Bad Writing

I got nothin’ today, so here’s someone better with some notes on the craft.

I think there’s some generational change going on here.  The bad writers Z Man mentions by name made their bones in the legacy media.  Most of us here are older, so we no doubt agree with him — William F. Buckley was pretentious; Jonah Goldberg’s frat-boy act got old twenty years ago; bad writers and chicks can’t string together three words without referencing themselves; etc.  Unfortunately, though, I think all of those things are the wave of the future.  I’ve seen lots of undergrad writing, y’all — “spastic, pretentious, sorority girl narcissism” covers pretty much all of it.   That’s just how written communication is done in the Twitter age.

See e.g. here:

Instead of focusing on the subject, the writer focuses on himself, which suggests he does not know the material. Even when relating an experience or conversation, the good writer makes himself a secondary character in the story, not the focus. Bad writers are always the hero of everything they write, as if they are trying to convince the reader of something about themselves. Good writers avoid this and focus on the subject of their writing.

But he cites former President Obama as a hilarious example of this.  As with all the praise heaped on Pres. Sort-of-God all these years, one must significantly discount for the Magic Negro effect.  Still, with all allowances made, lots of people really did — really do — see him as a compelling orator.  I suggest this is because he’s so narcissistic — what else does one do in front of a captive audience, after all, but make the most of the opportunity to drone on about one’s fascinating self?  He’s only doing what they would do, given half the chance.

See also: Lots of big, popular blogs.  For instance: the Internet being what it is, and the Right side of the Internet in particular being what it is, I’d predict that Vox Day’s “I am humanity’s greatest genius!” shtick would go over like a lead balloon.  But he’s got a gazillion readers.  Again, making all due allowance for an obvious — and obviously effective — Oscar Wilde-ish publicity strategy, this technique builds a loyal audience.  For every casual reader like me (who has learned to skim the sixteen paragraphs of boasts to get to the one interesting claim), there seem to be five who really like that kind of thing.

Speaking of going on way too long, Z Man continues:

Another common habit of the bad writer is to use five paragraphs when one paragraph will do…They will belabor a point with unnecessary examples or unnecessary explication.

Here again, let’s note that the bad writers he specifically mentions — Jonah Goldberg, girls — are either well into middle age, or, well…. girls.  As he says about the fairer sex:

Female writers only write about themselves. It’s why autoethnography is wildly popular with the Xirl science types on campus. They finally have a complicated sounding name for what comes natural to them.

There’s no thought so banal, no detail too trivial, to avoid describing in full when the subject is one’s own endlessly fascinating self.*  Goldberg, on the other hand, came up in Grunge era and went to college at a self-proclaimed “most innovative” school.  In other words, he learned the SocJus MadLib composition method back when PoMo was still largely confined to academia.  Since every essay always boiled down to “and that’s how [subset of Pale Penis People], through [jargon], oppressed [Designated Victim Group],” the only problem was stretching it out to meet the professor’s page length requirement.  That’s how you become a ninja master at unnecessary explication.  Do that for a couple semesters, and you won’t be able to write a post-it note to your roomie in less than five paragraphs.

Nowadays the problem is reversed.  Kids these days are so well-trained in SocJus MadLibbing that it never occurs to them to explain anything.  To take one of our stock examples, if you ask a typical American college kid to write an essay covering the causes of the Civil War and you don’t specify a page length, you’re likely to get back one word: “Slavery.”  Ask them why slavery was a cause, and they’ll say “because it’s racist.”  Nothing else computes, so in order to make length they throw everything they’ve written down in their class notes onto the page (for those forced to “grade” this mess, the term d’art is “word salad”).

Left to their own devices, in other words, Millennial communication really would be text messages.  It can’t be otherwise — since all the dogmas of the Proglodyte faith contradict each other, you can’t explain how they fit together.

Z Man concludes:

another common feature of bad writing is the disconnect between the seriousness of subject and how the writer approaches the subject. Bad writers, like Jonah Goldberg, write about serious topics, using pop culture references and vaudeville jokes. On the other hand, feminists write about petty nonsense as if the fate of the world hinges on their opinion. The tone should always match the subject. Bad writers never respect the subject they are addressing or their reader’s interest in the subject.

Here again, Goldberg was ahead of the curve.  Like fellow blog-pioneer “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons, Goldberg got way out in front of an emerging trend.  Just as Gen X was starting to take the sociocultural reins back in the early 1990s, Simmons and Goldberg brought a recognizably contemporary voice to moribund fields.

