Writing: Modifiers

One common issue is the tendency to misuse modifiers.

Consider the following example:

"There was absolutely nothing he could do."

Now, in this case, the adverb in this sentence ("absolutely") is unnecessary. Why? Because "nothing" is an absolute. If there's SOMETHING your character can do, then there's NOT nothing he can do. In this case, you would be better off getting rid of the adverb:

"There was nothing he could do".

You'll notice how the sentence communicates the same idea -- we can still understand the phrase even though we've removed a word.

This is, in general, a good way to edit your work. If removing a word leaves the text unchanged, then that word was useless from the get-go. The same cannot be said for other words in the example:

"There nothing he could do"

"Was nothing he could do"

"There was he could do"

etc.

As you can see, the modifier added nothing to the phrase and its removal does not affect the phrase. So, it is better to remove the modifier.

Let's look at a different example. "Nothing" is an absolute, so what happens when what we're modifying is something other than an absolute?

"The bartender was really busy on Saturday night".

In this instance, maybe you want to communicate that the bartender is busier than usual. Maybe she was busy on Friday night, but come Saturday night, she was busier than she was on Friday. In this case, the modifier is serving to illustrate a comparison between Friday and Saturday. Does it work? Yes. We're not interested in whether or not it works, however; we're interested in strong writing. This example is weak.

Why?

In this case, the word 'really' is serving as a weak replacement for strong writing. Consider this better example:

"The bartender was so busy on Saturday night, she felt like every time she delivered a drink to a customer, two more customers appeared."

Now your reader is able to empathize with the bartender. Your reader sees that she's feeling overwhelmed.

It's important to note that both of these examples could be considered weak, and that the same information could be conveyed using contextual clues (for more on Context, see: "How to Write: Some Tips for Characterization").

For example, earlier in the story, you could have something like:

"Melissa looked at the clock and then at her bar. There were only a couple of people seated in front of her. She shrugged and went back to doodling on her napkin."

And then you have something like:

"Melissa caught a fleeting glimpse of the clock. Was it only nine? The crowd at the bar was growing. There were at least half a dozen people waiting to be served, and another dozen had just come down the stairs".

Using context, we can illustrate the difference between the two nights. On the first, business is so slow that Melissa is able to doodle on napkins. On the second, she's so busy that even a small action (looking at the clock) is difficult.

It's interesting to note that you often see modifiers being overused by writers looking to pump up their word count. As you'll notice, adverbs are useless even in this regard -- they DO pump up the word count, but they do so in a minimal way. Again, compare:

"The bartender was really busy"

"The bartender was so busy on Saturday night, she felt like every time she delivered a drink to a customer, two more customers appeared."

The adverb only adds one word to the phrase (5 words). By getting rid of the adverb and finding a more effective way to communicate "busy", the word count increases (24).

The point?

Look at your own work. Do you have a lot of words that end in -ly? If so, there may be a better way to write the sentence to communicate your message with greater clarity.

NOTE: There is an exception to this rule when it comes to dialogue. Sometimes you WANT characters using adverbs, because it helps to illustrate their character and their state of mind. Applying the technicalities of good writing to dialogue can result in your characters sounding robotic and give them a feeling of "sameness".

Finding a lot of adverbs in your work? Axe them to improve the overall quality of your writing.
Finding a lot of adverbs in your work? Axe them to improve the overall quality of your writing. | Source

Recognizing Weak Writing: Commas

Let me ask you a question, and I want you to think about it before you answer, because you might not understand the question at first, but once you pay attention you'll probably know how to answer, because the question I'm asking, which I'm about to pose, has to do with questions, so here we go:

How hard was it to read that sentence?

Yes, we took that sentence to an extreme. Even writers who do overuse commas don't overuse them to quite that extent, at least in the framework of a single sentence. However, overusing commas in even a slight capacity can create a cumulative effect over the course of your writing.

