Hello, my name is Hannah Chutzpah and today I want to talk about bad writing. That’s right: really, stinky, terrible writing.
Why examine it? Well – partly for the sheer joy of terrible. The Bulwer-Lytton Prize for the worst opening sentence in fiction will give you a taste of how hilarious bad writing can be. But also: by examining bad writing we can work out why it sucks, and then at least avoid a few of the pitfalls. Prose is another kettle of fish – I might do a follow-up post in bad fiction later. But in the meantime, I’m going to focus on bad poetry.
I know a fair bit about bad poetry. I run the annual Vogon Poetry Slam for Towel Day, in which people write nerdy/terrible poetry as a Douglas Adams tribute. And watching people strive to be the worst they can be is truly a wonderful sight. See some youtube videos of it here.
These days, I’m a pretty good poet – but one of the ways I got good was by getting all the terrible stuff out of my system for many, many years. I heard an anecdote that on someone’s first day at art school the professor said ‘I reckon each one of you has about 10,000 bad drawings in you. Get them out. Now. Go!’
Whether deliberately or not, I’ve been getting the horrors out of my system for a long time. Originally they were just brainspill: a badly-rhymed diary entry which I shouldn’t have shown to anyone (oh, how much I cringe that I shared them with anyone) but slowly, over the years, writing became my primary interest. I went to writing groups, swotted, practiced, got feedback, and eventually I got better.
But in the interests of truly smelling one’s own farts, as Stephen Fry once put it, I’m going to examine something I wrote – in all earnestness – when I was a teenager.
This is an untitled piece I found in a box of papers recently. It’s dated 30/12/02 – which means I was aged 16, in the lull between Christmas and new years, and probably bored. I can’t remember who (if anyone) started the deluge but here the piece stands in all it’s horror:
Someone has tattooed ‘loser’ onto my heart
My pain is exquisite, so shall be my art
I am but a translator, a martyr to perfection
I shall be hurt & make beauty of my rejection
I do an important job, a spokesman for the human race
We are but violent scum, art is our saving grace
I am a narcisist, but you must allow my pride
For what I produce is a comfort in which all will someday hide.
Wow. Just wow. I mean, that epic-level sucked, right? But why and how did it suck? I reckon I can half-redeem this piece by using it as a tool to make sure I never do that again.
At sixteen, melodrama isn’t that much of a surprise, but oy vei, that opening couplet is something else. ‘Someone has tattooed ‘loser’ onto my heart/My pain is exquisite, so shall be my art’. Exquisite pain, indelible marks, hearts. It’s all, unanchored high drama. Who is the person pining over, what are they hurting about? From this piece alone (and I’m the one that bloody wrote it): no clue. But the writer is miserable and they’ve decided their agony is terrible – yet beautiful – and this makes them a better artist.
Most people (thankfully) grow out of this mindset, but it’s a recurring theme in some poetry where the writer thinks some seriously deep-ass emotion is so powerful that it doesn’t actually need to be rendered well to be a valid and wonderful piece of art in itself. This is (needless to say) wrong. If you want to vent to a friend over coffee: go for it. If you want anyone to read your stuff: the depth of your feeling is not enough. Writing is a craft and you need to get enough better at the craft that someone might actually want to read it. Feeling the deepest feelings while drinking absinthe and titting about in a beret is a cliché for a reason. Good artists? More often than not they’re working on being good at what they do rather than posing about their heartbreak in coffee shops.
This is a line someone might possibly be able to get away with in the third act of a play if you’ve had the whole rest of the time to get to know them and their situation and could be willing to cut them some slack or feel that pain-mixed-with-ambition along with them. But here, as an opening couplet? No. No, no, no, no, no, no. This is self-indulgent and embarrassing. I read this out at the most recent Vogon Poetry Slam and couldn’t get to the end of the first line before I was laughing too hard and needed to pause for a second.
2) Shifts in register
In the opening couplet (yep, still there) there are some jarring shifts in tone. From the modern slang ‘loser’ we then have the high-falutin’ construction of ‘my pain is exquisite, so shall be my art’.
‘So shall be’? Seriously? What is that, fake Shakespeare?
