One of the most difficult concepts for a lot of writers (myself included) to internalize is simple but powerful: Bad writing is subjective.

Let that sink in for a moment. We’d all like to think that great writing is somehow measurable, something we can apply science! to and create a formula that will allow us to accurately detect it. One of my secret fears as an author—and I can’t possibly be alone in this—is that I am secretly a terrible, terrible writer, and history will remember me as the 21st century Edward Bulwer-Lytton—the guy who wrote the famous line “It was a dark and stormy night” that is now used as shorthand for purple, tortured prose. It would be comforting to think there was a test for bad writing that would either confirm or refute this—but there isn’t. It’s subjective. All we have is general consensus.

The Sentence

After all, let’s consider Bulwer-Lytton’s famous sentence. The short version isn’t actually bad, is it? “It was a dark and stormy night” may not be the most inspired phrase ever composed, but it certainly isn’t so terrible. In fact, Wikipedia points out that the phrase had actually been used by Washington Irving decades earlier, and yet Irving isn’t pilloried for it. Part of that has to do with Irving’s generally higher literary reputation, of course, and part of it has to do with the rest of Bulwer-Lytton’s sentence, that is usually left out for brevity’s sake:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Okay, the terribleness of that sentence is more apparent now; it sort of just staggers to a period, doesn’t it? And yet, it is really the worst thing you’ve ever read? I doubt it. A few relatively minor edits and it would be an unremarkable but totally workable sentence.

It’s good to keep this in mind—there’s no scientific way of nailing down what, exactly, bad writing is—and styles come and go, making it more complicated. What was once a perfectly acceptable sentence in the style and genre of the time can slowly become the most-mocked sentence in history. So when you get feedback on your work in progress—or a review of a published book—and someone hates a sentence or a whole raft of sentences, remind yourself that bad writing is subjective. Revision and editing are often exercises in re-arranging perfectly fine words. And if you’re destined to be the next Edward Bulwer-Lytton, at least you’ll be famous.

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