When Writing Goes Wrong

Reading & Writing


When I first started writing, a cruel fan immediately initiated something called ‘Fowler’s Howlers’, which listed the prose mistakes I’d made, usually very nitpicky ones, the kind dug out by someone with limited imagination. (Never work with the public if you’re sensitive; you’d kill yourself within days).

I rarely make grammatical errors, but I believe in making the reader do a little work rather than simply spoon-feeding them. You select, cut and re-order events to make them flow, and this to me is acceptable. However, if you’re going to write, you might try learning to avoid dumb mistakes, because today’s editors don’t always pick them up. I thought about this as I read a quote from a book called ‘The Sherlockian’ by Gerald Moore, pointed out in this month’s Interzone:

He looked down at the tiny silver piece. It was a Victoria-era shilling, worth only five pennies in its day.

There are two things wrong with this. First, the obvious point. No, it was worth twelve pennies in its day. Second, the value of what we call a penny had changed between the past and the present; it is worth five pennies now. The author, Graham Moore, has crushed together two understandings of the term and come out with a mistake. It’s an honourable one, though. He understands correctly but has explained it badly.

The column in which Interzone magazine nails literary howlers is called Thog’s Masterclass, and also quotes Lionel Shriver, who is responsible for some surprisingly appalling writing. But bad writing is different from making mistakes. Lest we feel respect for the recently departed, this is from Tom Clancy’s ‘Debt Of Honour’:

The last chance to stop the operation had passed by. The die was now cast, if not yet thrown.

A tangled metaphor that has arisen from the misunderstanding of the phrase. We’re shifting toward something other than a mistake, which brings us, inevitably, to Dan Brown’s strange illiterate world…

“I’m looking for Robert Langdon,” a man’s voice said.

Voices don’t ‘say’. It’s incorrect but also sounds wrong on the ear. Someone has taken the trouble to analyse every single chapter of Brown’s execrable ‘Angels & Demons’ on a blog, pointing out that there’s an error on every page. Presumably Brown’s editors just threw up their hands in defeat.

He closed his eyes and tried to fall back asleep. It was no use. The dream was emblazoned in his mind.

You can fall back to sleep, but falling back asleep has an entirely different meaning. To emblazon is to depict a heraldic device. I suppose in a push both are legitimate, but inelegant. Not that Mr Brown cares. But it’s interesting that though much of his prose is not technically wrong, it is horribly clumsy, like someone stumbling about with their shoes on the wrong feet. It hurts the eye. Mr Brown is, by its very definition, a bad writer. But he knows how to tell a story, which is a different thing entirely.

This is close to the kind of winning entries you get in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest, the purpose of which it to come up with the opening sentence of a novel through which the author’s intentions poke, and which will absolutely prevent you from reading on.

“Don’t know no tunnels hereabout,” said the old-timer, “unless you mean the abandoned subway line that runs from Hanging Hill, under that weird ruined church, beneath the Indian burial ground, past the dilapidated Usher mansion, and out to the old abandoned asylum for the criminally insane where they had all those murders.” — Lawrence Person, Austin, TX

Let’s not even go near ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. In the light of the unfortunately snotty remarks recently made by literary agent Andrew Wylie about the kind of people who read popular novels (and on Kindles, instruments of the Devil!) I’m almost prepared to make a case for popular literature’s low end. Certainly Mr Brown can make readers turn pages and get the big picture while not worrying about the, ahem, small print.

This post is because, today, I’m doing my first tutorial. It’s not entirely altruistic; as the teacher, I’m hoping to learn more than the pupil.

20 comments on “When Writing Goes Wrong”

  1. Janet Wilson says:

    Brill! Good luck with that Ed- I mean, Admin. ( We love you, or we wldn’t be here…) Just remember George Orwell’s rules, as well as Elmore L.s. I’m often aware of my solecisms- must’ve got ’em frm uncle Solly- but I aim to write in modern version of what Fanny Burney calld ‘dash-away’. LURVE Bulwer-Lyttons! 🙂

  2. James says:

    Personally I think Nickolaus Pacione beats every Bulwer-Lytton contestant hands down for the simple reason that his writing is unintentionally execrable. Here’s one of his opening sentences:

    “From this that eludes me which I pen this-as what I say what eludes me is sleep, and from the sleep becomes the etchings where the dreams begin.”

    Anyone with an ounce of talent couldn’t write this badly if they tried.

  3. snowy says:

    On the ‘voice said’ being wrong, I think it is just an example of idiomatic use.

    But and this is the embarassing thing I can’t bring to mind what the right structure would be. Would some kind soul take pity on me and explain the correct form.