Before Simmons, sports reporting was either your basic box score, or a long George Will-type thumbsucker about how baseball shall save the dying Republic.  Now, half the fun of being a sports fan is taking a child’s game absurdly seriously… but only half.  Simmons got that.  By snarking and over-sharing and throwing hissy fits and being the most shameless homer on God’s green earth, he showed his fans that he was in on the joke.

Goldberg did something similar with politics.  We all know that politics is showbiz for ugly people, which makes nerding out over policy the equivalent of reading Playboy for the articles.  The guys on political yak shows have exactly as much influence on the direction of the country as the bobbleheads on ESPN do on the outcome of a basketball game.  It’s exquisitely silly, which is why political tv, like sports tv, features exquisitely silly people like Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow… and Jonah Goldberg.  Like Simmons, Goldberg was in on the joke — you might as well compare the latest reshuffling of semicolons in the tax code to Star Trek, because We the People have as much chance of influencing things to our benefit as we do of fighting Klingons.

But that was the 1990s.  Since then, we’ve rammed another two generations through the SJW indoctrination system, K-thru-PhD.  It’s not that kids today don’t know how to match the tone to the subject; it’s that they have no idea there’s such a thing as “tone” at all.  Feminists write about petty nonsense as if it were the apocalypse because they live their entire lives at DEFCON-1.  At the risk of breaking one of the rules of bad writing, I’ll repeat for emphasis:  Telling a feminist — which means “any American girl under the age of 40” — that she’s writing about petty stuff simply doesn’t compute.  There is literally — literally, Millennials, literally!! — no difference in her mind between “the toxic masculinity at the McDonald’s drive-thru that forgot to supersize my fries” and “the toxic masculinity of the Red Army raping its way through East Prussia.”

In short, you should check out the Z Man’s ruminations on bad writing, especially if you’re a writer yourself…. but with the caveat that, in 20 years, we’ll be looking back on the twenty-teens as the halcyon days of clear expression.




*Or see Obama, again.  I don’t watch tv and avoid Left-leaning blogs like the plague, so I can go months without ever seeing Him.  Every time I do, though, I’m struck by just how ludicrously fruity He is.  Bill Clinton may have beaten Him to the coveted title of “first Black president,” but until we elect Harvey Fierstein, Obama’s got “America’s gayest president” locked down.
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12 thoughts on “Bad Writing

  1. Maus

    You’ve nailed it. Long-form writing on the internet is narcissism writ large. One has only to recall that the blog format was originally a type of diary for the confessional musings of a lot of ordinary folks. That’s why early Facebook include so many posts about what people had for breakfast etc. Too many people writing too much nonsense. I am reminded of the Samuel Johnson obserrvation, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Unfortunately, the internet monetized a lot of crap writers. But everythings evolves; so now we have texting and Twitter, with their character limitations suppressing the bloviation. But do we get the terse yet brilliant epigrams of Martial? Or the wit of Alexander Pope? No, we get “shit” emojis and a return to heiroglyphics, which amp up the ambiguity while revealing that all this messaging is rooted in emotion rather than reason. Give it ten more years, and I predict a rise in vows of silence by at least a handful of the serviving literati.

    1. Maus

      Apologies for the several misspellings. Haste and anger do not make for nimble fingers with this uncompensated blockhead.

      1. Severian Post author

        That’s one severe downside to the Internet — you’ve always got to look over your shoulder for the Grammar Police. (This is a safe space, comrade; we don’t worry about typos here).

        I wouldn’t be surprised about the “vow of silence” thing, either. “Brevity is the soul of wit” was a great phrase back in its day, because it took real talent to pack so many layers of meaning into a simple phrase. Martial easily could’ve written an essay making the same points. These days, though, the Twitter-fication of communication makes me grudgingly admit Derrida was right: “There is nothing outside the text.” Since text messages, tweets, etc. come in at random times and in no particular order, each sentence must have one, and only one, possible meaning. There can be no subtlety; we’re maybe a generation away from just grunting and pointing.

  2. WOPR

    They used to teach that referencing yourself in any sort of paper that was making an argument was incorrect form. However, today, it really is bumper sticker morality and thinking with all of the shallowness that entails.

