I have a series of notebooks labeled Never Do This Shit.
When I’m reading a book and come across something egregiously awful that tempts me to compose ALL CAPS EMAILS, I copy the problem text (or summarize if it’s a pervasive problem) and jot down my thoughts about why that shit should never be done.
It’s difficult to learn from excellent writing because excellent writing sucks you into the story and feels effortless and magical while you’re reading.
Bad writing is an undervalued teaching tool. When you come across writing you hate, it screams at you and beats you about the head with its wrongness. If you systematically eliminate all of those things from your writing, you can’t help but end up with a better finished product.
Bonus: The things you leave out are as definitive of your style as the things you put in, so you’re that much closer to capturing the elusive voice.
The category of Shit Never to Be Done presented today has exhausted me. It’s an epidemic. I stopped recording outbreaks long ago. Fortunately, it’s usually caught early (first appearance of a protagonist) and is easily treated by quarantining the author on the Isle of Never Read Again.
I’m reporting this one because it’s the most severe case I’ve seen in years, and education is the best way to help the public protect itself.
The following paragraph has been altered with the replacement of near-synonyms but is otherwise structurally intact as it appeared in the book of origin:
He was used to women admiring his trim, muscular body showcased in soft, old jeans and a dark tee. Even with his cropped, honey-colored hair moist from the shower and his ruthless jaw rough with bronze stubble, he had the appearance of a man who knew his way around a woman. Pair that with moss-green eyes that twinkled with devilish charm and they were like Play-Doh in his hands.
WHO THINKS LIKE THAT?
Serial killers, that’s who. Serial killers have a running internal monologue about how awesome they are and how favorably society perceives them, and then someone challenges that belief system and people die.
The dude is walking to work — his job being law enforcement officer at a crime scene, not stripper at a bachelorette party, where his physical appearance and effect upon women might actually be relevant to the situation.
At best, he looks like a raving egomaniacal douchebag. Is that a romantic hero you want to know more about? I sure don’t.
You can create an impression of a character without resorting to unnatural self-description.
“Good of you to dress up for the occasion.”
The captain knew damn well a T-shirt and jeans were his uniform. Thousand-dollar suits were for the cops who didn’t kneel in puddles of blood.
Voila. We know what he’s wearing, we know he’s usually going to be wearing the same thing, and we know why — we know so many things! — without the creepy narcissistic disorder where he inventories every detail of his own appearance and projects his self-love onto bystanders.
True, you don’t know hair color, eye color, and the personality of his jaw, but you don’t need to because those things have zero relevance at this point and should be left to another point-of-view character who has some interest in his looks to comment upon.
This was not written by some obscure self-published writer. Her bio says she’s a NYT bestseller, and she has a backlist as long as my shin. Beginning writers — and not-so-beginning writers who haven’t cracked a list — see this success and try to emulate it, and all they end up doing is perpetuating bad habits that normalize shit that should never be done by anyone.
Don’t fall victim. Be diligent about examining samples, and when (not if — exposure is inevitable) you encounter this infection, wash your hands, bleach your brain, and distance yourself rather than contributing to the spread of this plague throughout the land.