What happens then? Your writing drags. Your reader feels like it takes forever to get through a page. You might think this is a good thing -- after all, you want your reader to spend as much time reading your work as possible, right? Yes, but not in this way. If your reader feels like your writing "drags", your reader will start to say "it's going to take me forever to read this". Reading starts to feel like a chore and eventually your reader puts down your work in favor of a piece where the commas are used well.

There are a couple of examples we could use for what comma overusage does to your reader. In this article, we're going to show you how comma overusage says more about you as a writer than it says about the story.

First, consider this example.

"He arrived at the address. It was a warehouse, a big grey warehouse with bushes in the front, and the bushes had some berries on them, but he didn't see the person he was supposed to meet."

Now, you can probably see the problems here: the first two lines are redundant and can be cut back to one, and the bit about berries is unnecessary. But WHY did all of this information get written in the first place?

By breaking down the sentence, we can actually SEE the writer's thought process. We're able to tell what the author was thinking WHILE writing the line, which means the line is less about the story and more about the author! This is tough to describe so let's break it down into pieces.

"He arrived at the address".

This is probably a chapter opener, or the end of a transition. The author has brought his character to a new place in the story.

"It was a warehouse,"

So far so good. The author is providing the reader with information, but when we hit that first comma we're running into trouble. Why? In all likelihood, what has happened here is that the author is thinking about how s/he wants to proceed. So what s/he does is places a comma there, which is his/her way of saying "okay, hold on document, I'm thinking". The pause in the line is actually the author's way of "pausing the action".

"a big grey warehouse with bushes in the front,"

At this point, the author has "unpaused" the action and continued, having thought of some details. At this point, the author is mentally replacing the original idea ("a warehouse") with a clearer idea of the warehouse ("a big grey warehouse with bushes in the front"). However, while the author has made the replacement mentally, the replacement hasn't been made in the text. The first two lines are redundant and could probably be cut back to the (comma-less) "He arrived at a big grey warehouse with bushes in the front".

Now, the bit about berries. That seems a bit out of left field, doesn't it? There's a reason for that.

In this case, we can propose that the author "noticed" the bushes and gave them a closer look before realizing that the bushes were irrelevant. This is why the berries are described in vague terms ("some berries" instead of "red berries" or "plump berries"). The author put a comma after "in front" to mentally look at the berries, saw there was nothing of relevance there, and returned to the action.

"but he didn't see the person he was supposed to meet".

At this point, we've returned to the action and reached the point of the sentence: a character has arrived at a warehouse, but the person he intends to meet is nowhere to be seen.

In a perfect world, all of this comma over-usage is dealt with in the editing process. Unfortunately, many people either skip the editing process altogether, breeze through it, or simply don't know what they're supposed to be editing.

In this case, one possible way to rewrite the sentence would be:

"He arrived at the address. It was a big grey warehouse with bushes in the front. He didn't see the person he was supposed to meet."

We've gone from four (4) commas to zero (0). Notice how well the writing flows. Each sentence focuses on one idea (arrival, warehouse, person). The reader is given information in small chunks that are easy to digest, and the prose speeds right along as a result.

The point? Make sure you're A) editing, and B) seeing if it's possible to reduce or even remove commas.

NOTE: There's a limit to removing commas, however. Some commas ARE necessary. For example:

"He arrived at the address. It was a big grey warehouse with bushes in the front. It was cold windy and cloudy. He didn't see the person he was supposed to meet."

In this case, there needs to be a comma after 'cold' and (arguably) after 'windy'. The point being, without a comma in that sentence, the line has a 'blurted out' feel to it.

Misusing commas can lead to your reader feeling like your writing "drags".

Recognizing Weak Writing: Italics

Italics, like adverbs, are often overused, and usually to lend emotion to lines where the author hasn't effectively communicated the emotional element effectively.

Or, to put it a better way:

Italics, like adverbs, are often overused, and usually to lend emotion to lines where the author hasn't effectively communicated the emotional element effectively.

As a general rule, italics are best used in a strictly technical sense. So when you're referring to books (Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger), movies (Jurassic Park, directed by Stephen Spielberg), television shows (the popular show Seinfeld), or when you're quoting something in-text ("The first lines of the book read They were the best of times, they were the worst of times)*.