    Interestingly, another history professor had an article making a lot of the same points you have made. He pointed out that if asked students to explain if the death penalty is good or bad, you get blank stares. Meanwhile, a classics professor was shocked about her field and one professor saying that Twitter posts should count towards a doctorate. It really has collapsed. The dust is simply hiding the result.

    OT: Vox Day has followers like any leader who convinces people he is brilliant. If you recognize his brilliance you are at least smart. You can see it on blogs that don’t have a cult of personality. There is almost always some person who replies to posts as “Another GREAT post, X!!!” Vox simply cultivates those people. Of course, it is always wise to be skeptical of anyone who has to constantly tout how intelligent they are.

  3. Frip

    Whenever you see Obama: “I’m struck by just how ludicrously fruity He is.” Hilarious. That captures perfectly how I feel too. I remember early in his term, they showed him bowling. It wasn’t totally gay to the regular observer. But through any real guy’s eyes it was flaming gay. Prior to seeing that, I thought that deep down he might be kinda cool. A real guy. But after I saw that delicate, anal retentive, just-so, “bowl”, I lost all respect.

  4. Frip

    I just watched it, and I take it back. Even a little baby could tell his bowl was gay. And for all his forced precision, the first 2 attempts went straight into the gutter. I think his third try maybe knocked down a pin or two. But you can’t tell because the press camera stopped showing the ball once they figured out he was made of licorice.

    1. Severian Post author

      It’s one of the main reasons I could never take the man seriously, and why I wrote him off as chum for Hillary’s well-oiled gangster machine back in 2008. He’s just so obviously a fairy. Hillary being Hillary, I kept waking up every day expecting to see pictures of “Bathhouse Barry” in action splashed across every tv in the land. (Plus, even if you lack finely-tuned gaydar, the female Media reaction to Him should’ve tipped you off. I think the phrase “fag hag” covers 99.5% of the non-lesbian female press corps… and the lesbians, you’ll notice, were all-in on Hillary from the get-go, for obvious tribal solidarity reasons).

  5. Martinian

    “Kids these days are so well-trained in SocJus MadLibbing that it never occurs to them to explain anything.”

    Yup. The dominant mode of pseudo-argumentation is Find The Similarity. Once you establish (assert, really…) that X is like Y, all the work has been done for you. Just apply the machine, and your conclusion pops out as the validated fact that “everybody knows”. No surprise that this is precisely what Joseph Moore over at Yard Sale of the Mind has identified in Polanyi and other Marxists — the conclusion has been predetermined, so the author’s job is reduced to plunking down information that sounds good. As much as I loathe Stephen Colbert, his coinage of “Truthiness” as a sardonic descriptor of sham plausibility is quite apt.
    “Since then, we’ve rammed another two generations through the SJW indoctrination system, K-thru-PhD. It’s not that kids today don’t know how to match the tone to the subject; it’s that they have no idea there’s such a thing as “tone” at all. ”

    Even beyond tone-deafness, there’s no notion of compare/contrast; things are either completely the same (OrangeMan/CatFancy) or completely different (same crime/different races) according to the ad hoc requirements of the identity politics power game. But that means there can be no actual “critical thinking”, i.e., weighing the relative importance of similarities and differences with respect to a thesis. Against that background, I’m not terribly surprised to find that many of my adolescent students have never before encountered Venn Diagrams…

    1. Severian Post author

      There it is. I don’t know who came up with the word “adulting,” but God help us it should be a required class in college. It appears no one has ever taught Generation Snowflake some basic truths that I used to believe are requirements for post-adolescent living. Such as: It is possible for something to be partly true, and partly false. Any iteration of that truth: “Good idea, bad execution” or “right place, wrong time.” Also, the whole concept of “false equivalence.” Speaking of OrangeManBad / Cat Fancy, that used to be a go-to putdown of obnoxious hippies, as it hit both their self-righteousness and their signature “argument” tactic: “Oh whoop de doo, you’re a vegetarian. You know who else was a vegetarian? Hitler!!!” Nowadays all you have to do is replace “vegetarian” with “wants to enforce national borders” and you’ll get an A in any Humanities class in the land.

      Yeah, we’re doomed.

  6. ryan

    Perhaps I have an original thought to add to the conversation. I propose two categories of obfuscation, Orwellian and Lebowskian.