What was I thinking? In all honesty: not a lot. I don’t think I actually stopped to think what I was writing this for, or what my point was. Thankfully this isn’t one of the poems I tried to send off to competitions (I did that too – writing about how it was so cruel of fate to have me fall in love with a gay guy – and I rhymed ‘gay’ with ‘anyway’) – but back to my point: these shifts in register are jarring as hell, and I just didn’t notice them. When you’re writing – or at least when you’re editing what you’ve written – you need to think about how you’re saying what you’re saying, and why you’re saying what you’re saying. All ‘rules’ about writing can be broken providing you have a reason for doing them. You can shift from first person to second person, high flowery register to the clinical – providing you know why you’re doing it and it makes sense for the writing. In Antony and Cleopatra the Romans speak very formally, while the Egyptians are flowery – verbally demonstrating the dichotomy Shakespeare makes between the emotionless, efficient Roman Empire and the pleasure-garden that is Cleopatra’s kingdom.
But this poem of mine: it ain’t Shakespeare. There is no reason for this switch. I think I just had two different things to say and I smooshed them together with an end rhyme. Bish bash bosh. Job done. Now where’s my trophy for being a deep-ass poet?
Which brings us on to number 3:
As much as re-reading this stuff makes me cringe now, I can’t completely regret it. When I was 16 I genuinely thought my writing was amazing – that I’d be showered in literary awards at an unusually young age – and that self-confidence spurred me on to do more, write more, and through that practice and study I eventually did get a lot better. I am now probably good enough to that in a few years I may start deserving the praise I thought I was owed back then. But I’m also now a grownup who’s had enough knock-backs that I can’t actually get back to that mindset. I would like to be told my writing is mind-blowingly wonderful, but I’m mainly preoccupied with things like being nice to my friends and being able to pay my rent. And that’s probably a good thing.
However: self-importance. It just rises off this piece in a fine mist, which eventually becomes so dense you can barely read the damn poem through it. Holy crap – ‘I do an important job, a spokesman for the human race/We are but violent scum, art is our saving grace’ ‘I’m so important focusing on the one and only thing humanity has going for it…’ What did I think I was? A doctor saving lives? An environmental activist chaining themselves to trees to save the planet? Jesus? I was a smug teenager scribbling in my room. Get over yourself, Past-Hannah.
The performance poetry I like the most these days is stuff with ‘universality’ – stuff about experiences everyone’s had, such as:
A lot of good performance poetry is usually about things painted with enough specifics that you can picture them, and broad enough strokes that other people can easily relate.
In the poem above: there is no universality unless you also think you are an artistic savior to humanity. There is no universality in that poem. There is only I, Me, My. 99% of people reading this piece will think the author is obnoxious, full of themselves, and not even doing the thing they’re bragging about (writing) at all artfully.
4) Lack of Self-Awareness
This is a difficult one to correct through writing alone – but basically none of the self-importance stuff would have been an issue if I’d had enough self-awareness to see that my artistic posturing made me look completely unlikable. To be a good writer you need to be aware – of yourself, of your writing – but also aware of others, and the world around you.
When I studied creative writing at university I heard horror stories (and saw a couple) of people submitting work in which the writer’s own prejudice completely blinded them to things which were… more than a little problematic for their readers. Things like misogyny or racism were put in first-person pieces where the rest of the class assumed this was deliberate and part of the character’s voice. Only in the discussions about the piece did we realise it was also the view of the person, sat in front of us, who’d written it – and didn’t get why we were making such a big deal about the repeated light-hearted references to pogroms and ‘shower time at Auschwitz’.
Seriously. This happened.
Other times I’ve heard poets do a piece about domestic violence where the main thrust of their poem was ‘why are you with that jerk when you could be with meeeee? Honestly, you’re so stupid to be staying with that guy that hits you’ – completely missing the point that
1) domestic violence is complicated and fraught and the woman was probably staying with the asshole because she still had some feelings for him, or because she worn-down and scared. Not because she liked getting hit, and
2) the poet’s main interest in her welfare seemed very tied to his interest in getting into her pants.
I think the writer’s point was ‘domestic violence is terrible’ but I spent the whole time thinking ‘Nice Guy Syndrome’ and getting annoyed that he half-attributed domestic violence to the woman not being bright enough to realise that ‘not getting hit is better than getting hit’. *headdesk*
This blindness to our own mindsets is something writers need to be wary of. Self-awareness is generally a good idea for everyone, but it’s an ongoing process. As a writer the short-cut is to get feedback from multiple people who will give you an honest opinion on the work. Other people will find your blindspots for you and help you polish up/edit out the problem areas.
And when I said ‘an honest opinion’ – I meant it. You need feedback from people who are more interested in your art than your ego. Your mother, your best friend or your other half will probably say nice things because they like you. You need to find other writers, and bounce stuff off them. Needless to say, to avoid being a pain in the butt – you need this process to be reciprocal. Join a writing group. If you can’t find one near you: start a writing group. Get other people who are interested in writing to give constructive criticism, and do the same for them. As you help them with their work you’ll almost certainly start seeing other common mistakes and learn to edit them out, or avoid them altogether, yourself.