*Note: Not an exhaustive list.

They can also used to emphasize a line for memorability. For example:

"Italics, like adverbs, are often overused, and usually to lend emotion to lines where the author hasn't effectively communicated the emotional element effectively."

The point being, they're best used in a logical context. All too often, authors will attempt to use italics to communicate the emotion that they have failed to create in the scene. Let's look at an example:

John looked away from the TV and up at Jimmy. "Do not tell me to stay home."

Wow! Look at that emotion! We get the impression that John is pretty fired up. But let's look at what happens when we remove the italics:

John looked away from the TV and up at Jimmy. "Do not tell me to stay home."

Without the italics, the emotion falls flat. Instead of sounding emotional, John now sounds robotic. The enunciation of the "not" sounds more mechanical than anything else.

Now, you might be saying to yourself: this is a compelling reason to use italics. Otherwise, the emotion might not be communicated. Right?

Not necessarily. If your writing is strong, than the emphasis should shine through even without the italics. You do this by creating context. For example:

John stood up. His fingers curled into fists and the veins in his forehead were visible. He glared into Jimmy's eyes. "Do not tell me to say home," he said through gritted teeth.

Notice how even though there aren't any italics in this line, we still get a clear image of the emotional element. Rather than relying on one word to carry the emotion, the entire passage communicates emotion. At this stage, adding italics would be redundant. If we were to italicize the word "not", it would be like telling the reader "John is angry". No kidding he's angry!

Let's look at a different example. Consider this snippet:

Donna turned away from Terry. "No," she said. "I want order."

"Order?" Terry said. "You want order? How can you say that at a time like this?"

If you were to guess, which word would get the italics in this example? You'd probably say the second time Terry says the word 'order'. By repeating the word, we've emphasized the word without needing to rely on italics. We can HEAR the emphasis. Similarly, you can move the emphasis to different parts of the example. We can emphasis "want":

Donna turned away from Terry. "No," she said. "I want order."

"You want it?" Terry said. "How can you want order at a time like this?"

Or, we can emphasize Donna's "I":

Donna turned away from Terry. "No," she said. "I want order."

"You want order?" Terry said. "It's not about you, it's about all of us!"

Again, we'd probably italicize Terry's second "you". But, italics are unnecessary, because we've used context to create that "sound" of emphasis in the reader's mind.

One last example.

"Thanks for supporting us!" Greg said, handing a CD to a fan. "We hope to see you at the next concert!"

Jean waited until the fan was out of earshot before touching Greg on the shoulder. Greg turned around.

"Did you just give away another CD?" Jean asked.

"Yeah," Greg said, looking at his feet. "I just felt bad. Besides, he's a fan."

"I know how you feel," Jean said. "I want to give out free stuff too. But we are trying to make money here."

In this example, which word do you think would be italicized? Probably Jean's "are" ("we are trying to make money here"). How did you know that, though?

In a word, context. You knew that Jean was emphasizing her "are" because of the discussion: Jean agreed with Greg, but she was contradicting him. We know that she's emphasizing the "are" because she's trying to change Greg's mind.

The point being: italics have a place in writing. That being said, conveying emotion isn't one of them. Do they convey it? Yes, but there are more effective ways to do so, and by seeing if you can convey emotion without relying on italics your writing strengthens overall.

Using italics improperly is a means of imposing emotion that has not been clearly established by the context.

Summary

In this article, you saw some of the ways that weak writing manifests itself and you got an understanding of what you can do to strengthen it. You learned about how modifiers can often be misused, and how the modification can be illustrated through stronger means. You learned how comma overusage happens and what you can do in your editing process to counteract it. Finally, you saw how italics serve as poor substitutes for contextually-driven emotional impact.

What weaknesses have you noticed in your own writing, and what have you done to fix it? Let us know in the comments below!

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    • auntjennie profile image

      Jen 6 months ago from Canada

      My writing weakness is to misuse modifiers. I like how you explained that they are unnecessary words. It looks like I have some writing to streamline.