    Orwellian obfuscation is when the speaker is trying to hide their meaning inside of a word salad. A good modern example of this would be an abstract the Z-man read in one of his xirl science segments which amazingly I was able to find online:

    “The use of autoethnography in social science research is becoming increasingly popular. The potential this research approach might offer to the theory and practice of outdoor education has yet to be fully examined. In this paper, autoethnography is used to explore some personal accounts of my own outdoor experiences from which I derive distinctive meanings. Data emerge from an extended solo journey by canoe and sea kayak, and a dialectical index is presented to distinguish between two ways of characterising outdoor experiences (adventurous and contemplative). These experiences are then used to contextualise myself, and some ideas, within a wider social world. The paper indicates how environmental philosophy and scientific evidence provide a moral imperative that might act as a guide for outdoor practice. It is argued that such practice must be ontologically grounded in order to explore the possibilities of outdoor experiences in providing moral impulses. The opportunity to think beyond the self also indicates how an autoethnographic lens can provide an approach to teaching and learning to stimulate reflective practice. The findings are presented as exploratory because they invite educators to consider how outdoor experiences might stimulate pro-environmental behaviour both in themselves and in their learners.”

    Here there is a real meaning being obscured: “I went kayaking, it was fun.”

    In contrast take something like feminist glaciology:

    Glaciers are key icons of climate change and global environmental change. However, the relationships among
    gender, science, and glaciers – particularly related to epistemological questions about the production of
    glaciological knowledge – remain understudied. This paper thus proposes a feminist glaciology framework
    with four key components: 1) knowledge producers; (2) gendered science and knowledge; (3) systems of
    scientific domination; and (4) alternative representations of glaciers. Merging feminist postcolonial science
    studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender,
    power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable
    science and human-ice interactions.

    What the fuck does any of that mean? That’s the wrong question, it’s like the movie the Big Lebowski, asking what that means is like asking what actually happened to Bonnie. Just don’t do it, all that will happen is you’ll get your friends killed.

    Finally re Vox Day. I hate his I am a genius routine, and god the petty bickering with nobodies is infuriating. But dammit if the guy doesn’t produce some of the most correct thoughts around.

    1. Severian Post author

      Very meta-ironically, ivory tower people have terms for both of these, as they’re supposed to be bad.

      What you call Orwellian obfuscation, Foucault or someone like that called “the esotericism of knowledge.” It’s how a priestly caste maintains its power — they talk in a convoluted jargon that’s often an entirely different language (e.g. the Catholic clergy speaking Latin), so that the laity can never argue with them. (If you’ve ever read anyone like Foucault, who couldn’t write a clear sentence with a gun to his head, the irony of that phrase will make your toes rust).

      Lebowskian obfuscation (a term which I love and am going to steal) is “word salad,” graduate-school version. Undergrad word salad is also known as the “spaghetti-plate approach” — throw every single note you took in class at the wall, hoping at least some of it will stick. Grad school word salad is like what you cite above. I once had the pleasure of attending an academic conference that was being translated into multiple languages. By about 15 minutes in, all the translators had simply given up — since nobody had any clue what anyone was saying in English, translation was impossible. Remember, college is like $35K a year now on average. Be sure to send your kids!!! TOTALLY worth it.

  7. Frip

    On the flipside, writing is really hard. Much respect for those who can do it. It’s hard conveying the hazy ideas floating around in one’s head, and to do it with clarity and style. I’m not just talking about venting in a comments section. That’s fairly easy. But a real article or long blog post in which something has to be explained, e.g. a Forbes article on what went wrong with IBM, or a Nat Geo article on Iceland. Even the old college, compare & contrast papers we had to write. That was mentally exhausting. I mean, it was exhausting if you had any self-respect.

    I was asked by an acquaintance to proofread her essay. She’s low IQ and it was pretty bad. I fixed it up and suggested things. Letting her know in the margins that certain sections were “hard to understand” (I wanted to write “this is so bad i can’t even fantasize about you anymore”). Later she tells me offhandedly, thanks, but that she’d just turned in the original because she didn’t have time to fool with it.

    That was strange to me. Later she was telling me, very proudly, that she got bad grades in high school but she’s got a 3.8 in community college. (Which was meant to prove that she was smart after all.) Then it occurred to me how she could turn in such garbage, KNOWING it was garbage, and not care. The profs are just scribbling A+ or B+ at the top of all these papers and probably not even reading them. Of course, I sort of already knew this. But what I learned from my experience with her is that the STUDENTS know this. And know that a B+ is all but guaranteed. So why even try?

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