It’s the Readers’ Fault! Why Bad Writing is Called Good

OR: Don’t Blame Them, They Didn’t Notice the Difference Anyway

page 61, by D’Arcy Norman. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Authors agonize over metaphors. They might spend ages debating word choice. They careful revise their sentence structure. What would you say if someone told you readers rarely notice this kind of thing anyway?

I’m a poor student, and like many a poor student I participate in psych research studies in exchange for meagre bits of cash. The last one I attended was rather intriguing – they were looking at whether readers actually remembered the specific word choice of the author, or if all those lovingly chosen metaphors just slipped from their memory moments after reading it.

This study tested this by having us read a story, and then giving up examples of sentences that could’ve been in the story. We had to say whether the words were exactly the same as in the story, probably the same, probably not the same, or not the same at all. I am not confident I answered them all correctly.

Now, this wasn’t about whether the reader forgot the whole story. Readers usually remember ‘how the story goes,’ and its general meaning for quite awhile. But, these researchers pointed out, the difference between “exceptional examples of literature and more mundane prose”* is the sentence structure. There are many stories dealing with themes of love, death etc., but one author’s writing is considered superior to another’s because of the wording. It is the metaphors, the language, and the word choice that elevates a good story to a great one. Except – readers don’t even notice these things on their first read-through! In other words, they could be reading fine literature or complete trash, and on their first reading they won’t even notice the difference.

When I heard this, I was amazed. But it explains a few things. Like how people can insist “The Da Vinci Code” and “Twilight” are well-written. Actually, research indicates that the true value of a text only become apparent after SEVERAL readings, and much study. And since most of your average readers left that kind of analysis behind them in English class, a lot of bad writing can become very popular.

It also takes a bit of a weight off my mind. Even if my prose is not as lofty as that of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Shakespeare, I might become popular anyway. But, on the other hand, that means the reason I am slaving over this perfect description of my main character’s inner turmoil is only to impress a bunch of fusty literary critics in ivory towers. Or maybe English teachers.

Oh well. I’ve come to the conclusion that all I can do is to write as well as I can, and hope that people like it. I still believe good writing can give a general atmosphere to a story that may not be achieved with bad writing, even if the reader cannot remember the specific words you used. Not that I’ve done any psych research to back this up.

Do you agree that sentence structure is one of the important things that separate the “exceptional” writer from the “mundane”*? Does it matter to you if the reader doesn’t even notice what you’ve put so much effort into?


*The quote I asterisked comes from the debriefing sheet I received after participating in this study.  I would cite it properly, but it doesn’t provide an author. It does, however, state the researchers involved are Dr. Peter Dixon and Dr. Marisa Bortolussi, so I hope mentioning them is adequate.


Filed under On Writing, Twilight

14 responses to “It’s the Readers’ Fault! Why Bad Writing is Called Good

  1. Very interesting article you wrote Harma Mae. I truly enjoyed this…very stimulating to think about. I know that when I read something in a newspaper….I am bothered by bad grammar, misspellings and other errors that are never caught before publishing. If sentence structure is clumsy or run-on, it makes reading anything difficult. I recently read a book by an author who is very poetic. I had a hard time getting through the book. She had great ideas and a wonderful point but the way she used language and the structure of her sentences really made it difficult to read. I got lost in her lofty vocabulary.
    The key thing in anything we write is to make a point clearly enough so that when people put the essay or book down…they got the point.

    I was an English Minor in college and in graduate school I had a professor who told me I did not write well. He meant in a scholarly fashion. I found writing in a scholarly fashion very stilted and unnatural. If we write with passion, direction and give it our best effort, I believe that is the most important thing.

    Thanks for the great article.


    • I agree, writing in a scholarly fashion is VERY different from writing novels, or even writing for newspapers or blogs.
      Bad spelling, grammar, etc. are definitely huge signs a piece of writing isn’t especially “good.” I think this research was more focusing on whether readers notice the difference between the mediocre and the genius – maybe I should have used those words. 🙂 Anyway, I agree clarity is very,very important, because if no one understands what you’re going on about, there’s not much point writing it.


  2. Isn’t it entirely possible that we choose to reread the great authors simply because of the deep wording? I mean, if all you’re writing is a straightforward story, then there’s no need to reread it. Real life, however, is full of nuance and subtlety. As a result, when you write with potential duality of meaning, you open the door for the reader to reconsider what they just read on the second time through, and for multiple readers to have a difference of opinion based on what is left unsaid by the author.

    Hang in there! You can do this! And swing over to my blog for the first in my installment of Short Story Friday!


  3. Oh, very interesting topic!! I usually wouldn’t notice the EXACT words, but I’d take note of it being too wordy/contrived, or simply written. And, unfortunately, the “simply written” ones tend to stick in my/our memory more… :/ But like you say, it’s after many readings that the real substance and make-up of the story comes together. (Twilight being a very good example!)


