Everyone always talks about what makes for good writing. Well, I gave a 20-minute workshop at CHS last weekend on “How to Destroy a Piece of Classic Literature in 20 minutes or Less.” We took the opening passage from Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” and rewrote it in the worst way possible. This is what we learned about bad writing:
- Don’t use creative figurative language like personification.
- Don’t be specific when you describe things. If there are buildings in the town you are describing, don’t say what they are. Better yet, don’t mention them!
- If the story takes place in a certain era and in a certain place, don’t say specifically when or where.
- Leave out as many details as possible.
- Use boring verbs and only the most basic diction.
- Write like you talk, i.e. “some random guys.”
- Don’t use interesting details about the physical world to convey information (“There would not be another train until night.”). Just tell the reader the information.
Willa Cather used some awesome verbs in her passage, like anchored, curling, eddying, straying, huddled, straggled, flashed, and shivered.
“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight from the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain elevator at the north end of the town to the lumberyard and the horse pond at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven rows of wooden buildings: the general merchandise stores, the two banks, the drugstore, the feed store, the saloon, the post office. The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o’clock in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner, were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a few rough-looking country men in coarse overcoats, with their long caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought there wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch bars along the street a few heavy workhorses, harnessed to the farm wagons, shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was quiet, for there would not be another train until night.”
We, on the other hand, used two was’s and five were’s!
The wind was blowing through the town. The snow was falling on the houses. There were some houses. The dull houses were falling apart. There was a road that went through the town. People were in their houses. The kids were in school. Some random guys were in the street. Ladies were shopping. Cold horses stood in the street. No visitors came often.
Pretty bad, eh? We gave ourselves a round of applause. Thanks to all who participated!