On Bad Writing

In my last post I wrote about unsophisticated discourse.  Today I’d like to discuss some of the features of such writing.

It seems to me that one of the key features of “bad” writing is a reliance on dichotomies: liberal/conservative, good/bad, etc. Of course, every academic since Derrida has warned against the dangers of binary thinking. I don’t want to join that chorus. Oppositions, binary or otherwise, can be useful– they’re a form of abstraction which allow us to cut the world into manageable bits. Of course, as online trolls and lazy students demonstrate, the power of abstraction can also be abused. So then, what distinguishes good abstraction from bad?

One key, I think, is that the writer recognize, and signal to the reader that he recognizes, that oppositions are just tools for thinking. There is, of course, no such thing as “liberal” or “conservative.” These are just symbols we use to signal a certain web of political commitments. Such a web naturally has contradictory element. A sophisticated writer/thinker knows this. For example, instead of “all liberals hate America,” she may write, “liberals have a tendency to be critical of the dominant culture.” The nuance in the latter statement indicates that the writer knows that an abstraction is just an abstraction. The former writer, on the other hand, seems to fetishize his abstraction. The term “liberal” appears monolithic to him, and therefore, he appears simple-minded to us.

Unsophisticated writers also use a lot of insults. On the clickbait website I discussed yesterday, it seems that every other post refers to someone as “stupid” or a “moran.” Why is this? Are people with low literacy skills just jerks? No. Following my always generous sensei Dave Bartholomae, I see these writers as trying to express their experience using the limited linguistic tools available to them. There is pain in their world. They have named that pain “liberal” or “Obama.” And by writing, for example, that “Obama is a hommos muslim,” they are attempting to share their subjective experience of this pain.

So in short, as a writing teacher, when I see writers resort to petty insults I want to find out what’s really bothering them. They are undoubtedly feeling some complicated stuff (all feelings are complicated). They’re just expressing it in a way that users of SWE/SBL find simplistic.

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