5) Not Sure What I’m On About
My teenage piece above strikes me (I hope) as a brain-spill rather than something I may have at some point thought was a good piece of literature, but another big problem with it is it has no point. It starts self-pitying and then ends up bragging about my artistic output: ‘For what I produce is a comfort in which all will someday hide.’
I had no point, really. Some self-pity, then some sour-grapes ego-massage. The final line doesn’t even make much sense – did I really think everyone on Earth would some day love my poetry?!
I think I let the end-rhyme format dictate what I wanted to say, and then I fudged any meaning or message in favour of these stunning rhymes:
Um… yeah. It’s like I couldn’t pick if I wanted it to rhyme or to say something, and I compromised between the two: saying nothing much and rhyming poorly. Ten Vogon points!
You don’t need to have every angle of a thing worked out before you write – fer Chrissakes get stuff down on paper, then edit and re-edit until you’ve got something good – but in that editing process it’s worth spending a minute to think about what your piece is about. What do you want to say, or leave the readers/audience thinking and feeling?
Far too often I’ve seen writing which is laced with fifteen references, but the author’s clearly never stopped to think what they’re actually talking about. The piece can be artfully done, but if you, the author, don’t know what you’re on about: don’t expect it to mean anything to your readers or audience. You need it to be more than random words in a random order.
This piece has no rhythm. At its most basic I’m talking about the number of syllables per line. Here it is with the number of syllables written next to it:
Someone has tattooed ‘loser’ onto my heart 11
My pain is exquisite, so shall be my art 11
I am but a translator, a martyr to perfection 14
I shall be hurt & make beauty of my rejection 13
I do an important job, a spokesman for the human race 15
We are but violent scum, art is our saving grace 12
I am a narcisist, but you must allow my pride 13
For what I produce is a comfort in which all will someday hide. 16
The first stanza actually does better than I thought – 11, 11, 14, 13 – ideally both couplets (in this end-rhyme form) should have the same number of syllables per line, but if you look at the couplets as individual units I’m only out by one beat, really. The next stanza is undoubtedly all over the place though: 15, 12, 13, 16.
You don’t need your poem to be mathematical perfection, but for the work to trip off the tongue generally you need a consistent-ish rhythm. By all means mess with the rules for emphasis or meaning, but don’t just ignore the rules because you couldn’t be arsed with them. That’s not good.
Unless you’re writing something very strict and formal like a sonnet, this is something to do in the edit rather than fret over it when you’re just trying to get ideas down. But a completed poem should not jump all over the place like that.
7) Spelling Mistakes
Narcissist, not narcisist. Spell-check that shit, man.
8) No Specifics
This piece of work has no imagery apart from the cringe-worthy ‘loser’ tattoo. Two images if you count the everyone hiding some day in the comfort of my poetry. (Double-cringe with extra martyr complex cheese.)
Now I generally prefer my poetry from the heart rather than precise and scientific, but… you need some specifics to anchor the work on to – describing a place, a scene, an emotion, a time, an object. You need to describe something to describe anything, otherwise you’re just telling the audience.
Have you heard the old adage ‘show, don’t tell’? Almost certainly. And it’s there for a reason. ‘She said, angrily’ isn’t half as good as ‘She said, as her top lip curled away from her teeth’.
Or, for poetry, ‘It hurts to see you with him’ could be amped up to something like ‘I felt like I’d been punched in the gut that night when I saw his hand on your knee.’ Punched in the anything is still pretty cliché, but you see where this is going.
Coleridge described prose as ‘words in their best order’ and poetry as ‘the best words in their best order.’ To be using the best words, you’re probably going to need to think for a bit and describe something specific.
For example, this poem is one of the pieces I’m the most proud of. If I boiled it down to a sentence it would be ‘I think I love you and I think you love me but neither of us is saying it.’ But that would be quick, informative and to the point. Stating the facts wouldn’t help put the reader in my shoes.
Poetry isn’t about quick and informative – it’s about taking people on a journey – and you do that by describing things. To get your readers to see what you want them to see you need to paint them that picture, and do your best to not let your melodrama, spelling mistakes, shifts in rhythm and register, self-importance, lack of self-awareness, or anything else get in the way.
Right. Now that’s out of the way: please write. Write more, write frequently, and look at what you’ve written with a critical eye if you want to improve it. Don’t beat yourself up if you do make any of these mistakes, just be aware of them – and work them out in the edit.
Hope that’s been some help. If there’s anything else you think people should have on their ‘Do Not Do This’ list please let me know in the comments.