Monday, July 04, 2011

What Makes a Poorly Written Book?

This weekend’s Book Blogger Hop question asked us what makes us keep reading a book or stop us from reading it. One of the reasons bloggers, including me, often mentioned was poor writing.

In comments to my answer Lisa of Lisa Loves Literature asked me this question: What do you feel makes a poorly written book?” 

Now, Lisa mentions Twilight as one of the books people often consider poorly written. Like her, I must disagree with that. Just like her, I get sucked into the Twilight books every time I read them and find myself unable to put them down.

Therefore, I started thinking about how to answer Lisa’s question. Since it would make much too long a comment, I decided to dedicate it a post.

Now, bear in mind, even though I graduated in English, I do not consider myself being of any authority in the field, so this is just my personal opinion as an avid reader of what makes a poorly written book.

1)     Grammatical and spelling errors

This is self-explanatory. It is understandable if there is a typo or two. We are all humans and mishaps happen. However, when grammatical and spelling mistakes recur so often that they interfere with the reading process they cannot be overlooked.

2)     Confusing use of vocabulary and awkward sentences

It really makes it difficult to read when there are obviously misused words and the sentences are formed in such a way that you must read them twice to get the meaning. This has especially to do with the use of pronouns. It is very disturbing when you have to flip back and forth to figure who or what was meant by a particular pronoun.

For example: “He liked her sister but she didn’t know about it.” All right, I made up this sentence, but I read plenty of similar material, which takes you a page to figure which one was clueless – “she” or “her sister.”

3)     Incoherent transitions between P. O. V.-s and topics.

I love different P. O. V. -s and multiple topics/themes in a book if they are well organised and the transitions are natural. Jumping between P. O. V.-s and topics can be irritating.

For example: In the middle of a heated discussion between the policemen on the crime scene, there is a paragraph on the lead detective’s breakfast, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the discussion. Even if it is somehow important for the characterisation, there must be some better place to fit it in.

Considering all of the above, I would say that a poorly written book is a book where writing gets in the way of enjoying reading. I enjoy reading when I can read a book smoothly. Do not confuse it with the difficulty or quality of writing. I think both “easy” and “difficult" books can be equally enjoyed if the writing is good.

Let me give some examples. While many readers would agree Sookie Stackhouse series is an easy read with one main story arch, it is not easy when you have to flip back a page or two to figure out who said what or where something happened (see number two above – pronouns). Though I love the series, the writing is a little off at times (but this is a very mild case of writing problems).

Conversly, Random Magic by Sasha Soren (see my review) is an instance of a well-written book. It is a book with numerous topics, elaborate sentencing, countless references (they require quite some worldliness to appreciate them all), and beautiful language; and is a really enjoyable, smooth read you do not feel like putting down.

In the end, I will return to The Twilight Saga (see my review). Examining its writing, I cannot find anything of what I mentioned to make poor writing in it. Its grammar and spelling are good, the wording is not only appropriate but also rich, the text is coherent and transitions graceful; all of which make reading unforced and engaging.  

To conclude, I think good writing is such which enables the reader to enter the world it describes. If you imagine a book as a garden, the writing is the entrance door. If writing is good, you pass the door effortlessly, perhaps marvelling its intricate design, but then you take a stroll in the garden and enjoy it. In case of bad writing, the door to the garden is a plain iron framework; it is closed and you must strain to peek at the garden through the bars. 


  1. I agree with your garden entrance metaphor. A well-written book allows you to just sink into the story effortlessly. A poorly-written novel makes you focus so much on the writing that you can't concentrate on the story, it keeps distracting you.

  2. Great post! I LOVE your garden metaphor, very well (and lyrically) put. I agree with your points, and I'd also say that factual errors/bad research contribute to a poorly written book.

    Twilight is always an issue.:) Many people say it's badly written, and just as many praise it. The saga features some factual errors (perhaps the author could have done some research), but I can say that I enjoyed the books when I read them. So maybe sometimes, a gripping narrative is fine and all you need as a reader.

    Nice of you to mention Random Magic - I totally agree! It's a well-written book!

  3. I'm not a huge Twilight fan, but I don't think it's poorly written. It's just not my thing. I much prefer the Sookie series. It's hard for me to say something is poorly written. I just don't feel qualified to say that one way or another, but I do know what I like and don't like. Of course something I absolutely hate, could be someone else's favorite.

  4. I haven't read either Twilight or the Sookie series, but I understand what you are saying. And totally agree. You explained it very well.

  5. Okay, so what you've said here, is exactly my take on Twilight, and also on what makes a poorly written book. I have a friend who has directed me to a Stephen King interview where he says Stephenie Meyer is a horrible writer. But I don't see in the printed article what he says makes her a bad writer. Someone else suggested she is a poor writer, but a good storyteller. So it leaves me confused, and irritated that people have to pick on something they don't like. If I don't like something, I just move on to something I do like. Like Yvonne above says, there are things I know other people like that I just hate, and so I'm okay with people not liking Twilight. It's when they have to say it is bad just because they don't like it that bothers me. I mean, I tried reading manga and comic books, but I prefer to make the pictures in my head myself when I read, so I didn't enjoy them. That doesn't mean that I go around saying they are stupid, because I know how many people do like them, and I also enjoy many movies and tv shows that come from them. Sorry, this seems to be a hot button topic for me, so I'll get off my soapbox.

    My main comment here is: great post! :-)

  6. @ Sarah: "A well-written book allows you to just sink into the story effortlessly." - I totally agree.

    @ Irena: You are right, factual errors7bad research downplay the quality of writing, too.

    @ Yvonne & Lisa: Here, here! Naturally, people have different tastes about books and writing. A person might like something that someone else doesn't. I am very aware of that, so I don't trash-talk books I don't like and rather move on. I always try to emphasize it is just my personal take and other people might find the same book more to their liking.


Don't hesitate to drop me a few strange new words! I'd love to hear what you think!