How to Know You’re Looking at Bad Writing: One Weird Trick

Back in the 90s, Denis Dutton, editor of the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature, held a yearly “contest” for bad writing, intended to bring attention to “the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years.”  Anyone who has spent time in even the middle echelons of higher education has encountered exactly the phenomenon Dutton is talking about, and will be nodding her head as she peruses the contest “winners.”  Normal people, who did not spend way too long in universities, can also look at the winning snippets and immediately recognize that whatever they’re seeing, it’s nothing good. Academic writing has an oft-deserved reputation for being miserable to read.  But why? Aren’t these writers supposed to be the most educated people among us? Surely they, of all people, should know how to write – could it be that the rest of us just aren’t smart or well-read enough to get the brilliance and nuance of their writing?

No.  That’s not it.  I promise.

Take a gander at the sentence Dutton found that inspired his contest, from a book called The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism by William V. Spanos:

“This book was instigated by the Harvard Core Curriculum Report in 1978 and was intended to respond to what I took to be an ominous educational reform initiative that, without naming it, would delegitimate the decisive, if spontaneous, disclosure of the complicity of liberal American institutions of higher learning with the state’s brutal conduct of the war in Vietnam and the consequent call for opening the university to meet the demands by hitherto marginalized constituencies of American society for enfranchisement.”

My reaction to this sentence. (Image credit: giphy.com)


Okay, deep breath.  The problem with this sentence is not, as might be some of our immediate suspicions, that it doesn’t say anything.  That’s a lazy and untrue criticism. The problem is that the sentence does say something, and what it says is “I don’t care about my readers.”

Spanos is saying, in many words, that he wrote his book in response to a change in Harvard’s curriculum that (in his view) would downplay universities’ role in encouraging the Vietnam War and subsequent calls for them to take responsibility for said role.  (Remember, to parse a lengthy sentence, find the verb and you find the meaning.) See how many fewer words that took me? But the problem isn’t either that the sentence has too many words – not by itself, anyway. Many sentences exist that are both long and beautifully written.

Here’s how you find the problem: count the concrete nouns.

If you’ve never encountered this term, or aren’t sure what it means: a concrete noun is a noun you can perceive with one or more of your five senses – so, people, places, and things.  Anything you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch is a concrete noun. Compare to abstract nouns – ideas,  categories, and events.  Which of those do you think you should be using more often in your writing?

If you said concrete nouns, congratulations.  Concrete nouns, because they trigger the senses, are what make imagery, and imagery helps your reader make a picture out of your words.  Since your job as a writer is to serve and communicate with a reader, it’s essential that you reach out to the reader with lots of appeals to the senses.  That’s why we use literary devices in the first place: they help to turn abstract stuff like feelings, thoughts, and memories into concrete people, places, and things.  Because tactile imagery is the strongest form of imagery (more on that in a future post), the strongest and best types of concrete nouns are tangibles, which are exactly what it says on the tin: nouns you can touch.

Go back to that sentence Dutton gave us.  Count the concrete nouns, and count the tangibles.

I count two: “book” and “I.”  That’s it. There are a few that we could grant him if we’re feeling generous – you could picture a war or a university, for example – but they’re still too generic and categorical to be much use to our brains.  The rest of Spanos’s sentence is swimming in a mess of abstraction. He’s giving us nothing to work with here. I’m sure he’s a smart fellow and that his ideas feel quite clear to him, but to us, they’re nothing but that: ideas with no examples to help us understand.

Contrast with this extraordinary passage from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos narration:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

DNA. Teeth. Blood. Apple pies. Stars. And us – his audience. All linked together in a web of imagery.

Sagan could have said something like “It sure is fascinating that so many aspects not only of our physical selves and the forms of everyday objects are made from essentially the same material as the celestial bodies above us,” but doesn’t the sentiment lose some of its power that way?  You can’t feel what he’s saying, in your blood and your teeth and the sugary juiciness of your apple pie.  Carl Sagan was a scientist, not a group normally known for engaging writing, but he was also a science communicator.  He understood that connections to peoples’ everyday words made big ideas come to life for them. He understood what the academics featured in Dutton’s samples either don’t understand or don’t care.  (Yes, I understand that academics are writing for audiences of other academics and not jus’ plain folks. My criticisms stand. Grad students and professors like to read good writing just like everybody else.)

So here’s your trick for determining if you’re looking at bad writing: if the nouns aren’t doing the work they ought to be, it’s bad writing.  It’s bad writing whether it’s coming from a fifth grader or your English professor. I have produced a great deal of bad writing in my life, and just about all of it shared this characteristic.

Now, this isn’t to say that every single one of your nouns has to be concrete.  Over-concreteness also leads to bad writing. Poorly chosen nouns also lead to bad writing  Some of your sentences, by necessity, will deal only in abstraction (like this one!). But I’ve found, in working with my students, that because they badly want to “sound smart,” they get lost in vagueries and abstractions far more often than they get lost in objects.  To help them break this habit, I ask them to consider all the little details we talk about in our course literature. Gatsby’s green light. Osborne’s Ferrari in On the Beach.  The conch shell in Lord of the Flies.  Raskolnikov’s cigarette case in Crime and Punishment.  Mrs. Djou’s needle in Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.  I ask them to consider whether they’d have enjoyed the book as much as they did without all those concrete details to help them latch onto the authors’ messages.

They get it. You can see it on their faces, in their smiles.  And just like that, it begins to show up in their writing more and more.  And I can rest easy at night knowing that none of them will be deserving fodder for Denis Dutton and his successors.

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