Tag Archives: psych research

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