    *While trying to puzzle it out myself, [and failing miserably], there is one context in which the original quote might possibly be legitimate, if it were a telephone call. The speaker is not present, and so there is no other frame of reference available, until he reveals his identity.*

  4. pheeny says:

    I would think if you were asleep standing up you would be most likely to fall back…

    The Lawrence Parson quote is a corker, surely an intentional parody(?) As the Nostalgia Critic says “Exposition exposition rush it out asap”

    I don’t think Dan Brown is even very good at telling a story but then what do I know

  5. Cid says:

    Modern editors are quite maddening. I write for a website where the editors allow themselves to slightly rewrite paragraphs they either don’t like or don’t understand. As they do so they sometimes introduce grammatical errors to the text. What to do? I can’t exactly point out their errors if I want to continue with the site, but to leave it suggests to anyone who reads it I’m a shoddy writer.

    Ooh, got quite cross writing that. Grrr etc.

  6. snowy says:

    Cid, I no nothing about nothing, least of all proper grammar.

    If you can’t beat sense into them. You could perhaps ‘kill with kindness’, and insist that they have an ‘edited by’ credit* at the end of your piece. Since they worked so hard on it**

    *in really tiny letters.
    **may contain sarcasm.

  7. Tom Ruffles says:

    You were kind to Graham Moore – there are some horrible things in his The Holmes Affair (the UK title of The Sherlockian), some of which are included here:


    Moore wrote the script for The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing, which gives cause for concern.

  8. Janet Wilson says:

    Re: title of this post- can I coin ‘wronging’ and ‘wronger’..?

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Janet, “goes wrong” has become common usage. Wrongly is not seen often these days. “Goes in a wrong direction” would work, but is too long and weak. There’s another version that I can’t think of just now.
    Snowy, the voice on the phone will continue to announce itself. “Words spoken by a voice” is no better and I don’t know what the alternative is if you want to keep any tension in the scene. “A raspy voice over the phone” would that be better?
    Teach us, Admin.

  10. James says:

    Michael Deacon wrote a very funny review that mocked Dan Brown by using the author’s own hopelessly inept style. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10049454/Dont-make-fun-of-renowned-Dan-Brown.html

  11. Janet Wilson says:

    No, I meant it as a pun on ‘writing’ and ‘writer’. Hope weather o.k. where you had the fire- not too cold or wet..?

  12. peter says:

    James, Thanks for that link. That was a very enjoyable piece of writing, loved it.

  13. Steve says:

    I enjoy Dan Brown’s writing simply because the premises are so laughably improbable. He tells stories that are completely unbelievable, but I agree with Admin – he tells them well. One thing that annoyed me no end about his latest though….huge chunks of it read like tourist guides to the sights of whatever city Our Hero happens to be in at the time. Filler in other words; and the story could have hung together just as well (or just as poorly) without them.
    I like Dan Brown for the same reason I like Vincent Price. In their own way, each is way over the top.

  14. snowy says:

    I’ve still a shiny apple* sitting on my table waiting for the first person who solves the problem.

    *May not be a real apple, and rules about the importation of fruit between territories might preclude me from delivering it to the winner.

    Even if it was, and they didn’t, by the time it got there it would look like a reject from the “Vincent Price: Make your own Shrunken Head Kitâ„¢ ©”.

    [Yes they really did produce a shrunken head kit for children, promoted by Mr Price.]

  15. Janet Wilson says:

    ‘The thriving ink slinger’- love it! Trouble is, it akshly makes me want to have a glance at ‘The Gesualdo Gambit’, or whatever the latest off the production line’s called…

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Ah, Janet, I see. What I said stands though. [The weather is lovely, sunny bright fall weather and fortunately there were no homes involved, it was a business block.]

  17. Rich says:

    I wonder what it is an Editor actually does these days?. Grammar is not my strong point. There are so many books I’ve read published in the last 13 years or so that read like first drafts. Problems with identifying who is speaking in a conversation, overstatement of things that have already been expressed effectively in dialogue and changing point of view in the same paragraph. These are things that crop up time and time again. Why are these things not picked up on? Too tight deadlines?

  18. Helen Martin says:

    I’m not sure that editors are doing anything more than glancing through for glaring errors, all of which they don’t necessarily find.

  19. Mike Brough says:

    When writing goes missing

    Christopher, this isn’t the right place to ask the question but I couldn’t find anywhere more relevant. The latest volume of the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror ((Volume 24) shows you as a contributor on the cover but, using Amazon’s Look Inside, there’s no sign of a story. I’ve had it in my wish list for a couple of months now but I’ll be a td disappointed if it’s missing a story by your good self.

  20. snowy says:

    Amazon seem to be using what I imagine is an early pre-print cover. [On closer inspection, the artist has cut and pasted the names directly from the previous years edition, naughty.]

    Checking on the Editors own site, there is both a later cover and a list of stories and authors, from which ‘Himself’ is missing.

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