    • I think there’s something to be said for “simple” language, especially if your aim is to make your words stick in people’s memory. Though some books are worth re-reading, and others aren’t. 🙂


  4. The way I look at this is that there are two different types of writers (there are way more than two types, but for this topic, there are two), the kind who write best sellers (Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, etc.) and there are the type who write award winning novels.

    Yes, the award winners are read, but (I am just guessing here) maybe not as much as the Clive Cusslers and Maeve Binchys of the world (I am really only guessing here).

    I compare these two different author types to two major movie types. There are Hollywood movies (Stephen King of movies) and there are indie movies (artistic, award winning). The Hollywood movies make more money because they are made to appeal to the masses, whereas the indie movies tend to have more depth, but less appeal to those who are not interested in the wild world of cinema.

    I don’t think that one type of writing is better than the other. One may be more artistic, but not better.

    I also think that there can be bad writers of both kinds. I just finished Red Riding Hood. I spent the whole time underlining the similes because there were so many that I couldn’t pay attention to the story.

    As far as sentence structure goes, I don’t think it would be a good book if you noticed sentence structure. A good book should make the reader forget that they are reading. For that reason, I think the study is flawed.

    Great post. Very thought provoking!


    • Oooooooooooo, good thought! If you did remember the exact words of a sentence, it’s probably not a good book. Good point.
      I think the study’s worth doing if it makes us notice things about books that we might not have noticed otherwise, but research like this won’t necessarily give us an exact formula of what kinds of books work.
      I think your comparison of books to movies works pretty well. There’s a lot of artsy books I can’t stand, but others might think they’re very good. There’s also some “bestsellers” that are thought-provoking nonetheless.


  5. Alexia

    What about bad translation, does it count ? Cause it ruined a lot of books to me. Lord of the Rings, for example. The publishing world here has that particularity that it considers that a book who only tells a story, and especially a one with magic and amazing creatures, can only be listed as children’s literature. That’s probably why the ONLY translation of Lord of the Rings was so diluted (? hope that’s the good word, I had to search this one).
    Also I really hate when they change the character names. Why would you rename Aragorn Aragon ? Do they believe us so stupid that we can’t handle a name like Aragorn ? It’s not like Aragon is “more french”… Add to that the disastrous typography (? had to look up the word again), and you’ve got a perfectly good book ruined for all the people who don’t understand english enough to read it in its original version.


    • Bad translation definitely ruins books! Lord of the Rings is an interesting example, because Tolkien knew a lot of the languages it was translated into, and he had to make rules about how to translate because so many translations were bad. The Swedish translation is the worst, I think.
      Fantasy always has the problem of being listed as children’s literature. Many adults read it, but fantasy will always have to fight for the same respect other literature gets. Which is kind of dumb.


  6. Alexia

    It really is dumb cause there are some great books listed as fantasy that would deserve more respect. The one translation that wasn’t that bad was Harry Potter’s. They couldn’t help change some of the character names though. Guess Draco is impossible to understand but Drago works ! Sorry, I’m just thinking about it cause I started reading your fanfiction!

    To get back on the subject of sentence structure you have no idea how big a deal it is here. Critics are awful to writers about it, that’s why popular french writers will never be taken seriously if they have a writing style that’s too… casual ? You’re not so much judged about the story, it’s more how you choose to write it that’s important. Also it’s not good to be too popular, it means you suck so bad that only the common housewife can enjoy your work. Only a selected few has to enjoy and understand your writing if you hope to ever join the French Academy.
    (Maybe I exagerated a bit, but most of it, sadly, is true.)


    • Yes, from what little I know of French, sentence structure is much more important in that language.
      So “Huckleberry Finn” (by Mark Twain) would never be considered serious literature? It’s written mostly in a sort of American slang.


  7. Alexia

    It’s listed as children’s literature so I’d say no, it’s not exactly considered serious literature. Which is a shame cause it’s a good book. But what can you expect from people who think the success of Harry Potter books is highly overrated ?
    I think it’s too bad cause there’s a form of condescencion toward authors who choose to write in a more “familiar” style. Also, you have to develop ideas, make comments about the current situation, be a little political if you want critics to like your book. But you know I’m just talking about this little elite, the readers just read what they like, Twilight was also a big deal here – mostly.


    • You’re right, the readers just read what they like, no matter what the elite tell them to read. 🙂
      Huckleberry Finn is considered “literature” here for sure, especially in the U.S. But it’s still an enjoyable read. I think a good author can make a point about something and still be entertaining. And I personally think familiar styles can be better for reaching more people with your ideas.
      If I’m reading a book that sounds too much like the author is trying to impress the critics, sometimes it annoys me and I don’t want to read it anymore.


      • Alexia

        Yeah I know what you mean, the author thinks he’s being clever but he just comes out as pretentious. A book recently fell from my hands because of that, it’s rare but I couldn’t finish it, I was screaming at the author in my head.


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