Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Poor writing

Şencan pointed out the following paragraph in Stephen Donaldson's book, 'Against All Things Ending'.
... Her encounter with Viles informed her health-sense. She had experienced the eldritch paresthesia. She could not see the meaning of the strands; but she could hear that they had meaning. She could smell the austere suzerainty which had suffused their creation ...
This feels like a good example of poor writing.

Why? It depends on what you think of the purpose of writing. The best writing can be used to inform or entertain, and often both. Yet it should never be just to laud the intelligence of the writer over the reader.

Writing should be accessible to as many readers as possible, yet not treat them as though they are simple. The best writing should challenge the readers with concepts rather than words; after all, the grandest concepts can always be explained with skilfully applied simple words.

The type of writing depends on your audience. My writing suffers from my career in computer software; not just in terms of over use of passive voice (always a problem for technical writers), but also in the fact that I use technical terms that I assume people will understand. I always try to explain terms as simply as possible, but it is a hard task. One of the advantages of blogging is that you can always add links to complex words or terms.

Similarly, writing for children should be simpler than that for adults. JK Rowling breaks many of the unofficial rules of writing in her Harry Potter series (e.g. 'she squealed excitedly'), but her writing style works brilliantly well for children.

There is no problem with using long and convoluted words such as 'paresthesia', 'eldritch' and 'convoluted', but it is best to explain their meaning first; a skilful writer can subtly educate the reader in this manner. Too many writers use complicated words as a way of showing off, bigging themselves up over their readers.

For instance, is 'She had experienced the eldritch paresthesia.' really better than 'The eerie, prickling sensation crawled over her skin.'? It is actually hard to know, as it is difficult to decipher exactly what Donaldson meant in his original sentence.

Donaldson is making himself appear big-headed and turning off the reader.


Alan Sloman said...

You weren't impressed, were you David?

David Cotton said...

Oh, I was verily impressed. The text inculcated the doctrine of composing my thesis as verbosely as possible.

Or summit like that.