What is bad writing? An English Major’s Rambling Opinion

by Jessica Stiehm


I went to school for writing.


I went through nearly all of the professors in the English department, took the scary three hour long seminar classes, wrote my senior thesis, and earned an official degree that says I’m qualified to write creatively. I would consider myself pretty educated in this subject. However, does that mean I should be able to tell what good or bad writing is? Nope.


Writing is subjective.

Storytime: I had a professor who refused to let us write fantasy. Whether that just meant he wasn’t a fan of the genre, or in his words “it’s infinitely harder to critique a work made up of invisible magic rules”; it was clear he didn’t like dealing with it. The works he had us read for homework were mostly gritty slices-of-life. The novels he’d written were dark, thrilling, realistic, and steeped in delicious Americana. This man is a New York Times best selling author. He’s won several awards and by all accounts is a very gifted writer. I loved having class with him, even if it was three hours in a tiny uncomfortable chair, and even if he didn’t like fantasy.


Regardless, any work submitted that wasn’t tethered to reality usually had more red pen on it than works without. My teacher wasn’t wrong. If J.R.R Tolkein had somehow jumped through a wormhole and presented his work during one of our seminars, we would have spent the entire class asking questions.


“Why do you spell dwarfs wrong?”


“If you’re calling your world ‘Middle-Earth’ does that mean there’s an upper and lower Earth?”


“Are Frodo and Sam a thing? You haven’t made it clear.”


Etcetera.


But condemning fantasy as a genre because it’s too hard to grade always sat wrong with me. Some of my best work, what I’m proud of, has been fantasy. My primary reading taste is fantasy. I get excited when I see a movie trailer that is obviously otherworldly and brimming with magic. When I was in high school, I wrote a fantastical ‘book’ on spare notebook paper when I probably should have been taking notes. It was a steampunk dystopia that is full of grammatical errors, unnecessary characters, and endless things that I would never, ever write now. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.


I have it sitting on my desk and every once in a while I’ll flip through it fondly. I’m very proud of it, and simultaneously thank God it’ll never see the light of day. It’s solid writing that is important to me. Therefore, it’s good.


The criteria is ever changing. The rules are made up. The points don’t matter. Write whatever you want.

Once, my roommate's boyfriend wrote an--albeit, crass--short story called “Pedagogy of a Poopy Butthole.” It made it to the final round of submissions, but sadly didn’t make the final cut. For that same journal, I wrote a poem about Baba Yaga, a supernatural being in Slavic folklore. It was seven lines long, I spent ten minutes on it, and that got published. It wasn’t my best work, and I’m not proud of it.


On its face, writing is a popularity contest. But it shouldn’t be! Don’t fall into the trap of "if a lot of people like it, it must be good." Writing doesn’t need to be bad or good, it just needs to be. “Pedagogy of a Poopy Butthole” was undoubtedly written with thought and care, no matter how it came off. Judging your writing by how it’s received by others is a road to ruin.


There are certain standards that have to be followed in the publishing industry, and while that isn’t a bad thing, it will constantly have you wondering what your writing’s worth is. If you want that then by all means, hone your craft. But before all else, writing should be for yourself. It’s an artform. Break down creative boundaries and take risks with your own writing. Sometimes it’s enough to just let it out into the world. Just like my steampunk story from high school. It’s very precious to me, and although it may not make it in the publishing world, it still holds incredible meaning.


There is another downside to the standardization of ‘good writing’. It dulls the muse. It keeps your expectations high and lets writers block seep in. I took too many literature classes one semester and got burnt out on the sheer amount of books I had to read. It got to the point where I wasn’t reading the books with good faith. “Heart of Darkness” had too many long sentences and endless commas so I lost sight of why it was a critically acclaimed novella. Keeping an open mind is imperative when taking in a piece for the first time. The book is purposely written in a languid style so that readers feel like they are fighting through the jungle along with the characters. The symbolism is layered and requires critical thinking to properly enjoy it. I judged the book with shallow reasoning and didn’t bother finishing it. Much to my loss.


Perhaps an easier example of this: A poem written with spelling errors and grammar mistakes might make people turn away at first glance. But a critical reader may take the time to understand that the writing is supposed to emulate the whimsy of childhood, and set a specific tone. Okay, so you aren’t required to like something just because it may have hidden value if you take the time to see it. Personal taste is a thing. The moral of the story is don’t say “Heart of Darkness” has bad writing to your professor’s face.


But before all else, writing should be for yourself.

There is no bad writing. Only writing that hasn’t found the intended audience, or writing that hasn’t met the authors own standards, or writing that hasn’t reached its final form, and so on. I’m sure there are millions of people out there who’d kill to read the first draft of, say, Star Wars. Even though it was obviously scrapped for a reason, there’s still a demand out there for it because it maintains some sort of value, an indescribable behind-the-scenes quality. Your writing possesses the same quality.


So take it from me: A recently graduated English major with a few publications under her belt, and hopefully many more to follow,


Write your heart out and it won’t be bad.